The Legislative Game: The Politics of Game Theory in a Legislative Standing Committee

By Brent M. Eastwood, PhD


The political science literature in game theory and legislative
behavior has been quiet since the late 1980s and early 1990s. This
paper updates and fills a gap in the literature concerning legislative
behavior and game theory in a fictional standing committee that is
part of a notional state legislature. Iterations in a simple and
cooperative profit game indicate that strategic behavior and
decision making in legislative bodies can be explained with
strategy profiles and tactical decisions within the legislative game.
Strategy profiles and incentive analysis explain how players
formulate and execute tactical decisions to pass legislation by
appealing to fellow legislators’ limited time, attention span, and
level of information. This paper also analyzes strategic decision-
making based on law-makers’ intellectual and emotional mood,
including incentives based on nostalgia and yearnings for shared
political philosophies rather than divisive partisanship.

This paper will introduce significant variations to the simple cooperative or coalitional game in a

legislative setting. It should also be a substantial contribution and update to the political science

literature in the subfield of game theory in legislative standing committees. Most existing

research in political science concerning game theory is focused on international trade, bargaining

and negotiation, resource allocation, and public choice.

Seminal works on game theory and public choice in political science publications include

(Downs 1957), who examined decision making by politicians as they react to voters at the micro

level. Dixit and Nalebuff (1991) set the standard for explaining game theory in business and

politics to the general public. One political science case study stands out in their work. The

authors described a cooperative game with President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1981 in

which they explained dominant strategies used in a simple game of two strategies and four

outcomes pertaining to tax policy and budgets. Since Dixit and Nalebuff (1991) used mainly case

studies from the 1980s, an updated version with newer case studies of this nature would be a

welcome addition to the literature.

Gilligan and Krehbiel (1987) examined a solution with a perfect Bayesian equilibrium after

studying decision making within the membership of a legislative committee. Committee

members who build a certain specialization and expertise were found to seek more complete

information. The authors concluded that even though perfect Bayesian equilibrium usually

assumes information is perfect, players in a dynamic game at perfect Bayesian equilibrium can

also model imperfect information.

Baron and Ferejohn (1989) found that a model of legislative equilibrium will emerge from

certain parliamentary rules. Equilibrium in this construct may also appear in these games

depending on the structure of the legislature. Baron (1991) continued to focus on parliamentary

bargaining as it relates to creating a government made up of coalitions of two large political

parties and one small party.

Ordeshook (1986) wrote one of the most comprehensive works in political science on decision

making with his textbook on game theory and political theory that included relevant sections of

cooperative games within legislatures. Jackson and Moselle (2002) investigated decisions in a

legislative game that included ideological and distributive proportions. The authors found that

competing groups of legislators have “more than one ideological decision that has a positive

probability of being proposed and approve…showing that legislators can gain from forming

political parties, and consider examples where predictions can be made about the composition of

parties” (Jackson and Moselle, 2002, pg. 49).

It appears that the game theory literature needs to be updated in this subfield of political science

regarding decision making in legislatures with standing committees. The aforementioned works

are dated in the 1980s and early 1990s, except for Jackson and Moselle (2002). This presents a

significant gap in the government game theory literature that calls for a more current

examination of strategy formulation and incentive analysis in legislative behavior.

This paper will introduce a coalitional game based on a fictional state legislature. Its focus will

be based on a notional “State Senate Rules Committee.” This Rules Committee is a standing

committee in the State Senate that serves as the gate keeper for bills that are introduced by other


Jackson and Moselle (2002) refer to their own “Legislative Game.” For purposes of clarity

“Legislative Game 2017” will be used in this paper to differentiate from Jackson and Moselle

(2002). The Legislative Game 2017 is a cooperative game that has coalitions of players, in this

case Republicans and Democrats. The cooperative game in a legislative or voting bloc setting is

sometimes better described as a coalitional game. The Legislative Game 2017 is also a “simple”

game since the game has a winning coalition and a losing coalition. These games are also called

profit games. In profit games, the payoffs are either 1 or 0, in other words, either a winning

coalition of “1” or a losing coalition of “0.” This payoff can also be called a Boolean Domain.

Winning coalitions in the Legislative Game 2017 who serve in standing committees can either

pass a bill or defeat a bill.

Therefore, the Legislative Game 2017 in a legislative standing committee is made up of

coalitions of Republicans and Democrats with a winning payoff of either passing a bill or

defeating a bill. This simple legislative game can be mathematically defined with a few

definitions and notations borrowed from authors such as Bilbao (2000), Driessen (1988),

Osborne and Rubenstein (1988), and Owen (1995).

Where M is a member of the legislature; WC is the winning coalition; LC is the losing coalition;

and L is a subset of the whole legislature, I then include the following mathematical notations for

these elements so that:

• M ⊆ L means that the member of the legislature is a subset of the whole legislature.
• M ∈ WC means that the individual member of the legislature is part of the winning
• M ∈ LC means that the individual member of the legislature is part of the losing
• L ∈ WC means a subset of the whole legislature is part of the winning coalition.
• L ∈ LC means a subset of the whole legislature is part of the losing coalition.

Encapsulating the preceding mathematical notation derives the following:

If M ∈ WC and M ⊆ L, then it implies that L ∈ WC.

If M ∈ LC and M ⊆ L, then it also implies that L ∈ LC.

Generally notated, where RC is the Rules Committee, then RC ⊆ L implies that the Rules

Committee is a subset of the whole legislature.

In this legislature for the purposes of the game, each new bill is first assigned to the Senate Rules

Committee. The chairman decides to “hear” the bill which means that the sponsor of the

legislation must testify in front of the whole Rules Committee and discuss the bill’s merits,

strengths, and public policy advantages. The Rules Committee can oppose a bill by refusing to

hear the bill and allowing it to “die in committee.” Or it can allow the bill to pass the committee

and assign it to another standing committee before it is allowed to go to a floor vote.

Rules Committee Policy Outcomes:

1. Refuse to hear or schedule bill
2. Hear bill testimony and pass
3. Hear bill testimony and do not pass

Therefore, if RC ∈ {1, 2, 3} and V= vote, then the following implies:

V(1) = V(2) = V(3) = V(23)

V(12) = V(23) = V(123) = 300

This fictional Rules Committee in the Legislative Game has nine members. Six members are

Democrats and three members are Republicans. The chairman of the committee is a Democrat

and the chairman can allow a motion to vote on advancing the bill with a “Do Pass” ruling or

stop the bill from advancing with a “Do Not Pass” ruling. The Rules Committee may also vote to

table a bill or to pass the bill with no recommendations. For the purposes of this game, the focus

will be on a simple outcome of either a Do Pass or Do Not Pass ruling which will then be a

Boolean Domain payoff of (2,3) rather than {1,2,3} notated above.

During the game, the nine members of the committee will form a winning coalition or a losing

coalition based on a liberal (Democratic Party) philosophy or a conservative (Republican)

philosophy. The winning coalition advances or passes the bill. The losing coalition sees the bill

fail to advance.

Where D is a Democratic Party member of the committee (RC) and where R is a Republican

Party member of the committee, then D ⊆ RC and R ⊆ RC means that Republican members

and Democratic members are part of the Rules Committee.

This Rules Committee often votes along party lines. The Democrats enjoy a 6-3 majority and are

able to set a liberal agenda by allowing left-leaning bills to advance while opposing or “killing”

right-leaning bills. Thus, Democrats are usually on the winning coalition and Republicans are the

losing coalition.

This implies that D > R = WC and R > D = WC.

In this construct with the nine members voting ideologically along party lines it would seem that

only liberal bills would advance and conservative bills would always be defeated. However, the

Legislative Game 2017 has an interesting wrinkle. There is a “game within the game.” Instead of

the committee acting completely autonomously, there is one extra player. This extra player is the

sponsor of the bill. The sponsor of the bill gets to testify and attempt to change the voting

patterns of the Rules Committee if he or she has the strategic skill and rationally analyzes

incentives among the various agents.

Let S be the sponsor of the legislation, so that S ⊆ RC ∈ WC means that the sponsor is a subset

of the Rules Committee and is part of the winning coalition. S ⊆ RC ∈ LC means that the

sponsor is a subset of the Rules Committee and is part of the losing coalition.

Therefore, the Rules Committee members have coalitional strategy profiles and the sponsor has

individual strategy profiles. The sponsor can make decisions within his strategy profile.

Meanwhile, the members of the Rules Committee get to form coalitions based on the sponsor’s

testimonial strategy.

This is a difficult political situation for a Republican sponsor of conservative legislation who

goes in front of the Rules Committee to testify. The sponsor must flip or change at least two

Democrat votes to win a majority of 5-4, otherwise the bill can fail 6-3 or worse. The sponsor

then must play a “winning hand” skillfully and execute very persuasive testimony, especially if

his bill is seen by the Democrats as a conservative bill. The Democrats simply have to form a

coalition of five or six members to kill unfavorable legislation in the Rules Committee.

Those are the ground rules of the Legislative Game. Now examine an outline of a sample game

in which a Republican sponsor testifies in front of this Democratically-controlled Rules


In this sample game, the sponsor has a bill that favors business by reducing regulations. The

sponsor currently does not have the votes for passage as the tally is 6-3 against his bill along

party lines. The Democrats do not favor reducing regulations for businesses as a general

principle. It should be easy for the Democrats to form a coalition and vote on party lines to kill

this bill. Examine the following table for an initial summary before testimony at the beginning of

the game.
Table One: Composition, Party Affiliation, Political Philosophy, and Voting Preference for the Rules Committee

Committee Member Party Philosophy Votes For or
Chairman Democratic Supports Regulation Against
Member Two Democratic Supports Regulation Against
Member Three Democratic Supports Regulation Against

Member Four Democratic Supports Regulation Against
Member Five Democratic Supports Regulation Against
Member Six Democratic Supports Regulation Against
Member Seven Republican Supports Business For
Member Eight Republican Supports Business For
Member Nine Republican Supports Business For

Now the sponsor must testify. His legislation is fundamentally conservative as the bill supports

business and seeks to reduce regulation. He currently does not have the votes so he plans his

strategy profile accordingly.

Before the sponsor testifies in this iteration of the game, let me also introduce three new features

or assumptions of this game that affects all players. In most simple coalitional games the players

would have perfect information and unlimited time. First, under the assumption of perfect

information, players would know everything there is to know about the bill. Each player would

have unlimited use of legislative staff to educate the committee members on all the information

that is in the bill. Second, time would be unlimited and the scheduling necessities of the

legislative calendar would not be a factor. The players would be able to hear testimony for as

long as they want. Third, all players would ideally be fully engaged, rested, relaxed, and


However, in the Legislative Game 2017, reality rears its head. Time is a factor as the members of

the Rules Committee must hear more bills then they have time for. Information is not perfect.

The members do not always understand or have the expertise to master all aspects of the bills

they hear. Committee members may be tired, disengaged, dispassionate, frustrated, agitated,

hungry, bored, or otherwise inattentive and indifferent. These constraints and limitations on

legislative behavior can be referred to as the “mood” of the committee. To recap, the committee

members in the Legislative Game 2017 do not have perfect information; they do not have

unlimited time; and some may not even care about their vote.

Turn your attention to the sponsor. The sponsor clearly has problems with the legislation and

encounters difficulty in developing a strategy for his testimony to maximize persuasiveness. He

has a complicated and tedious bill that can confuse most legislators with its complexity and

detail. In this Democratically-controlled committee, most members will oppose his bills on

partisan, ideological, or philosophic grounds. He counts the votes and it looks like his bill will

die at the hands of the Rules Committee 6-3. However, he decides to proceed with the following


For simplicity, the sponsor’s strategy profile for testifying has two moves. The first move is

“Cerebral and Intellectual.” The sponsor decides to first summarize his very long and detailed

bill point by point and appeal to the committee members’ intellectual disposition by focusing on

precision and specifics.

His second move is “Cerebral and Divisive.” He attempts to anticipate his opponents’ opposition

and refute each of their points of contention in a combative and partisan manner by dividing the

opposition. The information for the committee is imperfect, time is limited, and some members

may be disengaged or distracted.

The first iteration is not surprising. The sponsor’s bill receives a “Do Not Pass” ruling with a 6-3

vote along party lines. What happened?

The sponsor’s testimony was ideologically divisive, boring, tedious, and even the Republicans

tuned him out. His testimony took too much time and time is precious to the committee. The

committee members wanted to move on to other bills or adjourn. The sponsor also tried to argue

points against liberal orthodoxy. That failed to flip any votes because the Democrats stopped

listening and they were not happy with his incendiary, discordant, and partisan remarks.

In that iteration, the sponsor also failed to consider that the committee members’ time is limited,

their appetite for partisan dialogue is waning, their information is imperfect, and that some

members are disengaged. His testimony failed.

The following table has a recap of the iteration just described.
Table Two: First Strategy Profile and Tactical Moves One and Two – Cerebral Moves

Sponsor Sponsor Sponsor Realizes Takes Into Outcome
Strategy Move One: Move Two: Committee Account
Profile One Has Limited Committee
Cerebral and Cerebral and Time and Mood
Intellectual Divisive Imperfect
Strategy Summarized Anticipated No No Committee is
Profile is contents of bill opposition and ideologically
in tedious detail. attempted to opposed;
Pure – Attempted to answer Committee is
Strategy appeal to opposition from pressed for
Profile lawmakers’ Democrats in a time; is bored;
applies to all cerebral or partisan and and is
situations intellectual divisive disengaged.
disposition in a manner. Sponsor loses
precise manner. coalition vote 6-

For the second iteration, the sponsor has formulated a new strategy called “Strategy Profile

Two.” This is also a pure strategy that he will use in all situations (there is zero probability that

he will change any aspect of the strategy during this iteration).

This time the sponsor realizes the committee members are pressed for time and that time is of the

essence. The sponsor also knows that his bill is complex and lengthy. He judges correctly that

the committee members’ want him to be concise in his testimony. He also understands that the

committee members may not be totally engaged. They may be tired, bored, or dispassionate.

Members are not receptive to ideological polemics.

Therefore, he decides on a new strategy with two different moves. The first move is “Emotional

and Instinctual.” He skips the detailed summary, ignores the partisan bickering, and appeals to

the law makers’ gut instincts. He makes his testimony short and to the point.

This second strategy profile is “Emotional and Abstract.” The sponsor speaks about the higher

philosophical calling of entrepreneurship and how small businesses are the pillars of

communities and drivers of job growth. He appeals to their instincts, emotions, nostalgia, and

sentimentality. With this strategy, the sponsor is inclusive instead of divisive. This argument is

less confrontational and nonpartisan. Here is the second strategy profile:
Table Three: Second Strategy Profile and Tactical Moves One and Two – Emotional Moves
Sponsor Sponsor Sponsor Realizes Takes Into Outcome
Strategy Move One: Move Two: Committee Account
Profile Two Has Limited Committee
Emotional Emotional Time and Mood
and and Abstract Imperfect
Instinctual Information
Strategy Skipped tedious Spoke about a Yes Yes Committee is
Profile is bill summary. higher less
Appealed to gut philosophy of ideologically
Pure – instincts. entrepreneurship. opposed; Short
Strategy Shortened Inclusive not testimony
Profile testimony. divisive. improves the
Ignored Appealed to mood of the

applies to all partisanship. emotions, committee
situations Spoke in a nostalgia, and Sponsor wins
concise and sentimentality, coalition vote 5-
direct manner. Spoke in a less 4. Bill
partisan manner advances.
and was less

What transpired after the second iteration of the game? The sponsor’s second strategy profile

worked. The sponsor realized the committee members were short on time. He kept his testimony

brief. His more direct speaking style helped improve the mood of the committee. He knew that

partisan bickering would not work when there are six Democrats on the committee, so he used a

more inclusive tone that was less divisive. He also appealed to their emotions and sense of

nostalgia and sentimentality by describing and explaining a more philosophical purity of

entrepreneurship and small business.

After his testimony, the committee voted. To the sponsor’s surprise, one of the Democrats

admitted that she was a small business owner and she voted with the Republicans. Another

Democrat was so relieved that the sponsor kept his testimony brief that he voted with the

Republicans as well. With two flipped votes the final vote was 5-4 in favor of passing the

legislation. The bill advanced to the next committee.

In this iteration, the change of strategy worked for the sponsor. He received a favorable outcome

for taking the human element of politics seriously. In other words, he realized that in the real

world, time is limited, information is imperfect, and an opposing player’s mood (engagement,

passion, attention) can affect the opposition’s strategy. The sponsor also learned to make an

emotional appeal instead of a cerebral or intellectual appeal at the appropriate time.

This is a description of one small legislative game that is merely a snapshot of what goes on in

standing committees in legislatures around the world, but it explains a high level of game

theoretic political behavior. It is a good lesson in legislative strategy for even the most seasoned

and experienced policy maker.

The Legislative Game 2017 has made a significant contribution to the game theory literature by

offering an updated and more modern strategic lesson that incorporates the elements of time,

information, and mood. It considers the strategic realities of legislative politics and agenda

setting to account for when time is limited, when information is imperfect, and when a

legislator’s private mood can influence their vote.

More significantly, this paper constitutes a novel approach and addition to the political science

literature in game theory and legislatures. It also elucidates legislative communication strategies

that rely on cerebral and emotional appeal and explains their inclusion into various incentive

analyses strategy profiles and decisions. It goes even further to clarify the use of strategic

profiles and tactical moves based on division or inclusion, gut instinct, partisanship, shared

philosophy, nostalgia, and abstract idealism.

Works Cited

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Systems.” The American Political Science Review. Vol. 85: No. 1 (March, 1991), 137-

Baron, David P. and John A. Ferejohn. 1989. “Bargaining in Legislatures.” The American
Political Science Review. Vol. 83: No. 4 (Dec. 1989), 1181-1206.

Bilbao, Jesús Mario. 2000. Cooperative Games on Combinatorial Structures. Kluwer Academic

Dixit, Avinash K. and Barry J. Nalebuff. 1991. Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in
Business, Politics, and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. “An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy.” The Journal
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Driessen, Theo. 1988. Cooperative Games, Solutions and Applications, Kluwer Academic

Gilligan, Thomas and Keith Krehbiel. 1987. “Collective Decision Making and Standing
Committees: An Informational Rational for Restrictive Amendment Procedures.” Journal
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Jackson, Matthew O. and Boaz Moselle. 2002. “Coalition and Party Formation in a Legislative
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Ordeshook, Peter C. 1986. Game Theory and Political Theory: An Introduction. Cambridge,
MA: University Press.

Osborne, M.J. and A. Rubinstein. 1994. A Course in Game Theory, Boston: MIT Press.

Owen, Guillermo. 1995. Game Theory. Third Edition. San Diego: Academic Press.