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.