Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Assessing the Effects of Votes in Congress

I don't think I've blogged yet about the new paper by Seth Masket and Steve Greene showing the costs to individual Democratic Members of Congress for voting for health care reform during the 111th Congress. It's an excellent paper, and a useful corrective to the general conventional wisdom (among scholars of elections and Congress, at least) that voters are too inattentive to have their vote affected by actions taken by their representatives.

That said, the one caveat I have about this kind of research is that they only study two of the possible outcomes Members were faced with when casting their votes: legislation becomes law, and the Member votes either aye or nay. As I said way back early in the health care debate (can't find it right now, alas), it was likely that a lot of Democrats believed that their best course of action was to vote no while the bill passed. However, alas for the party, if too many did that, then they would wind up with no bill at all. Not only might they prefer having the bill pass even if it put some Members in electoral jeopardy, but it's also possible that a failed bill might have had severe electoral consequences of its own.

Now, we have no idea whether such an effect was possible, let alone whether that hypothetical effect was larger than the direct effect Seth and Steve estimate for voting for the bill. We also don't know whether passing the bill will ultimately help Barack Obama win reelection (which might incidentally help Democrats lower on the ballot in 2012 -- although it could then hurt the Dems in 2014! Hey, this stuff can get complicated!). So I'm not criticizing, at all, the Masket and Greene study. Just pointing out that it's also worth keeping in mind the larger context.


  1. There could also be game changers between now and 2012. There haven't been any stories about the health care law hurting anyone (like what happened with HMO's), and when people hear more about what's in it they tend to like it.

    And the debate has switched to the debt/budget. Even the Republican's aren't talking about HCR right now. But that could change during the election.

    I know the paper looked at several issues (including TARP which was passed under Bush) but right now I don't think people are going to base their vote in 2012 on HCR.

  2. Dave Brady has been saying for years that various votes (note: always votes on Democratic policy!) have affected vote shares. At MPSA last week, he claimed that ACA votes cost Dems 20-25 seats (if I remember correctly...I think his range was somewhat smaller, but it was in there). However, he then made precisely your point: all we can do is compare no to yes votes in the world where it passed. We really don't have much info on what would have happened to the yes/no voters if it had failed.


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