Voting in the U.S. House on Abortion Funding Issues: The Role of Constituents' and Legislators' Ideology, before and after the Webster Decision

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Introduction

ROLL-CALL VOTES directly or indirectly related to the issue of abortion have occurred with some frequency in the U.S. House of Representatives since the Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade. However, the Supreme Court's July 1989 ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (109 S.Ct. 3040 [1989]) potentially enhanced the substantive meaning of votes by the House on abortion issues (Congressional Quarterly, 1989). Prior to Webster, abortion votes were relatively symbolic since fundamental abortion policy was taken as given (i.e., states did not have the legal right to impose control on abortions). A representative's vote on a symbolic issue may be used to pay "lip service" to pro-choice or pro-life interest groups. If abortion policy appears to be in transition, however, the importance of the issue to the representative and to interest groups in his or her constituency may increase.(1)

This change in circumstances has theoretical implications for the voting behavior of representatives. There has been considerable interest in the public choice literature about agency models of legislator behavior, with particular emphasis on the role of legislator ideology (Bernstein, 1989; Carson and Oppenheimer, 1984; Grier 1993; Kalt and Zupan, 1984; McGuire and Ohsfeldt, 1989). The Webster decision potentially affected the agency relationship by reducing the legislator's ability to pay "lip service" to interest groups on abortion issues due to intensified monitoring efforts by abortion-related interest groups resulting from the increased saliency of abortion votes.

This paper examines the extent to which representatives appear to vote to satisfy their personal policy preferences on abortion funding issues, and whether voting behavior was affected by the Webster decision. The influence of a representative's personal characteristics and the characteristics of his or her geographic constituency on voting behavior is analyzed for two types of abortion funding issues: amendments to a bill for funding for the District of Columbia and bills dealing with abortion funding in conjunction with appropriations for the Department of Health and Human Services (H H S). These amendments effectively prohibit the use of public funds for abortions.

Three votes were taken to restrict funding of abortions in the District of Columbia between June 26, 1987 and August 2, 1989. The first two occurred prior to the Webster decision and the third vote occurred after the decision. All were proposed by Robert Dornan [R-CA]. These amendments were to prohibit the use of any funds appropriated under the District of Columbia Appropriations Bill to pay for abortions. This amendment was adopted on the votes prior to the Webster decision, but was rejected on the vote that followed Webster.(2) It has been suggested that this change in voting outcomes can be attributed to Webster (Congressional Quarterly, 1989). There was no separate vote on the abortion funding issue in the 1990 DC appropriation bill, however, so no analysis of an analogous 1990 vote is possible.

The two amendments on the use of funds for abortions in the Health and Human Services Appropriations Bill follow a pattern before and after Webster similar to the pattern in the DC funding votes. On Sept. 9, 1988, William Natcher [D-KY] moved that the House insist on its disagreement with Senate language that would allow the use of Medicaid funds for abortions in cases of pregnancy which resulted from promptly reported cases of rape or incest (Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1989). This motion was agreed to 216-166. (A yes vote would be considered anti-funding). Conversely, on Oct. 11, 1989, after the Webster decision, the House agreed to a motion by Barbara Boxer [D-CA] to recede from its disagreement with the Senate amendment to permit the use of federal funds to pay for abortions in cases of promptly reported rape or incest. This motion carried 216-206. …