What do Senators actually want for their states and what do they receive? The importance of priorities and easy political wins

 Image source:  Senate Appropriations
Image source: Senate Appropriations

By Jeremy Gelman

When Congress is doling out money or projects, the evergreen question is who won and who lost? Indeed, after the passage of the 2018 Omnibus, political commentators’ immediate reaction was to analyze who benefited from the $1.3 trillion deal and who didn’t (see reporting by the Washington Post, Vox, Slate, and the Hill). This question of distributive politics has long fascinated political scientists. No matter how we measure pork barrel spending – earmarks, total federal spending by district, highway or rivers and harbors projects, among numerous others – examining where money and projects are allocated helps reveal who has power and influence in Congress.

In new research, I reexamine this classic research question by considering what Senators actually want for their states and their strategies for securing their funding priorities. To do so, I examine the over 2,600 archived requests Senators sent to an appropriations subcommittee chairman, Robert Byrd (D-WV), when the FY 1994 and 1995 Interior appropriations bills were being written. My results reveal two pathways by which Senators ensure their requests are included in the final legislation. First, Senators commonly ask for projects or money that will be allocated anyway. This strategy allows all lawmakers, even those leadership wants to starve of credit-claiming opportunities, to declare they secured funding or projects for their state. Second, members explicitly tell party and committee leaders their priorities. This ensures those negotiating the final bill know exactly which line items are most important to their colleagues.

The Difficulty of Studying Distributive Politics

Studying the flow of federal spending means asking two questions, namely: what do members want and what do they receive? Answering this first question is difficult. While Senators often publicize their funding requests, in reality they care about some more than others. Rather, what we really want to know are lawmakers’ priorities, which, not surprisingly, are confidential. It is an obvious political liability for members to tell constituents or an interest group they are a low priority. As a result, political scientists tend to only answer the second question — what members get — by examining which states received the most funding or earmarks.

The Research Design

To study what Senators prioritize, and what ends up being funded, I went to the National Archives and collected the requests Senators sent appropriations subcommittee chairs. Sending these request letters is a common practice in the Senate and continues today. And while this practice is common, these letters are rarely saved. In fact, the reason my analysis is restricted to the FY 1994 and 1995 Interior appropriations bills is these were the only letters retained in the most recent archival files (the Senate embargoes its archives for 20 years). After collecting the over 2,600 requests sent to the subcommittee chair, I tracked what percentage of each request was fulfilled in the House, Senate, and final bills.

How Do Senators Get What They Want?

By far, Senators’ most common approach was to ask for something already funded in the House version. On its face, this strategy is strange as it is reasonable to expect Senators would use their confidential requests to only ask for line items that otherwise wouldn’t be in the bill. Yet they didn’t.

This curious approach reflects a strategic interaction between the leaders crafting the legislation and the rank-and-file making the requests. Those writing the bill seek to accommodate distributive requests from members, especially co-partisans and fellow appropriators, but, when negotiating, there are only so many distributive projects they can insist on being in the final bill. Knowing this, Senators ask for money and projects that are likely to be included in the final bill regardless. This allows all members to credit-claim while preserving leadership’s ability to insist on the funding the other chamber or party would not otherwise provide. As the Figure below shows, making a request that is already in the House bill is an easy way for all Senators, even those we generally assume are disadvantaged in the appropriations process, to claim they helped get something for their state.

Figure 1: Predicted % of Request Included in Final Bill as % in House Bill Changes

Second, members explicitly tell party and committee leaders their priorities. This helps those negotiating the bill to insist on certain dollars or programs that are most important to their colleagues. Interestingly, prioritizing distributive requests only works for Senators that party or committee leaders want to help, namely majority party Senators, especially those on the committee, and running for reelection. As the Figure below indicates, majority appropriators running for reelection get nearly 40% of a request funded, when that request is absent from the House bill. But, as the grey line indicates, sending priorities is much less useful for minority members running for reelection. They only get, on average, 9% of their top priority funded.

Figure 2: Predicted % of Request Included in Final Bill as a Senator’s Priorities Change

The Relative Importance of These Strategies

It is notable how much these strategies, explicit prioritization and asking for line items likely to be funded anyway, matter. Political scientists have identified a long list of factors that affect how much pork barrel spending Senators secure, including majority status, being on the committee writing the bill, running for reelection, and representing a less populous state. Yet when these factors are all added to the same statistical model, the strategies I identify are, by far, the strongest predictors of how much of a Senator’s request is fulfilled.

These findings raise two important points. First, when deciding who wins and loses in Congress, we should carefully consider what members actually want and prioritize in the first place. In particular, we ought to more seriously think about lawmakers’ distributive priorities, and not just aggregate measures like dollar amounts or number of projects funded. Second, we should focus on how legislators insert themselves into the policymaking process to claim easy political wins, and how effective such tactics actually are in building a Senator’s political brand.

Jeremy Gelman is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research focuses on Congress and the executive branch and has been published in Legislative Studies Quarterly and Party Politics.