American Political Science Review

Research Article

Broad Bills or Particularistic Policy? Historical Patterns in American State Legislatures


a1 University of Rochester

a2 University of California at San Diego


When do lawmakers craft broad policies, and when do they focus on narrow legislation tailored to a local interest? We investigate this question by exploring historical variation in the types of bills produced by American state legislatures. Drawing on a new database of 165,000 bills—covering sessions over 120 years in thirteen different states—we demonstrate the surprising prominence of particularistic bills affecting a specific legislator's district. We then develop and test a theory linking the goals of legislators to their propensity to introduce district bills rather than broad legislation. We find that, consistent with our predictions, politicians are more likely to craft policies targeted to a particular local interest when a legislature is dominated by one party or when it pays its members relatively high salaries. These findings provide empirical support for Key's (1949) thesis that one-party politics descends into factionalism and undermines the making of broad public policy.


c1 Gerald Gamm is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Rochester, Harkness Hall 331, Rochester, NY 14627-0146 (

c2 Thad Kousser is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California at San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093 ( During the 2009–2010 academic year, Thad Kousser is a Campbell National Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Visiting Associate Professor at Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University.


This project draws on a database of bills that was initially assembled and coded over many years by a team of researchers supervised by Nancy Burns (University of Michigan) and Gerald Gamm (University of Rochester) and funded by the National Science Foundation, SBR-9709544. As we expand this database, we owe a great and continuing debt to our past and present research assistants, a list that includes three previous coauthors: Scott Allard, Jessica Blum, Kelly Bowman, Laura Evans, Sara Goico, Seth Goldstein, Chetan Gulati, Matt Jacobsmeier, Jeff Juron, Cindy Kam, Natasha Lawrence, Corrine McConnaughy, Deborah Meizlish, Matthew Murphy, Jon Onyiriuka, Brian Roraff, Adam Shapiro, Eric Snider, Susanna Supalla, and Dustin Tingley. For locating and coding the biographies and rosters of state legislators, we are grateful to Chris Lee. We also acknowledge the dedicated and skilled librarians in the Interlibrary Loan Department of Rush Rhees Library, who located nearly all the legislative journals, blue books, and biographical directories used in this project.