Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Can You "Claim Credit" When You Voted Against The Bill? Yes. Yes You Can.

By Michael Bitzer

Following passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, which contains the latest round of stimulus checks and other policy initiatives, Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn, of North Carolina's Eleventh Congressional District, sent two tweets announcing several grants issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and funded through the ARA that would impact his western North Carolina district:

This is a classic example, from political science research, of 'credit claiming' by legislators to send cues and signals to their constituents (especially to the voters back home) of the member's legislative impact for the district. 

And yet, on the actual vote for the ARA, Cawthorn was a "nay" vote, voting against the legislation by proxy, and issued a statement that read, in part:

“I voted no because only 9 percent of the funding in that bill was COVID-related,” Cawthorn said. “Americans were paying on average $5,000 in taxes to receive what amounts to pennies in return. 

Following the tweets announcing the grants, Democrats have taken to attacking Cawthorn for his 'nay' vote while now "announcing" the funding coming back to the Eleventh. The NC Democratic Party retweeted Cawthorn's announcement, saying "he's shamelessly taking credit for $ his district received from the American Rescue plan, funding he voted against," while Democratic National Party Chair Jamie Harrison also called out the first-term representative:

"Representative Cawthorn is unashamedly touting the benefits of the American Rescue Plan after voting against sending that same relief to his own constituents."

Cawthorn issued a follow-up statement trying to differentiate his communications via his personal, as opposed to his official, Twitter accounts. And while partisanship is certainly driving this issue, the broader question raised is about the ability of legislators to claim credit for bills, especially ones that they voted against. 

In political science, an important piece of research on Congress is David Mayhew's 1974 "Congress: The Electoral Connection." Now considered a classic, Mayhew took what Richard Fenno (another important scholar of Congress) found were different motivations for members of Congress, such as seeking influence in the chamber, getting re-elected, or 'making good public policy.' 

But Mayhew theorized that it was ultimately re-election efforts that drove members' behavior. And with that simple assumption of envisioning members of Congress as "single-minded seekers of re-election," Mayhew explored different aspect of how members can achieve that goal. One of the most important activities to achieve that re-election goal was credit-claiming.

Mayhew defined credit-claiming as one of three activities (the other two being position taking and advertising) that members engage in, by 

acting so as to generate a belief in a relevant political actor (or actors) that one is personally responsible for causing the government, or some unit thereof, to do something that the actor (or actors) consider desirable (pages 52-53). 

Mayhew went on to elaborate this idea of credit claiming as:

For the average congressman the staple way of doing this is to traffic in what may be called 'particularized benefits' (which) have two properties: (1) Each benefit is given out to a specific individual, group, or geographical constituency ... (and second, that) benefit given out to an individual, group, or constituency can normally be looked upon by the congressmen as one of a class of similar benefits given out to sizable numbers of individuals, groups, or constituencies (53-55). 

Normally, credit claiming could be done by things like providing constituency services, or seeking legislative funding (sometimes derided by the terms "pork-barrel politics" or "earmarks") to show the member was "bringing home the bacon" and thus showing the constituents (i.e., voters) of the member's influence and aid to the district. 

And yet, Mayhew believed that singularly claiming credit for an action to benefit the district was hard, due to the "numbers problem" of just one member making the policy happen, but also the fact that 'information costs' make it hard for constituents back home to know if "whether a congressman is staking a valid claim or not" (60). 

Combined with advertising (which Mayhew defined as "any effort to disseminate one's name among constituents in such a fashion as to create a favorable image but in messages having little or no issue content" (49)), credit claiming serves as a useful tool in seeking the votes of constituents by saying "see what I have done for the district" and thus implying "re-elect me and I'll do more of that."

Of course, the theoretical assumption was usually that the member of Congress claimed credit for legislation and policies that they had advocated for, and would have supported with an 'aye' vote in the end. 

Numerous political scientists have taken Mayhew's theoretical ideas and researched a wide variety of questions about Congress. In her research, Frances E. Lee has studied the impact of polarization on Congress and the "perpetual campaign" that members now reside in, through Mayhew's lenses. 

For example, Lee found that congressional political parties now operate as 'public relations' organizations, with significant infrastructure to advertise both gains and attacks within the legislative process. However, such public relations efforts often devolve into "simplistic" measures that "do not elevate the quality or tone of congressional discourse" (139). 

In her study of a polarized Congress, Lee (with co-author James M. Curry) find that credit claiming has evolved into also 'blaming' the other party, with whoever is in the majority taking credit while those in the minority casting blame.

But in their research, Lee and Curry find that the credit claiming and blaming activities are not necessarily absolute. In fact, there can be majority party members who 'blame' while minority party members will claim credit for legislation, as evidence in this graph:

For the minority party lawmakers, the percentage of 'positive'-toned quotations issued ranged from a high forty percent to a low of around ten percent, with what appears to be an average in the twenty percent range. 

In fact, Lee and Curry find that among minority party members, a committee leader (referred to as the 'ranking member') issue the highest percentage of positive quotations on legislation, followed by rank-and-file members and then party leaders the least. 

As for Representative Cawthorn's messaging and advertising, his credit claiming attempt could be looked at as wanting it both ways: I voted against the legislation but I'll tout the legislation's seeming benefits to my district. 

This fits into Cawthorn's prioritization on communicating (in Mayhew's terms, advertising and credit claiming) rather than legislating (Fenno's 'making good public policy' idea):  “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” Cawthorn wrote in an e-mail to fellow members.

How many other Republican members of Congress will attempt to take credit for projects or funding coming out of the American Rescue Act is yet to be seen, but based on Lee's research, it shouldn't be surprising that elected officials are taking credit while having voted against the legislation. The newest proposal of a massive infrastructure bill, touted by President Biden and Democrats, will likely be another strictly partisan affair, with Republicans voting against it.

But if roads, bridges, broadband, and other funded services come back to their district from this proposed legislation, don't be surprised by Republicans touting "it's a good thing" for the district, and by extension, they hope it's a good thing for their own re-election efforts. 


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. He tweets at @BowTiePolitics