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Passing Policy or Courting Votes?: A Look at the Priorities of Members of Congress

SPA professor explores how party support influences legislative behavior.

Candidates for U.S. Congress run, and win, electoral campaigns with varying levels of party support. SPA Professor Andrew Ballard, with co-author Hans Hassell, asked how this level of support influences their subsequent legislative behavior, and which goals (advancing policy vs. optimizing reelection odds) parties prioritize when supporting candidates in different contexts.

In “Shifting party goals: Party electoral support and legislative behavior in the majority and the minority,” published October 28 in the journal Party Politics, Ballard defines ‘party’ in terms of entities that work on behalf of a political group or candidate, including committee staff and elected representatives, but also donor networks, special interest groups, citizen activists, and campaign volunteers. These parties have goals, best explained by theories that see parties as either as policy demanders or pragmatic idealists.

“You could think of the difference between the two theoretical perspectives as whether parties care more about passing policy or winning elections,” said Ballard, “All things equal, parties want to do both of those things . . . But when there are scarce resources, there are almost always necessary trade-offs.”

Parties typically provide this support behind the scenes, he continued. “They act, not necessarily in secret, but out of the view of the public: in many cases, it's not advantageous to be seen as putting too heavy of a hand on any particular election.”

Ballard and Hassell measured party support for each eventual legislator, a challenge given this less-than-public nature of the process, using the number of donors that a candidate's campaign finance committee shared with the candidate's party's Hill committee.

“There is mostly anecdotal, qualitative evidence that donors who give both to a candidate and to the party tend to be much better connected,” he continued. “This is also highly correlated with journalistic accounts of who the party is actually supporting, the people who are trying to get access behind the scenes to the actual decisions on Capitol Hill.”

The study included two measures of voting behavior, which is heavily influenced by the agenda-setting process, and a third measure tracking co-sponsorship, which is not.

“Various institutions within Congress have a great deal of power over what does and doesn't get to the floor; only about 3% of bills make it to a vote,” Ballard explained. “But co-sponsorship patterns can tell us something about how centrally located within a party you are and what your political ideology is. It doesn't cost members much to co-sponsor, and they can renege on their sponsorship if a bill changes enough, or if public perception turns.”

The study also paid special attention to the legislative behavior of a freshman in Congress, in order to start with a relatively clean legislative slate before party support (or the lack thereof) and better identify causation.

“None of this is going to be perfect because most people who end up in Congress have some legislative history, or at least political history,” Ballard said. “But the cutoff [helps ensure] that an effect here is due to levels of party support rather than just how the member would have acted anyway.”
The study found that candidates who received more party support during the primary election were more likely to engage in partisan efforts in the next Congress, and linked party support of incoming legislators to increased partisan behavior.

“Generally, members who get more support from the party are more likely to vote in ways that are aligned with their party's preferences, and they're more likely to have more partisan co-sponsorship behavior,” said Ballard.

In addition, they found that these relationships are stronger for majority-party candidates, suggesting that parties put a greater emphasis on policy congruence when in the majority.

“To some degree, money wins elections,” said Ballard. “[Candidates] want that support to keep coming, so they are more likely to behave consistently with the party's priorities. This behavior is going to be moderated by whether a candidate is running as a member of the majority party or the minority party. In order to pass policy, you need a more coherent, more cohesive voting bloc, so you're going to be giving to members in such a way that tries to incentivize that behavior.”

By contrast, candidates running in the minority party care relatively more about winning elections.

“The minority party's giving behavior is not going to be aimed at inducing specific behaviors but rather just getting butts in seats in the legislature,” he continued. “In some cases, there isn't a relationship at all for minority party members. We really think that this speaks to the idea that the parties do have different goals depending on whether they are in the majority or the minority.”

These findings are salient in today’s fractured political climate, in which voters are increasingly discontent with the two-party system, and institutional processes have centralized power around party leadership. Implications for change, however, are limited.

“There are compelling arguments that a greater proportion of people's policy preferences would be enacted under a multi-party system, or some sort of proportional representation,” said Ballard. “That is not going to happen without large electoral changes in the United States. Some of that would potentially require a constitutional Amendment, which definitely isn't happening. You're not really going to get an instance where people choose to give up influence, even if it would create better outcomes.”