Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


capitol-building

(PHOTO: ORHAN CAM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Senators From Both Parties Do a Fine Job of Kowtowing to the Wealthy

• August 23, 2013 • 9:37 AM

(PHOTO: ORHAN CAM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s not news that money buys influence in Washington, D.C. New research suggests that’s pretty much a default position the better-off earn by just being better-off.

In the man-bites-dog definition of news, the bulletin that the U.S. Senate better represents the interests of the well-off than of the poor comes in as “not news.” But as the gap between rich and poor widens in the United States—remember our friend the Gini coefficient?—the practical effects of this old story during the New Gilded Age matters even more. If it’s indeed true.

In a new study looking at five congresses between 2001 and 2011, the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Hayes writes in the journal Political Research Quarterly that not only is that the case, the representation gap is even worse than expected. Plus, if we want to deal in stereotypes, Democrats in the Senate—who would be expected to instinctively side with the 99 percent, or the 47 percent, or whatever percent of the population are disadvantaged—are at times less responsive to the poor than those presumed plutocratic Republicans.

Given that the U.S. government was set up by men of property with at least a nod toward preserving the status of men of property (including the two-legged variety), a pro-money bias shouldn’t be all that surprising. And for decades, other scholars, perhaps most notably Vanderbilt’s Larry Bartels, have looked at how that bias plays out at government’s various levels.

 The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg had a nice take on this, described during the pre-Obamacare debates:

The ease with which bills are passed that benefit rich, well-organized, narrow special interests at the expense of the amorphous commonwealth (e.g., the Bush tax cuts) and the ease with which bills are scuttled or gutted that benefit the amorphous commonwealth at the expense of rich, etc., special interests (e.g., expanded health care) are two sides of the same coin.

And yet, despite the evidence of our senses, there’s been an undercurrent that government is indeed the guardian of minority rights, whether ethnic or economic. And so the reconfirmation of inconvenient verities is always accompanied by the grimace that comes in anticipation of having a bandage pulled off.

In his latest tug at the Band-Aid, Hayes argues his work looks not only at a time of dramatically growing income inequality (widely but not universally seen as a serious problem). Control of the Senate shifted from elephants to donkeys during the study period, which might have created some unique responses to constituents.

Well … no. Agendas may have changed, but not responsiveness to that key constituent, Mammon.

To make this determination, Hayes looked at the actual roll call votes made in the chamber in the 107th through 111th Congresses and compared them to their constituents’ opinions (as derived from the National Annenberg Election Survey) broken down by the constituents’ income group (under $35,000 a year, between $35,000 and $75,000, and $75,000 and up). For the record, the average of each income groups’ opinion tended to be conservative, with the lowest income group the most liberal and the middle group the most conservative. What did Hayes discover?

I find evidence of responsiveness to the wealthiest constituents in each of the Congresses I examine, some responsiveness to middle-income constituents in two Congresses, and no detectable responsiveness to lower income groups in any Congress.

Looking at individual congresses, he noted in the 109th that Republicans were more responsive than Democrats to middle-income constituents (recall they’re the most conservative) while in the 107th Congress, once a defecting Jim Jeffords went from red to blue-tinged independent in party affiliation and control of the chamber passed to Democrats, responsiveness to upper-income constituents increased.

All in all, Hayes sees his results as a “distinct problem for democracy,” and one that for the present is getting worse:

As my results differ from Bartels, it seems to be the case that unequal responsiveness is now more pronounced than in previous decades. This change in responsiveness could reflect the growing inequality in America or perhaps increasing polarization in Congress. Unequal responsiveness could also be the result of campaign contributions and the fact that this form of political participation is dominated by the wealthy.

Of course, the Senate itself is pretty much a rich guys club, with an average senator’s stash more than three times as large as the average House member’s (way to go Founding Fathers!). And in a positive development for those fearful of income inequality, at least in Congress, the median net worth of senators and representatives from both parties is now essentially equal, at a smidge under $900,000 each.

What’s more, Hayes suggests, this unbalanced representation may be just the way the Founding Fathers would have wanted it:

Although I do find consistent responsiveness of Senators to the upper class, it is worth considering whether the Senate is functioning just as the Founders intended. It was the House of Representatives that was designed to be the “people’s branch” and to represent the interests of the majority. The Senate, in contrast, was set up to control popular excesses. Originally elected by the state legislatures, Senators were meant to be insulated from the masses.

Hayes suggests replicating his research into the Senate in the House to see if it indeed is more responsive to the poor. Not to spoil the ending of research that hasn’t been done, but I’m expecting on the whole they won’t be dramatically different in what emerges from their chamber.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.