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Do Constituents Know or Care About Effectiveness of Congress?

A view of the U.S. Capitol Building with a blue sky and clouds in background.

How someone performs on the job usually matters when it comes to their annual review or size of their bonus. But effectiveness in Congress isn’t always linked to whether voters want to return their lawmakers to office.

That’s the research University of Virginia’s Craig Volden, professor at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and associate dean for academic affairs talked about during an April 20 visiting to SPA. His talk, “Do Constituents Know (or Care) about the Lawmaking Effectiveness of Their Representatives,” was part of the SPA Public Administration and Policy Research Seminar Series.

The findings he explained were based on three voter surveys analyzed in a book he co-authored, Legislative Effectiveness in the United States Congress: The Lawmakers (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

To measure effectiveness, Volden looked at the success lawmakers had in getting their bills to become law. Only four percent of bills have a chance of becoming law, he noted, and most lawmakers are seen as ineffective. Those representatives who were more effective came from heterogeneous districts and reached across party lines to co-sponsor bills.

Often voters have no idea how their representatives do on the job or seem to care.

“The level of vote share is unrelated to what they accomplished in the past Congress,” said Volden.

In the experiment when voters were given information about how their lawmaker did, some swayed their vote intention but often their response was biased by their party affiliation. Constituents tend to rate their representatives as average, regardless of actual performance, he explained.

In one of Volden’s surveys, municipal officials were asked about their perception of lawmakers. Researchers found that if employees had positive, personal experiences with the politician (help with policies, constituent service or grants), they viewed the lawmakers as more effective and that often matched the effectiveness as measured by Volden. Even those lawmakers deemed ineffective by the survey, were often held in high regard by the local officials - perhaps because they were seen as trying to serve their district needs.

Volden said in further studies he hopes to examine the impact of money on effectiveness and the influence that the source of information on a politician’s performance might have on voter response.