Why Congress Doesn't Care What You Think

A paper from 2014 by Martin Gilens and Bejamin Page shook the bedrock of the American democracy by showing quite decisively that the likelihood of a policy being adopted in Congress is almost entirely unrelated to the amount of preference that citizens have for the policy. The preferences of economic elites (rich folks) and special interest groups (generally representing businesses) are far more likely to be enacted by Congress. The graph below shows the likelihood of a policy passing based on the amount of interest of each group. 

Probably not great news. The article goes into some academic detail about the concept of the power of political elites vs. the public. It's worth a read for those interested. There are also some good talks on the subject, one by author Giles and one by Lawrence Lessig

The most popular hypothesis about what's driving this is lobbying and campaign finance. In short, the hypothesis says that politicians depend on this money, so they bow primarily to these groups. It's very likely the case that these are contributing to those curves. 

But we believe there's also likely more to it, and it seems to line up very well with the Wedge hypothesis. 

Let's consider a few axioms:

  1. At the end of the day, average citizens outnumber special interest groups by a large enough margin that they could easily out-vote them.
  2. Ultimately, politicians need to win these votes to get elected, and therefore are dependent on voters. Campaign money is only a means to this end.
  3. If we paid enough attention, and voted consistently against Congresspeople acting against our interest (or being indifferent to them), there would be an evolutionary effect: those that followed Americans' interests would stay in power, and Congress would become dominated by people that made the black line on that top graph be much less flat.

Since the 3rd isn't happening, we need to think about why.

Wedge-Related Hypothesis 1: "Distraction"

So first, let's think about what political issues dominate the news: terrorism, abortion, gay marriage, guns (the last is on-and-off, depending on whether a mass-shooting incident occurred recently).

The dominance of these issues means that they're what we pay attention to and get emotional about. They dominate our political conversations and absorb a lot of our energy.

It's worth noting first that Congress has exceedingly little to do or say about the issues of abortion or gay marriage (and other such related "religious freedom" type legal battles). These happen on the state level, and Congress has no constitutional power to affect them, other than changing the amount of money it gives Planned Parenthood. But that's really about it. So with these two issues, Congresspeople probably get a lot of input from unhappy constituents but can merely shrug their shoulders.

On issues like guns, it's not that Congress doesn't see bills--they just don't get passed, because it's hard to assemble a majority on them. These bills tend to cover controversial stuff like banning "assault weapons," rather than working on policies that most Americans can agree with.

On terrorism, there's been a whole lot of legislation passed! And at time of passing, it's been quite popular. 

But the most important part about 3 of these (save terrorism, where there has been a lot of Congressional action in the past 15 years), they're not actually priorities for Americans. They fall behind other really big stuff.

So what this means is that we're paying a lot of attention and putting a lot of time into low-priority issues, rather than high-priority ones. 

With all this buzz, what's able to sneak through, unnoticed? Probably the stuff that special interests quietly lobby for. 

And how can we hold our Congresspeople accountable? How many Americans are spending more time looking at what's actually going on in Congress, and calling their Congresspeople when complex bills about business regulation are getting passed, versus complaining about wedge issues on Facebook? 

So one theory is that distraction from wedge issues enables special interests to get what they want because Americans are too busy with low-priority stuff to hold their Congresspeople accountable. How many of these special-interest bills can each of us even name? Probably not many.

Wedge-Related Hypothesis 2: "Battle Lines"

You've probably seen a number of times (if not in our book) the "mitosis" graph that shows how Congress split apart: it used to be the case that frequently Congresspeople of different parties would vote together, often in temporary coalitions for their constituents, or by passing legislation that had broad support.

Those days are now over: red-team and blue-team Congresspeople simply don't vote together anymore. On anything. 

So this means less legislation is getting passed. Congresspeople will bring forward bills, but instead of some members of each party voting together, they all vote apart. So when one party is in the minority, basically none of its agenda will get passed.

We explain--again in the book--that this is a side-effect of wedging. Congresspeople are attacked during primaries for voting with the opposition. It's politically dangerous, not because they lose funding from special interest groups, but because they'll get voted out of office from normal Americans. 

Americans frequently claim they want their Representatives to compromise, but when asked about individual issues, they frequently say no. So here, the voters themselves have drawn battle-lines, and punish the Representatives that work with the other party. The same evolution takes over, but in the opposite way: we throw out Congresspeople that frequently vote against the party line, so those currently in power are those that refuse to work with the other party.

In this way, we've let ourselves play into the hands of the party's most partisan groups. While most Americans have an array of political positions that span party platforms--or exist outside of them entirely--those who are in parties tend to support the refusal to work with the other side, because we now think that side is pretty evil. 

So in this theory, it's not that Congress is just ignoring Americans' preferences, it's that we are subordinating our preferences to making sure the "other party" doesn't get its way. In the Obamacare fight, little efforts were made to create a medical system that most people would agree with: Democrats had their ideas, and Republicans had theirs. Americans lined up on one side or the other, and if you're a Democrat, you almost certainly support it; if you're a Republican, you almost certainly oppose it.

What this means is, after the "battle" (that is, the vote and everything leading up to it), any policy is really only going to have support of about half the country. So Congress may very well be passing laws that one party's constituents believe they want, and the other doesn't--so the average national preference is "meh." If most popular legislation (rather than special-interest legislation) is like this, then it would be the case that "the preferences of people who support the party in power today" are being quite well-represented... today. Tomorrow, when the tables turn, they're seeing only legislation they oppose. So it cancels out.

It's not 100% clear what is the primary driver, but we think both of these hypotheses are more compelling than just, "Congress is bribed, doesn't care about the people, and acts with impunity." If that were the case, they wouldn't be there. We believe that until Americans change, and don't let themselves be Wedged, the core of this bigger dilemma won't change, even with reform to campaign finance law and lobbying.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.