Message Legislation and the Politics of Virtue Signalling

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<p>Message bills are hopeless legislation constructed not to change public policy but instead to signal desirable attributes of incumbents to constituents – virtue signaling. Well-known examples are the repeated hopeless attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act during the 113th and 114th Congresses. To explore the logic of message legislation, we create a formal principal-agent model of electoral accountability. The theory makes explicit predictions about who signals, on what kind of issues, and when. Then, using novel and extensive data on bill locations and status quo locations, we test the predictions. The data suggest that most introduced bills are not viable. Who messages and on what topics appear consistent with the theory; the evidence is less supportive on when members message. We further show that the patterns predicted for non-viable message bills do not hold in viable bills. We briefly discuss the normative implications. Message legislation helps voters select zealous representatives, but perhaps at the cost of lower quality policy-making.</p>
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