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Federal advisory commissions in an economic model of representative democracy


  • William McEachern


This paper developed an economic theory of representative democracy to explain the use of outside advisory commissions in collective decisionmaking. In this model, legislators maximize net political support expected from supplying legislation to consumer-voters and producer-voters. Outside advisory bodies were viewed as vehicles for enhancing net political support, particularly that received from special-interest groups. By helping special-interest groups overcome the free-rider problem, advisory bodies increased the ability of special interests to provide political support in return for favorable legislation. And by providing a mechanism for safeguarding favorable legislation, advisory bodies increased the durability, and hence the value, of this legislation to the favored special interest. Thus, advisory bodies increased the ability and the willingness of special-interests to provide political support in return for favorable legislation. Implications regarding the issues to be addressed by advisory bodies and the structure of those advisory bodies were examined using a sample of federal advisory groups. These groups were classified into four types based on the distributions of costs and benefits for issues under consideration. Differences across the four types of advisory bodies conformed largely with a priori expectations regarding the frequency with which certain types of issues were addressed as well as their composition, tenure, and size. As expected, a majority of the advisory group focused on issues where the costs were spread throughout the population but the benefits were narrowly focused, typically on members of an individual industry. Public membership on these special-interest advisory bodies was rare; in only five percent of the cases could even one public member be identified. Special-interest advisory groups with no public members were found to be more effective guardians of legislation as measured by the group's tenure and size. These groups on average were significantly more likely to be ongoing (rather than ad hoc) and were significantly smaller than other advisory groups. Based on this evidence, advisory bodies did not appear to have been aimed at correcting the special-interest bias in representative democracy. If anything, these bodies have served to enhance the influence of special interests in collective choice. The data suggest special-interest groups have, to a large extent, been appointed to or have ‘captured’ those bodies in which they would be expected to have the most abiding interest — issues involving narrowly focused benefits but widespread costs. To be sure, some advisory bodies have been formed to consider issues involving narrow costs but widespread benefits. But such groups have been few, representing less than four percent of all advisory bodies in the sample. Moreover, in terms of tenure and size, they appear less effective than the groups addressing special-interest issues. Of course, one could argue that advisory bodies serve largely a ceremonial role, having little impact on public choice. Therefore, distinctions between bodies with and without public membership are largely irrelevant because neither group matters. But if these advisory bodies did not matter, than we should not expect to find systematic and predictable differences in the kinds of issues explored or in the composition and structure of these bodies. Copyright Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1987

Suggested Citation

  • William McEachern, 1987. "Federal advisory commissions in an economic model of representative democracy," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 54(1), pages 41-62, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:kap:pubcho:v:54:y:1987:i:1:p:41-62
    DOI: 10.1007/BF00123804

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. William A. McEachern, 2006. "AEA Ideology: Campaign Contributions of American Economic Association Members, Committee Members, Officers, Editors, Referees, Authors, and Acknowledgees," Econ Journal Watch, Econ Journal Watch, vol. 3(1), pages 148-179, January.

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