*Political Budget Cycles and the Civil Service*

One of my internal motivations for starting this blog was to have a commitment device for staying current and broad in the public finance literature. One of the surprises that has come of this venture is the amount of good research on political budget cycles, a subject that I thought was basically dead. A year ago, I would have thought political budget cycle research was basically non-existent and what remained likely to be uninteresting.

The July issue of JPubE posses another example of how wrong I was in “Political Budget Cycles and the Civil Service: Evidence from Highway Spending in US States” by David Bostashvili (Amazon) and Gergely Ujhelyi (University of Houston). Here is the abstract

We study political budget cycles in infrastructure spending that are conditional on bureaucratic organization. Bureaucrats can facilitate or hinder politicians’ ability to engage in voter-friendly spending around elections. To test this idea, we use civil service reforms undertaken by US states in the second half of the 20th century to study political budget cycles in highway spending under civil service and patronage. We find that under patronage, highway spending is 12% higher in election years and 9% higher in the year before an election. By contrast, under civil service highway spending is essentially smooth over the electoral cycle. These findings provide a novel way through which civil service rules can stabilize government activity.

Of course if you’re still with me, you’re wondering how the authors define and identify “patronage” and “merit” systems in the states. The answer is that the authors are actually studying  the adoption of merit system adopted throughout the 20th century that mimicked legislation at the state level. These acts included a competitive civil service exam, prohibited mandatory political services from employees, and established a bipartisan civil service commission. Therefore, “patronage” systems are states that did not adopt those laws. Here is a neat preliminary figure the presents per capita highway spending over the state electoral cycle from 1960-1995 in the 44 states with 4-year election cycles:


And if you compare the 11 states that switch during their study period from patronage to merit, here is how they compare before and after:


The rest of the paper goes on to show that this analysis holds up when you use a regression to control for other factors so that you get these graphs but with confidence intervals.

Score one for the Deep State.