Menus Subscribe Search
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

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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