Are Members of Congress “Truthful?” A Response to the PolitiFact Study

pants-on-fire1The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University released a report examining PolitiFact ratings gauging Republicans’ and Democrats’ “truthfulness.”  PolitiFact developed their so-called “truth-o-meter” (pictured at right) which rates politicians’ statements as “true,” “mostly true,” “half true,” “mostly false,” “false,” and “pants on fire.”  The main findings:

PolitiFact rated 32% of Republican claims as “false” or “pants on fire,” compared to 11% of Democratic claims – a 3 to 1 margin. Conversely, Politifact rated 22% of Democratic claims as “entirely true” compared to 11% of Republican claims – a 2 to 1 margin.

Dr. Robert Lichter, a communications professor at George Mason, concludes:

While Republicans see a credibility gap in the Obama administration, PolitiFact rates Republicans as the less credible party.

According to the PolitiFact data, Michelle Bachmann rates as the least truthful politician examined, receiving a whopping 15 “pants on fire” ratings.  There’s much rejoicing on the left of late given Bachmann’s announced retirement from the House.

But if our elected officials are generally “dishonest,” or if one party in particular is overly dishonest, that has rather serious implications for democratic societies like our own.  While the PolitiFact findings are amusing, there are serious normative issues at play.  Indeed, an important element of representative government is the extent to which policy outcomes reflect the preferences of citizens.

A few people have already weighed in on the PolitiFact ratings.  At TheMonkeyCage, John Sides questions the generalizability of the PolitiFact data.  I echo his concerns.  But I’d like to offer one additional caveat.  Political scientists have examined a related phenomenon: the frequency with which lawmakers keep their campaign promises.

Tracy Sulkin is the author of the aptly titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept” (ungated version here, but see also Congress Reconsidered).  In this paper, Sulkin debunks the common myth that political campaigns contain nothing more than personal attacks (devoid of any policy content) and that members of Congress routinely violate their campaign promises.  As she points out, it’s odd that while citizens regularly criticize their lawmakers for being dishonest and not following through on campaign promises, surveys routinely show that many citizens don’t know who their representative is in the first place (let alone know their position on key votes).

Sulkin studies this issue by measuring “promising keeping.”  Rather than examine lawmakers’ issue positions on specific bills, she looks at policy “priorities.”  In particular, Sulkin studies campaign ads for 1998, 2000, and 2002 and compares the priorities mentioned in a candidate’s ad to his or her bills introduced and cosponsored.

Based on the various issue areas coded, she compares the percentage of representatives who devoted attention via introduction or cosponsorship to each issue area.  She creates two groups: those who discussed the issue in a campaign and those who did not.  One of the central findings is that, in every case, members who mentioned an issue during the campaign were more likely to pay that issue attention while in serving in Congress.  In short, representatives follow through on their campaign promises.

Further, Sulkin models who keeps their promises.  The dependent variable is the proportion of kept promises and the unit of analysis is the individual representative.  The results:

  • There is no difference across the parties (contrary to the PolitiFact data).
  • Senior members are less likely to keep promises, while junior members follow through on campaign promises more often.
  • Members who are slightly vulnerable electorally are more likely to keep promises (though a non-linear effect exists).

So while it may run counter to the popular belief that “Congress is full of liars and crooks,” when we systematically examine campaign statements, it turns out that most members of Congress keep their promises.

Finally, if citizens are (a) unaware of who their elected lawmaker is and (b) are woefully ignorant of their representatives’ position on key votes, the question is: what keeps lawmakers honest?  The answer is that while private citizens may not know how their representative or senator voted, general election opponents and interest groups sure do.  Thus, while the electorate is generally inattentive to lawmakers voting record, the reelection incentive—and the threat of attack ads from one’s rival—keep lawmakers honest.

edit: I recommend reading Jonathan Bernstein’s perspective on this issue.  His post is here.