Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Responsiveness in an Era of Inequality: The Case of the U.S. Senate

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Responsiveness in an Era of Inequality: The Case of the U.S. Senate

Article excerpt

Abstract

To what extent do members of Congress respond unequally to people in different economic situations? How does partisan control of the agenda change the way in which Senators respond to the poor? Using data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey, and multiple roll call votes, I examine Senate responsiveness for the 107th through 111th Congresses. The results show consistent responsiveness toward upper income constituents. Moreover, Republicans are more responsive than Democrats to middle-income constituents in the 109th Congress, and a case study of the 107th Senate reveals that responsiveness toward the wealthy increases once Democrats take control of the chamber.

Keywords

representation, inequality, senate, responsiveness

The growth in wealth and income inequality is one of the most pressing problems currently facing American society. Although wealth and income inequality has grown in the post-World War II era, the process has accelerated in recent decades. Since the 1980s, the growth in income and wealth among the top 5 percent has increased substantially, yet the other 95 percent have seen little or no increase (Piketty and Saez 2003). Researchers who have studied growing inequality have even labeled the recent era a "New Gilded Age" (Bartels 2008). With the growth in income and wealth inequality in America since the late 1960s, scholars, policymakers, and advocates for disadvantaged persons are increasingly concerned that inequality among citizens could be a mounting threat, as disparities in economic inequality often contribute to unequal political outcomes (Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy 2004). Although some research has been done investigating the causes and consequences of wealth inequality (e.g., Bartels 2008; Gilens 2005; see also Keister and Moller 2000 for a review), very little has been done to investigate how the most recent increase in inequality affects representation in the American political system. The fact that little has been done is surprising, given that the idea that all citizens are to be treated equally is central to most standard theories of democracy. Although liberty and popular sovereignty also constitute essential aspects of republican democracy, equality among citizens remains a chief concern for democratic theorists (e.g., Dahl 1956).

One way to evaluate how wealth inequality affects American democracy is to examine the degree to which the government responds equally (or unequally) to citizens of different economic situations. The concept of representation has become central to contemporary democratic theory. Although an essentially modern concept, representation has come to mean popular representation and is now linked with self-government (Pitkin 1967). In the representation literature, there is a considerable focus on responsiveness-the level of correspondence between constituency preferences and a legislator's behavior (e.g., Achen 1978; Miller and Stokes 1963).

This article contributes to recent work of scholars investigating the causes and consequences of unequal representation (e.g., Bartels 2008). Using data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES), I examine the responsiveness of Senators to different economic groups across a range of issues for the 107th through 111th Congresses.1 This time period allows me to examine responsiveness under a broad variety of institutional circumstances. These circumstances matter because they might affect the inequality that occurs through mechanisms like differences in party control of Congress, the nature of different agendas, as well as differences in behavior across chambers. In addition, I use the 107th Congress as the most similar (within) case study and examine how a change in partisan control of the agenda might change the way in which different groups receive representation.

In the analysis that follows, I expand on the work of scholars who have examined unequal governmental responsiveness (Bartels 2008; Gilens 2005). …

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