“Models of Representation” reflected in the roll call votes of House members

By Kim Quaile Hill

As the 2018 off-year election approaches, both academic and news commentators are abuzz with how candidates for Congressional seats will position themselves with respect to the policy orientations of their national parties and the dispositions of their home constituencies.  There is much talk of Trump-leaning Republicans and especially left-leaning Democrats.  Yet some Democratic candidates must make especially difficult policy choices since the majority of voters in their home district or state supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election. 

The primary focus of the news buzz, as well as that among scholars, is on issues that especially divide the two major parties.  And an implicit assumption is that most candidates are hewing to their parties’ general ideological lines and will succeed or fail on that basis.  Yet political science scholarship recognizes that candidates often face more complicated “issue space” in their constituencies, and that the more sophisticated of them recognize and frequently align their policy stances with the variety of issue positions the voters at home desire.  Not all issues, further, divide all House or state constituencies in the same way.

Political science long ago concluded that on different issues members of Congress might provide either responsible party representation where they vote on bills in accord with the shared preferences of their national party and co-partisan constituents, belief sharing representation where they vote in accord with preferences they share with the majority of all their constituents but perhaps not their national party, delegate representation where they vote in support of widely shared constituency preferences that run contrary to their own preferences and perhaps that of the party, or trustee representation where they vote based on their personal view of the national interest and contrary to the preferences of their constituents or their national party. 

Much anecdotal evidence exists, further, that many issues are not party defining ones for some candidates and thus that the other forms of representation might be numerous.  Consider the many House districts with dominant agricultural economies where both Democrat and Republican constituents may desire relief from some of President Trump’s trade tariffs – and thus encourage either delegate or belief sharing representation.  As another example, some Republican members may feel induced by wide constituency pressure to support a continuation of Obamacare or some comparable health policy.  Despite this common anecdotal evidence, little systematic research has explored when these different “models” of representation arise.  Most scholarly research has instead sought sweeping generalizations that likely miss the nuances in patterns of representation like those outlined here.

A paper I presented in August at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (titled “Dyadic Constituency Representation in Congress Re-Visited:  Alternative Models of Representation Assessed Within Congressional Districts”) provides evidence on when individual Members of the House adopted one or another of these different forms of representation on abortion and gun control bills in 2000, a year chosen because of the extensive data needed for rigorous tests of the representational possibilities.  My analyses provide a nuanced perspective on the position-taking of candidates for Congressional seats, as well as for incumbents over the course of their time in office. 

Consider my major findings.  When conventional political science wisdom predicts House members should provide responsible party representation, that prediction was correct for all the Democrats on gun control votes, about three-quarters of the Republicans on those votes, all the Republicans on abortion policy votes, but only about half the Democrats on the latter votes.  Interestingly, about a third of Republicans in such districts voted liberally on gun control against the preferences of their national party and co-partisan constituents, while about half of the Democrats in similar districts voted for more abortion restrictions also contrary to the modal position of their party and co-partisan constituents. The latter deviations from party voting comport with the trustee model of representation. 

An advantage of my research design is that I identify exactly which members adopted each of these stances.  Consider as an example the value of knowing which Democratic members voted as trustees in favor of three bills meant to restrict “partial birth” abortions.  While space limitations prevented me from investigating those representatives in detail, the majority of them were members of religious faiths that have opposed abortion or otherwise sought to restrict it.  Thus their abortion votes were plausibly influenced by religious instead of strictly political preferences.  Yet with the kind of research design I employ, we can research the backgrounds of such members intensively to understand such behavior.

Further, when conventional wisdom predicts we should see belief sharing representation, that prediction is borne out for high percentages of both Democrats and Republicans on gun control but only a high percentage of Democrats on abortion policy.  Intriguingly, and for the first time in the specific research on dyadic representation, I identify large percentages of Republicans who voted with their national party and against their own established policy positions and those of their mean co-partisans on abortion, while smaller but notable numbers of both Democrats and Republicans vote that way on gun control.  This pattern of voting, however, is recognized in the separate research on “lawmaking in Congress,” and is aptly labeled national party agenda voting – where some members are induced by the party leadership to vote with the party and against their own stated preferences on major bills.  This pattern has been especially common for members of the majority party, the Republicans at the time for my analyses.

So how do my findings run counter to the conventional buzz?  In an era of highly polarized parties, we should expect high degrees of responsible party issue position taking.  Yet, my results also indicate that individual House members often face co-partisan and full-constituency preferences that deviate from the modal positions of the national parties.  And wise members at times respect their constituencies’ preferences over that of their parties.  Yet, to make this picture more complicated, at times members defer to the national party leadership and disregard constituency preferences and at other times some of them vote as trustees, ignoring both party and constituency.

The preceding summary may sound complicated, but it accords with evidence about the existence of some “maverick” behavior in the Congress, about how party leaders can sometimes cajole members to vote against their own preferences, but how leaders also at times allow party defections to help members enhance their prospects for re-election.  And in a system with relatively weak parties and many incentives for members to cultivate their own “personal vote” independent of party, perhaps this variety of behavior is almost dictated.

There is one caveat to the preceding generalizations that should be emphasized in conclusion.  Many so-called amateur candidates run for Congressional seats, and most of them fail in that effort.  What might distinguish most of the successful ones, however, is sophistication about when the time is right to make a competitive run for election as well as sophistication about the national and constituency preference landscape they must master to succeed.  Yet most novice candidates fail in good part because they lack such knowledge.  Even incumbents, however, have to stay abreast of the issue landscape to sustain their careers in office.  And perhaps it is thoughtful and selective adherence to belief sharing and delegate representation over strict responsible party behavior that also distinguishes the most successful incumbents.

Kim Quaile Hill is an emeritus professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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