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  • Matthew Green

The Misconceptions that Guide Congress

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Most members of Congress like their jobs and want to keep them, and they do their best to get themselves reelected. They also want their party to do well, since being in the majority means having a much greater say in public policy. The problem they face is that election outcomes, like so many other things in politics, are inherently uncertain. How do they limit that uncertainty?

The ongoing debate on Capitol Hill over the passage of transportation and budget bills underscore an important but underappreciated aspect of Congressional politics: lawmakers have misleading, if not outright false, assumptions about what can reduce that electoral uncertainty. They are particularly susceptible to the “proof by example” fallacy, in which one action associated with a positive outcome is taken as evidence that the same action will regularly yield the same beneficial result.

At least two major misconceptions stemming from that fallacy shape what lawmakers do. The first is that election-year policy platforms will help their party win or stay in power in Congress. Such platforms date back to the mid-20th century, but they took off after 1994. That year, Congressman Newt Gingrich and his GOP allies in the House ran for election on the “Contract with America,” a document that promised votes on ten items within the first one hundred days of a Republican Congress. When the GOP won control of the House, many lawmakers concluded that the Contract was responsible. Congressional parties began issuing Contract-like documents of their own every election year.

One problem with the belief that the Contract with America contributed to Republicans’ takeover of the House is that not many voters at the time were familiar with the document. In fact, a Gallup poll conducted not long after the Contract was released found that only a quarter of survey takers had even heard of it, and of those, 60% said it would not impact their vote choice. Other polls taken in the weeks leading up the election found a similar lack of voter familiarity with, or interest in, the Contract.

Another reason to doubt the electoral impact of the Contract was that Republican candidates who ran for other offices in 1994 also did well. The GOP won control of the U.S. Senate that year and became the new majority party in over a dozen state legislatures. This strongly suggests that the document did a lot less for House Republicans than people assume.

More generally, there is little evidence that voters consider issues when making decisions at the ballot box. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, following in the footsteps of the 20th century thinker Walter Lippman, recently wrote a book explaining how voters’ choices are driven primarily by party identity or the state of the economy, not where each party stands on particular policy questions.

The second widespread misconception among members of Congress, and one that is particularly salient at present, is that a party’s “productivity brand” – its reputation for passing major bills – will help it maintain power in the next election. This belief is an old one, going back at least as far as the FDR presidency, when Democrats saw their party do unexpectedly well in the 1934 midterm elections after passing New Deal legislation. Today, some Democrats are frantic that, because they have not enacted a major transportation bill already, their electoral future is toast.

It’s not only Democrats that hold faith in the power of the productivity brand. As Will Deatherage and I argued in a recent paper, Republicans felt tremendous urgency to pass tax reform in 2017 because they believed their reputation for productivity, and therefore their party’s hold on Congress, was in peril.

How accurate is this belief? Not very, according to political scientists Dan Galvin and Chloe Thurston, who have written that Democrats wrongly put their trust in such “policy feedback.” Rarely, they note, have major new laws created durably loyal constituencies for governing parties. Usually they have no electoral effects, especially if the bills are enacted well before the next election, or if voters feel deep loyalty to one political party regardless of what the other party does while in power.

Galvin and Thurston also observe that new laws can make things worse for the governing party if people are unhappy with them (and are encouraged to feel that way by the party out of power). This was likely true with the Affordable Care Act, which was disliked even before it was enacted. Similarly, the tax bill passed by the GOP in 2017 became so unpopular that some GOP candidates avoided discussing it on the campaign trail.

To be sure, it’s possible that passing the transportation and spending bills currently held up in Congress could affect the election outcomes in a handful of swing districts next year. And Democratic “base” supporters might be discouraged if the measures fail to become law, which will hurt the party in the voting booth. But it’s unlikely that the passage or failure of those bills will affect the 2022 elections any more than Biden’s popularity, the state of the economy, or the quality of Republican challengers.

The fact that members of Congress hold these questionable assumptions is not necessarily bad. Indeed, by encouraging lawmakers to lay out their agendas before elections and pass major bills after they are put into power, they help ensure democratic accountability and keep legislators focused on their legislative responsibilities. But as Jonathan Bernstein writes, “too much current commentary and partisan rhetoric treats each decision point as if the fate of the republic was at stake.” It is best not to judge Congress on the basis of misplaced assumptions about the connection between promises, productivity, and election results.

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