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  • Cited by 35
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Institutional realism and bargaining models



Close studies of governmental decisions in democracies commonly divide the process into two stages. First, the actors bargain. As Arthur Bentley (1967 [1908]: 371) put it nearly a century ago in describing the legislative process, ‘It is compromise … It is trading. It is the adjustment of interests.’ This stage may include information-gathering and exchange, as well as threats and promises. Few rules constrain the actors. The free-form interplay puts a premium on creative interpretations and skilful compromise.

Then, when deals have been struck (or the parties to the conflict are exhausted), the second stage takes place. Here the organisational regulations and legal rules shape the process, and a test of strength is carried out according to constitutional or legal procedures. Explicit voting procedures settle differences of opinion.

The two stages of political decision-making interpenetrate and influence each other. Groups with more votes in the constitutional procedures have more power in the preliminary bargaining. Conversely, skilful bargainers at the initial stage may persuade other actors and build coalitions that control a disproportionate number of votes at the final stage. Manoeuvring at each stage takes account of the contending groups' power at the other stage. A sophisticated recent discussion that emphasises this two-step view of European Union decision-making is Van den Bos (1991, chapter 5). Students of domestic politics have repeatedly discovered the same process at work, particularly in studies of interest groups, ‘iron triangles’, policy networks, and issue coalitions.