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Despite heightened partisanship in the U.S. Congress and constituencies split along ideological lines, congressional representatives frequently buck their parties and seldom do precisely what voters ask. In Personal Roots of Representation, Barry Burden challenges standard explanations of legislative preferences to emphasize the important role that personal influences play in representatives' voting behavior.
This timely book is the first to examine the extent to which the very same values, experiences, and interests that shape congressional members as individuals and guide their own life choices similarly shape their policymaking decisions. Burden takes a close look at legislative decision making in the areas of tobacco regulation, vouchers and school choice, and religion and bioethics. He finds that personal factors become more significant when legislators are acting proactively rather than reactively, grappling with specific policy issues, and defending rather than challenging the status quo. Marshaling both qualitative and quantitative evidence, Burden reveals that the personal roots of representatives' actions can be as influential as the usual suspects of partisanship and constituency--and that personal factors quite often have the greatest impact when the policymaking stakes are at their highest.
Personal Roots of Representation is a provocative book that raises pressing new questions about legislative discretion and the accountability of our elected officials.
Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter were something of an odd couple when it comes to Washington politics. Although both were United States senators representing Pennsylvania, and both are Republican, their policy views could not have been more divergent. One sought compromise and generally avoided hot-button issues; the other was defined by such issues. Santorum was chair of the Republican conference in the Senate and an advocate of conservative policies, particularly on sensitive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Specter is pro-choice and often bucks his party, to the point of generating backlash from Republican colleagues. These fundamental differences in their preferences affected not only their voting records but their decisions about which issues to tackle.
Particularly on domestic social issues, it is difficult to overstate the differences that separate the two senators. As Congressional Quarterly put it, "An unalloyed social conservative, Santorum saves his toughest fights for the issue of abortion. He is a leader in the fight to outlaw a procedure that opponents call 'partial birth' abortion, which he has called 'barbaric' and 'the calculated killing of the nearly born.'" Specter, in contrast, is one of the few true moderates left in Congress. Some of hisRepublican colleagues in the Senate even challenged his position as chair of the Judiciary Committee when he suggested that conservative judicial nominees would get serious scrutiny. CQ reports that, unlike Santorum, "Specter fights to soften anti-abortion language in the GOP platform, tries to outdo Democrats on education spending, and not infrequently votes with Democrats on issues such as extending unemployment benefits and allowing patients to sue their managed-care health plans." Although a four-term senator, he barely managed to win the 2004 Republican primary election in which he faced a more conservative challenger.
As one summary indicator of their differences, consider Poole and Rosenthal's measure of legislative ideology known as NOMINATE. Their procedure uses roll call votes to place legislators on a unidimensional scale where 1 is most liberal and 1 is most conservative. By this yardstick, Santorum came in at .44, making him the 15th most conservative senator in the 108th Congress. Specter was located at .06, ranking him 51st in a chamber of 100. Nearly every other roll call indicator shows the same gulf between the two, a gap that is larger than that between the political parties themselves.
Why were Santorum and Specter so different, not only in their positions but in their policy priorities? Unfortunately, the usual suspects that congressional scholars line up to explain policy differences do not provide much of an answer. Were they from different states, a constituency focus would be the place to start. But they shared a common constituency in Pennsylvania, so electoral explanations cannot be responsible for the differences. Pennsylvania politics tend to be bifurcated between the eastern and western ends of the state, so it is possible that Santorum and Specter divide up the state geographically. Yet the differences in their voting records are far greater than demographic differences between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia would dictate. Both Santorum and Specter were seasoned politicians with years of congressional experience (and law degrees), thus rendering career-based explanations unhelpful. Finally, and most obviously, both senators were Republicans, rendering a partisan explanation for their actions moot. If career, constituency, and party affiliation fail, what accounts for the stark differences between Santorum and Specter? In reviewing their cases, the importance of more personal factors becomes obvious.
As a start, consider some facts about Santorum's background. His CQ biography documents, "The son of an Italian immigrant-a Veterans Administration psychologist-the boyish-faced Santorum stresses individual responsibility and self-reliance, not government assistance programs. He can draw on his own experience of holding down a full-time job while attending law school." Knowing just this, it might not be especially surprising that Santorum is conservative on fiscal matters.
But Santorum is best known for his activism on social issues, primarily his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research. He is a devout Catholic who attends Mass daily and held a course on Catholicism for fellow Republican members of Congress. He even helped convert fellow senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) to Catholicism. A former aide went so far as to call him "a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate."
Despite the obvious importance of Santorum's faith, he did not immediately tackle difficult morality issues when first elected to Congress. He was conservative on social matters but not especially active. "Santorum was pro-life from the time he first ran for Congress, but it wasn't an issue he was vocal about. Santorum never gave a speech about abortion in the House or Senate until the late-term-abortion debates of 1996 and 1997." The timing of this shift from passive to active opposition corresponds to a critical event in Santorum's personal life.
In 1996 Santorum's wife, Karen, was due with their fourth child. The pregnancy suffered from complications, and doctors warned that the baby had a fatal defect. Twice the doctors proposed aborting the fetus, an idea that the Santorums rejected. To cope with the pregnancy's uncertainty, Karen began writing letters to the unborn child, already named Gabriel Michael Santorum. As doctors warned, Gabriel was born prematurely at five months and lived only a couple of hours outside the womb. Rather than follow standard protocol, the Santorums took the body home rather than to a funeral home and changed a hospital form's description from "20-week-old fetus" to "20-week-old baby." Although understandably upset about the outcome, Santorum was nonetheless satisfied that Gabriel died "naturally" rather than by an abortive "murder." Now the father of six children, Santorum holds memories of Gabriel close. He keeps a framed photo of the baby on his desk. His wife's prenatal letters to Gabriel were published as a book that condemns "infanticide" and "partial-birth abortion" while advocating for her husband's renewed fight against such practices in the Senate. Santorum believes that Gabriel's death intensified his views about abortion, which he now sees as the great moral issue facing America. His intensity about the issue clearly stems from personal experience.
Arlen Specter's values come from an entirely different orientation, but likewise have their roots in life experience. They start not with religion but with a prosecutorial nose for the facts. A former district attorney, Specter is known for his tenaciousness, strong work ethic, and especially his independence (Fenno 1991). His independent streak motivated him to switch parties early in his career to increase his chances of winning office. Specter is also the son of a Russian immigrant and one of just a few Jewish Republicans in Congress. When called "ambitious," Specter "reaches back to his immigrant roots," saying, "When I was a growing up ambition was not only a good word in our household, it was an indispensable word" (quoted in Fenno 1991, 5).
Specter was never a typical Republican on social issues, and became less so over time as the party moved rightward in the 1980s and 1990s. Being largely pro-choice in a strongly pro-life party is challenging, as is representing the many Catholic and other antiabortion voters in Pennsylvania. Immediately after his first Senate victory Specter realized, "My toughest issue is abortion." But he maintained his moderate position because, he said, "I'm convinced I'm on the right side" (quoted in Fenno 1991, 28). Yet abortion is not a great moral imperative for Specter, and he generally avoids making much commotion around the issue. His floor votes on abortion-related matters are generally centrist, and speeches on the issue are nonexistent.
The same cannot be said for health care, where he is an activist driven by deep personal experience. It began in 1993 when Specter complained to doctors that he suffered from pain in his face and neck. He suspected a brain tumor was responsible and asked for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. His doctors declined the request because he showed no signs of memory loss or other common symptoms. Only after demanding it was Specter given the MRI; the test that revealed a two-inch brain tumor. Fortunately, the tumor was benign and could be removed with surgery, but the experience had an indelible impact.
Specter returned to the Senate soon after the surgery with a new scar on his head and a new attitude toward national health care policy. He immediately became an advocate of access to medical screening technology and preventive medicine. As chair of the Appropriations subcommittee dealing with health, he held some of the first hearings on breast cancer screenings. Specter argued that mammograms ought to be available to all women under 40, noting his own experience, in which a brain scan helped find a life-threatening tumor. Close observers of the budget process believe that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) get more funding than they would without Specter's support.
In sharp contrast to Santorum, Specter was also an early proponent of embryonic stem cell research. He became an even stronger advocate about the time he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancerous condition that was treated with chemotherapy. Upon introducing another bill to support therapeutic cloning in early 2005, Specter explained that his condition might have been treated with stem cell therapies if they had been supported by federal policies. Referring to his obvious hair loss caused by chemotherapy, Specter stated, "I've got a new hairdo, which you can all observe, and that is indicative of a problem which may well be helped by stem cell research if it were to go forward." While several other senators joined his effort, Specter attracted attention and credibility because of his firsthand experience. "I don't choose to unduly personalize it, but I have to find some way to excuse my hairdo." Aside from Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who also had personal reasons for supporting such research, few Republicans were willing to buck President Bush and their party on the issue.
The lesson to be taken from Santorum and Specter is the potential for representatives' experiences, interests, and expertise to shape their actions, what I call the personal roots of representation. Although the usual suspects of partisanship and constituency preferences surely play a role in guiding representatives' actions in general, those two factors are far from determinative, even on some of the most salient issues in contemporary American politics. Santorum's and Specter's legislative preferences on specific issues are more complex than the current political science formulation allows. More importantly, their differences are not limited to positions taken in roll call votes. They also choose to be active on different sets of issues, with Santorum pushing for limits on abortion and Specter supporting access to health care and aggressive stem cell research.
This book is about the preferences that drive all of the Rick Santorums and Arlen Specters who inhabit the modern Congress. Their cases demonstrate that legislative preferences cannot be boiled down to partisanship and constituent interests. Preferences depend on a wider range of phenomena, including the backgrounds of legislators themselves. The information gleaned, and the interests and values formed, from life experiences shape their behavior on roll call votes, and more importantly and frequently, their proactive leadership on a smaller set of issues.
Unpacking Legislative Preferences
What members of Congress do surely depends on what their constituents want. Representatives are generally in tune with their constituents when it comes to broad orientations toward public policy. As I elaborate in chapter 2, evidence shows that liberal districts tend to elect liberal legislators, and conservative districts typically have conservative representatives. The bird's-eye view strongly suggests that constituents are mostly getting what they want, just as the "delegate" view of representation expects. Yet I contend that this highly aggregated approach to assessing representation misses important deviations from public opinion. Relying only on summary information culled from many districts and many issues often leads to the false conclusion that legislators are strictly controlled by their constituents. But legislators can deviate from their constituents' preferences. Why might they be allowed to do so?
Elections are thought to be the main mechanism by which legislators are held accountable. Madison argued as much in the Federalist Papers, and scholarly wisdom has long held that an unrepresentative legislator will be defeated by one whose policies are closer to the voters. Building on the median voter theorem, Downs (1957) made that point about party politicians, and Mayhew (1974) applied the logic of pandering to members of the House. The fear of losing one's seat ought to be enough for the representative to act on constituents' desires.
While the power of elections to motivate politicians is quite real, there are two main reasons why they are not sufficient to guarantee full policy representation. First, voters are only permitted to choose candidates, not policies. A candidate represents a bundle of policies, many of which are inconsistent, not well formed, or unknown to voters (McCrone and Kuklinski 1979). With only two candidates to choose from in most elections, voters will not find a candidate with whom they agree on every issue. Many congressional elections instead revolve around a small number of highly salient issues at the expense of many other matters that are likely to be on the legislative agenda. The ballot is just too crude an instrument to send finely tuned messages on desired policies.
Second, most subpresidential elections in the United States are not seriously contested. Only a few dozen of the 435 House races held every two years are truly competitive in the sense that both candidates have a reasonable chance of winning (Jacobson 2004). About three out of every 20 House elections are not contested at all (Wrighton and Squire 1997). The spatial voting model, in which voters choose candidates nearest their positions, only applies when candidates are equally credible and equally able to communicate with voters. When candidates have advantages in name recognition, staffing, and funding, they can deviate from public opinion to some degree without jeopardizing their seats (Burden 2004a). Indeed, members of Congress intentionally cultivate their constituencies to generate trust and leeway in policy (Bianco 1994; Fenno 1978). Public opinion would have more substantial influence on governing behavior if legislators feared retribution for not heeding it, but warding off competition dampens the influence of constituents. Because elections are inadequate to ensure that voters' views on policy are fully represented by candidates, legislators will never perfectly represent the policy wishes of their constituents.
In a principal-agent framework used in economics, the job of the constituent is to monitor what legislators do. As the principal, the median voter in the district employs an agent in Washington to act on her behalf. I have already argued that the principal faces a difficult task because neither fear of replacement nor strict monitoring will be sufficient to ensure the agent's compliance. In this framework we should thus expect slack between constituents' preferences and legislators' actions, or what is known in much of the literature as "shirking." When constituents' views are not represented, it is usually assumed that the legislator is "shirking" his duties to pursue his own self-interest (Bender and Lott 1996; Uslaner 2002). But this reasoning jumps too quickly to a conclusion about the causes of slack. While identifying the degree of disagreement is a useful indicator of how much leeway a legislator has, the shirking approach says little about the causes of such slack. As I explain in chapter 2, it is not enough to estimate how much shirking there is; it is imperative to understand why it exists in the first place.
Excerpted from Personal Roots of Representation by Barry C. Burden
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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