Mellman: How well does Congress represent America?
Americans don’t feel Congress represents them very well.
YouGov reported only 25 percent of respondents felt people like them were even somewhat well represented in Congress, with 60 percent saying they were not well represented.
There are several possibilities.
Voters may believe Congress doesn’t look like America.
Increasingly, it does, though there remains much more to be done.
About 12 percent of America is African American, as is over 10 percent of Congress.
Latinx comprise about 17 percent of the voting age population and a lesser 8 percent of Congress.
Women suffer a much greater shortfall, totaling over half the country, but only about a quarter of the House and Senate.
Perhaps the nation’s most underrepresented segment is Americans without a college degree. Two-thirds of adults in the country do not have a bachelor’s degree, but only about 3 percent of Congress falls in that category.
Another way to think about representativeness is to consider the extent to which members reflect the views of their constituents when they cast votes.
Here our “first past the post” electoral system exacts a price. If a Democrat wins 50.5 to 49.5, just less than half the district has no representation.
We don’t have many districts like that anymore, but the principle is the same whether the loser nets 49.5 percent or 40 percent. The views of those on the losing side get no representation.
“Wait,” you might urge, “surely a member who won a narrow, 1-point victory will vote with the ‘losing’ side more often, to protect their flank.”
Not so much, it turns out.
The Cook Political Report finds that House members in safe districts vote with their party about 97 percent of the time while those in competitive districts vote with their party about 93 percent of the time.
Beyond these cases, how often do members vote with their districts?
One study comparing votes on initiatives in districts to their representatives’ vote on like legislation found legislators reflecting their constituents a little over 60 percent of the time.
That may seem like a lot. But given there are only two choices — yea and nay — 60 percent is just a little better than a flip of a coin.
Why would members not vote their constituents’ views? Constituents think they know the answer.
Members aren’t listening to them, but rather to lobbyists and special interests.
According to an AP-NORC poll, just 20 percent of Americans believe lawmakers are paying attention to the views of the majority in their districts when deciding how to vote on legislation.
Two-thirds believe those legislators are listening to lobbying groups that made contributions to the members’ last campaign.
Special interests may play an outsized role, but most often members seem to be listening to party leaders and fellow partisans.
In this era of hyperpolarization, dissenting from one’s colleagues is difficult. As a result, it’s rare.
Party-line voting has reached new highs in recent years.
A recent study by political scientists Seth Hill and Gregory Huber employed the split sample design, beloved by our firm, to examine the impact on citizens’ own preferences of information about how members of both parties in the Senate actually voted.
Survey respondents who knew how actual members voted expressed views closer to those of senators than those respondents who lacked this data.
Whether because they felt the social pressure of partisanship, or assumed 53 Republicans (or 47 Democrats) couldn’t be wrong, partisan cues mattered a good deal in determining how ordinary citizens might vote.
All the more so for actual members of Congress who feel the social or intellectual pressure in a much more intense environment.
Less obvious to citizens, despite the proliferation of polling, studies also show Capitol Hill is woefully ignorant of district opinion on many issues.
Americans may misunderstand the source of the problem, but they are right to worry that their views may not be well represented.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.
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