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“Congressional Representation: Accountability from the Constituent’s Perspective”

Steve Ansolabehere and Shiro Kuriwaki write:

The premise that constituents hold representatives accountable for their legislative decisions undergirds political theories of democracy and legal theories of statutory interpretation. But studies of this at the individual level are rare, examine only a handful of issues, and arrive at mixed results. We provide an extensive assessment of issue accountability at the individual level. We trace the congressional rollcall votes on 44 bills across seven Congresses (2006–2018), and link them to constituent’s perceptions of their representative’s votes and their evaluation of their representative. Correlational, instrumental variables, and experimental approaches all show that constituents hold representatives accountable. A one-standard deviation increase in a constituent’s perceived issue agreement with their representative can improve net approval by 35 percentage points. Congressional districts, however, are heterogeneous. Consequently, the effect of issue agreement on vote is much smaller at the district level, resolving an apparent discrepancy between micro and macro studies.

That last point is worth saying again, and Ansolabehere and Kuriwaki do so, at the end of their article:

Our findings also help reconcile two observations. On the one hand, individual con- stituents respond strongly to their legislators’ roll call votes. But on the other hand, aggregate vote shares are only modestly correlated with legislators’ roll call voting records. This is a result of aggregation. Many legislative districts are fairly evenly split on key legislation. A legislator may vote with the majority of her district and get the support of 55 percent of her constituents, but lose the support of the remaining 45 percent. Those with whom the legislator sides care deeply about the issue, as do those opposed to the legislator’s vote. But, in the aggregate the net effect is modest because much of the support and opposition for the bill cancels out. Aggregate correlations should not be taken as measures of the true degree to which individuals care about or vote on the issues. By the same token, in extremely competitive districts, representatives have a difficult time satisfying the majority of the voters back home.

This is thematically consistent with Ansolabehere’s earlier work on stability of issue attitudes, in that details of measurement can make a bit difference in how we understand political behavior.

20 Comments

  1. jim says:

    So this is interesting to me:

    “Our findings also help reconcile two observations. On the one hand, individual con- stituents respond strongly to their legislators’ roll call votes. But on the other hand, aggregate vote shares are only modestly correlated with legislators’ roll call voting records. “

    I don’t get is why there is anything to reconcile. That’s a criticism of previous studies that were conducted at the district level with the assumption that a district would have a unified view on a bill or issue that would allow it to hold it’s representative accountable on that issue. There’s nothing wrong with doing a study at the district level. But why bother when the results don’t provide any useful information? I mean did someone really go out argue that people don’t care how their reps vote because they don’t hold their reps accountable through the ballot box at the district level? It’s almost like an example of science taking us backwards.

  2. Matt Skaggs says:

    “Those with whom the legislator sides care deeply about the issue, as do those opposed to the legislator’s vote. But, in the aggregate the net effect is modest because much of the support and opposition for the bill cancels out. Aggregate correlations should not be taken as measures of the true degree to which individuals care about or vote on the issues.”

    I can’t quite unpack this, not sure how the last sentence follows the previous points. In fact, I’m not sure the last sentence means anything at all.

    One of the basic problems here is a penchant for folks to get confused about how democracy works. Some feel that a strong leader is not swayed by the whimsies of the public. Whatever that attitude is, it is not democracy, but it is the only way to account for the discrepancy that the authors seem to be hinting at.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      If 20 people have a choice between an apple and orange, and ten really prefer the apple, but the other ten really prefer the orange, on average it will look like people do not prefer one or the other.

      Thats all, its just misinterpreting averages.

      • Anoneuoid says:

        I guess it amounts to treating individual variation as measurement error.

      • @Anoneuoid: Your analogy is very good. I fail to see why “Aggregate correlations should not be taken as measures of the true degree to which individuals care about or vote on the issues” isn’t a completely obvious statement.

        • Anonymous says:

          This is my guess: Suppose that out of 100 people, 80 approve of a law and 20 disapprove. If the law passes, 5 of the 80 would vote on the politician (when they otherwise wouldn’t), and 1 person out of the 20 will not vote for the politician (when they otherwise would). But if this politician does not pass the law, you get the opposite reaction: 1 out of the 80 now does not vote for the politician, and 5 out of the 20 now vote.

          This could be plausible if there is a combination of effects:
          – In the laws for which this happened, the laws were not that unpopular, so we do not need a large effect to account for it.
          – People have an asymmetric reaction when they are in the majority or minority positions — there is a larger shift for people on the “fringe”. This should be pretty clear in the data, however.

    • Eric says:

      // “One of the basic problems here is a penchant for folks to get confused about how democracy works.”

      …quite an understatement

      Large scale representative-democracy is an absurd concept, but is blithely accepted by most people in theory and daily practice.

      Effective political representation decreases sharply as the ratio of representatives to voters decreases.

      Individual American citizens have effectively zero representation in city/state/federal government operations.

      For example, there are 435 members in US House of Representatives in a country of 330 million people.
      Thus each member “represents” an average of 760,000 people.

      How exactly does one person represent the federal legislative preferences of 760K diverse people?
      How do two US Senators know and apply the will of all New Yorkers in Senate decisions ?

      American representative-democracy is fantasy — but somehow a sacred civil religion nationwide.

      • confused says:

        In some ways the dramatic increase in US population since the early days of the nation (& greater centralization of decision-making: much more of the government decisions that affect everyday life & business are made at the federal level than in, say, 1820) has made things less democratic in that aspect (=less practical influence on representatives by voters) even as the US has become much more democratic in other ways (dramatic expansion of franchise by 15th/19th Amendments & Civil Rights era; Senators now elected rather than being appointed by state legislatures).

        • Steve says:

          confused writes: “In some ways the dramatic increase in US population since the early days of the nation . . . has made things less democratic in that aspect”

          Population increase has nothing to do with it. Congress is empowered to set the number of representatives based on the Census. It simply stopped increasing the number of representatives in the early 20th century and set the number at 435 in 1929. The Constitution envisions that the Congress would set the number after each census and it did throughout the 19th Century. Congressional District were originally about 30,000. Now, they are typically over 700,000. Increasing the number of representatives would solve a lot of problems. Congress could easily increase the number. If we had 10,000 members of the House of Representatives today chances are you would know your representative, and she would be interested in issues that you care about.

          • confused says:

            You are right, the number of Representatives is not fixed.

            I think there is still a significant effect from population growth, because a) the number of Senators *is* fixed; and b) if there were 10,000 Representatives the influence of each one on lawmaking would be less.

            So — yes I agree increasing the number would help; no I don’t think it would be sufficient to counter the population-size effect.

            Also, the centralization of power to the federal level is also relevant here. Before FDR a lot more things were done at the state level, the federal government had much less “everyday” impact at the level of the average citizen (even federal income tax is a 20th century innovation, though pre-FDR).

            And state-level decisions are going to be more ‘focused’ because there is going to be more commonality of interests within one state vs all 50 (even more so in the past; things like the huge urban/rural gap in TX, CA, AZ etc. are comparatively recent).

            • Steve says:

              10,000 Reps would get you back to 30,000 people per representative, the same as we had in the first Congress. So, it would off-set the population growth. As far as local control being more representative or “focused”, that is a simplification to say the least. This is no a single dimensional problem. My local government may be more representative in the sense that they represent a smaller group of people, but there are many other factors, like transparency. There is enormous attention on the federal government and many means to find out what it is doing. Local governments operate with relatively little scrutiny. A local zoning board may be more responsive to local real estate developers, but the local population may have no idea what they are doing until it’s done. In addition, not all problems are “local.” If people up the river from me, decide that polluting the river is fine with them, the fact that the decision was made locally made the decision less representative of those effected not more. Likewise, you state that there will be more commonality of interests based on geography. Yes, with somethings, but in our integrated, mobile (until recently) nation, that will often be false. People living in Austin Texas may have more in common with people in New York or San Francisco, then with the rest of Texas. Rural voters in California may have more common interests with ranchers in Montana, then tech workers in Silicon Valley.

              • confused says:

                >>it would off-set the population growth.

                In terms of people per Representative, yes. But not in the Senate at all, and each of 10,000 Representatives would have less voice in lawmaking than each of 435.

                >> As far as local control being more representative or “focused”, that is a simplification to say the least.

                Oh, absolutely! I’m not saying that it makes things overall better – or even more democratic – in *all* aspects.

                Just that it is an aspect that IMO is not taken into account/discussed often enough when people discuss non-responsiveness of government to average people/voters.

                >>In addition, not all problems are “local.” If people up the river from me, decide that polluting the river is fine with them, the fact that the decision was made locally made the decision less representative of those effected not more.

                Also quite true. There are some things, eg environmental, currency/trade & some other large-scale issues, that need to be handled at a higher level.

                I’m not arguing that local control is some kind of panacea for everything.

              • jim says:

                The best thing we could do to improve congress is require an MS for the job. No freakin’ lawyers.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Steve said,
                There is enormous attention on the federal government and many means to find out what it is doing. Local governments operate with relatively little scrutiny. A local zoning board may be more responsive to local real estate developers, but the local population may have no idea what they are doing until it’s done.”

                That fits Austin — although there is a local organization that does try to let citizens know what the pressures from developers are: https://communitynotcommodity.com/who-we-are/

      • Dan F. says:

        The USA is not even a democracy in concept, it is a republic, and it does not guarantee its citizens representation in the government either in its constitution or its laws. There are 10+/-5 million US citizens who have no representation in Congress (this includes residents of Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico and millions of “expatriates” who can claim no residence in any state).

        It would be interesting to see whether their interests, measures in the same way as the interests of those who do have representation, are attended or not.

  3. John Williams says:

    I was a local elected official for seven years, and saw first-hand that what matters most are the preliminary votes and discussions that go into shaping the measure that ultimately is voted up or down. That is, suppose that there is an issue that has a lot of popular support. A politician can work to weaken a measure before it gets to a final vote, pleasing interests that oppose the measure, and then vote for it, pleasing voters at large who don’t pay much attention. I see the same thing going on at the state and local level. Studies that look only at roll-call votes are going to miss a lot of the action.

    • jim says:

      Another alternative for the politician:

      Work to mold the measure so it’s in the general public interest, then explain to the public how it benefits them and create the support you need to pass it.

      Or I guess you could just build public trust by playing the sides off against each other.

      • John Williams says:

        Jim,
        In reality, only a few people are interested enough in the details to pay attention. Generally, these are the same ones who make campaign contributions. The real solution is public funding for election campaigns. Politicians are cheap; we should set things up so that the public can buy them.

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