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Honest messengers: How symbolic messaging votes in Congress match vote choices on “real” votes

Members of Congress take many votes on policies that have no hope of becoming law. Often called “messaging votes” or “position taking votes,” they allow members the chance to reveal a policy position without any risk that it will actually come into being. These votes have become a familiar part of the Congressional agenda, with hundreds occurring in each chamber every year. Yet it raises an important question: do we learn something from these votes about how members would behave if the policy was actually on the line? The answer turns out to be “yes.” We find that vote choices on these policy-irrelevant votes are highly similar to vote choices when policy is on the line. Despite an apparent opportunity to behave disingenuously, members are in fact “honest messengers,” revealing preferences that are consistent no matter the implications of the vote.

In a paper presented at the 2019 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, we investigated this question by analyzing the four Congresses of the Obama administration and separated all final-passage votes into two categories: those with a credible chance to become law and those without. We determined “credibility” based on the partisan control of the various institutions of government and the prior success of a bill. What does a “credible” vote look like? There are many examples, but one is a vote in one chamber when the bill has already passed in the other chamber, with a president unlikely to veto. Consider the House’s passage vote on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. After passing in the Senate, the majority-Democratic House considered President’s Obama’s signature bill. If it passed, he would surely sign it into law. This is a highly credible vote.

What is a vote that lacks credibility? Again, there are many paths.  The most common is when a partisan policy comes up in one chamber while the other chamber or the White House is controlled by the rival party. Consider the vote in the House in January 2011 that sought to repeal the ACA. Though it passed, the Democrats still controlled the Senate and the White House, so there was no hope of actually repealing the law. This messaging vote was used by the GOP to signal their opposition to the ACA and force Democrats to affirm their support of an unpopular policy. Republicans would take dozens of these votes over the next six years without ever actually repealing the ACA.

Once we separated all votes into these two bins, we ran conventional statistical models to assess how members voted on just the bills that had credible policy implications. We then compare that to similar measures based on all votes taken during the Obama administration. Interestingly, the results are highly similar. There are no systematic differences between the set of votes that could be expected to change policy and the set of votes filled with hundreds of symbolic messaging votes. This suggests that messaging votes are not systematically different. This is an important result. If we look at such votes for information about what members want in terms of policy, they will not substantially mislead us. In the following graph, we present the ideological distribution of the U.S. House (blue for Democrats, red for Republicans) during the Obama administration, both looking at just the policy-credible votes (lighter shades) and then looking at all votes (darker shades). Where the line is higher, there was a greater concentration of members at that ideological level. We can see that the results are highly similar – messaging votes simply reinforce the same patterns we see in policy-credible votes.

Honest Messages in the Obama-Era Congress: Messaging Votes Reinforce Voting Patterns on Credible Policy Roll Calls

To be sure that we were not simply observing a feature of our modern highly-polarized partisan environment, we replicated our test on the four Congresses of the Eisenhower Administration. This period was similar to the Obama years in some ways – comprised of a mix of unified and divided government – but was also considerably less polarized. In those days, each party contained both liberal and conservative members. Despite the huge differences in the party systems, our results were largely the same: no systematic differences between looking at credible policy votes and looking at all votes with hundreds of messaging votes thrown in. These consistent results across time and across party systems implies that our findings are not simply an artifact of the modern, polarized Congress.

This conclusion has a surprising implication: perhaps it is messaging and not policy that really matters. Political scientist David Mayhew argued many years ago that positions were what members of Congress cared about, not policies. In this conception of Congressional behavior, our results are not surprising at all. Members approach policy votes and symbolic (position-taking) votes similarly – and reveal fairly stable and consistent preferences.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership