Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Influence a Senator

What does a member of Congress want? Money? Yes, absolutely. But it's important to remember that members of Congress, aside from the few who are outright corrupt, don't want money for its own sake. They want it as a means to an end, and the end is reelection.

If you assume that politicians act in whatever way will help their chances of reelection, you will almost always be right. This need not be cynical self-interest on their part. Perhaps they're playing a long game, and reason that reelection is a precondition for getting anything done in the future. Or perhaps they convince themselves that that's what they're doing. In any case, you'll rarely go wrong by assuming politicians will choose the course that maximizes their chances of reelection.

This brings us to the defeat of universal background checks in the Senate. Given that support for this proposal was around 90%, how can voting against it possibly help senators' chances of reelection?

We have some evidence on that. Here's one of the Democratic defectors, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota:

“I think I always had a reputation as somebody who will listen, somebody who is pretty independent-minded but also believes that at the end of the day, you got to listen to your constituents,” Heitkamp told Politico. “In this office, the calls literally were before the last day at least 7 to 1 against that bill. This was after a series of very extensive ad campaigns done in my state saying call me and tell me to support it."

Then we have Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona. He announced that he would vote for cloture on the background-checks amendment, meaning voting to allow it to come to the floor for a vote. This was in opposition to the NRA position, which was to keep it bottled up forever. You can go to his Facebook page and scroll down to April 10 to read about it. Here are the first ten comments on the screen I was looking at (sorry about the HTML problems):

    Jimmy Young we need you defeat this attack on our 2nd amendment right's if not you don't have to worry about us ever supporting you again we will be supporting your challenger.
    Gordon Jones Vote NO on more gun control, criminals don't follow laws by definition. "Universal background check" will only apply to law abiding citizens, not criminals. 

    Abolish the "Gun free zone" law, it only disarms law abiding people, not madmen intent on mayhem. All celebrities and politicians have armed guards and send their kids to schools with armed security, the average American deserves the same protection.

Jeff -Oliver Madly- Clark You'll never have a chance to even read it.

Joe Hannis Harry Reid cannot be trusted. He has an agenda and will stop at nothing to achieve it. BEWARE.

Tim Musa Thanks for letting us down with that douche McCain. I am in AZ and I vote.'I will be happy to vote against you next time around if you go down this path.
April 16 at 12:18am via mobile · Like · 2

Scott Shepherd Jeff Flake, you are a traitor to the American people. You swore to UPHOLD the unites states constitution, not destroy it. I will remember how you vote when it's my turn to vote.
April 16 at 12:46am via mobile · Like · 4

John Crook I am very disappointed in the fact that I supported you by voting for you. NOT one single notch should be made in the second amendment!! I feel that both you and John Mccain have betrayed us!!
April 16 at 12:57am via mobile · Like · 1

David Fischer another rhino...no more votes for you, you should jump the isle, hell the dems probably wont have you either.

Steve Eacret I did not vote for you to be another of the sheep. I will not make that mistake again...
April 16 at 2:04am via mobile · Like · 3
Jake Box Vote No on s649! Vote No on Manchin-Toomey! Vote No to Amnesty or a path to Citizenship! Secure the Border!

Flake ended up voting for cloture but against the background-checks amendment.

Now, are phone calls and Facebook comments a random sample, and thus representative of constituent opinions? Obviously not. So why pay attention to them?

One possibility is that senators are too dumb to realize that these comments are unrepresentative. Here's Heitkamp:

When asked about polling that has consistently shown upwards of 90 percent of Americans supporting an expansion of background checks on gun purchasers, Heitkamp said she doubted that they really reflected public opinion....

Much more likely, though, senators do know that the comments are unrepresentative. But just as politicians care about money as a means to an end, they care about representing constituent opinion as a means to that same end: reelection.

From the standpoint of reelection, politicians have to worry not only about their constituents' preferences, but also about the intensity of those preferences.  A lot of people will have an opinion on issue A, but most of them will decide whether to vote for a politician based on issues A through H. A minority will be single-issue voters, whose entire voting decision will be based on issue A. On that issue pleasing those people is a lot more important than pleasing most people.

Calls and letters are a pretty good way of identifying those people-- if people are willing to go to that trouble, they may feel intensely enough about it to be single-issue voters. I doubt Heitkamp really thinks that all the polls are wrong, but it's pretty unseemly to say in public, "I don't care what my constituents want; I just care what the fanatical minority wants." Note that Heitkamp was just elected this past November and won't be up for reelection for another five and a half years, but she's already worried about it.

You might say, "There's nothing really wrong with this; legislation should reflect intensity of preferences. People who care a lot about an issue should carry more weight than people who don't much one way or the other." Indeed, this is the point of view of one of the best-known theories of political philosophy, utilitarianism.

But in applying that philosophy here there's a problem, one of the biggest problems with representative democracy. We could call it "threshold effects." There are costs to organizing and lobbying. So people with less at stake may choose not to bother, and so may not get represented at all. Their preferences may be not just weighted less, but ignored altogether. It's the same reason there's a milk-producers' lobby, but no milk-drinkers' lobby.

There is a silver lining, though, for believers in democracy. Apparently, you  don't need huge amounts of money to influence a senator.  If you can get a good phone list organized, you may be able to have a significant impact on policy. Of course, it helps if your phone list is made up of paranoid nut cases, but it's time for normal people to step up.

Note: Sometimes you guess wrong about how much the silent majority cares about an issue, as Jeff Flake has found out, to his cost.

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