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Disaster Votes

Lots of people expect that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will spur Congress to pass some sort of new environmental regulations in the months ahead. After all, that's what happened after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Three Mile Island nuclear scare, and so forth. But here's a twist: Matthew Kahn links to a 2007 paper he wrote on this subject, which finds that, while oil-spill-type disasters do force new regulations onto the legislative agenda, they don't make lawmakers any more likely to vote for them:

Unexpected events such as environmental catastrophes capture wide public attention. Soon after five major shocks—Three Mile Island, Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill—Congress voted on new risk regulation. This paper conducts an event study to test whether individual congressional representatives were “shocked” by these environmental disasters into increasing their probability of voting in favor of risk legislation. On average, representatives were less likely to vote in favor of bills tied to these five events. Significant heterogeneity in representatives’ responses to these shocks is documented. Liberal Northeast representatives were most likely to increase their pro-environment voting in the aftermath of these shocks.