Consistency versus Responsiveness

Date01 March 2017
Published date01 March 2017
AuthorAdam F. Cayton
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(1) 3 –18
© 2016 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912916670271
Why do Members of Congress change positions over
time? Legislative responsiveness to constituents is funda-
mental to democratic representation and presents an
interesting theoretical puzzle. On one hand, normative
expectations of representatives in a democratic system
hold that when constituents’ attitudes and economic cir-
cumstances change, lawmakers should adjust their behav-
ior accordingly. Regardless of whether one believes that
the representative’s role is to obey public opinion (Dahl
1956; Key 1964) or to act in constituents’ interests regard-
less of what they think (Burke 1774), democratic theory
and conventional wisdom hold that legislators should
respond to changing conditions by adjusting their behav-
iors, including the policy positions taken on behalf of
constituents. On the other hand, politicians face compet-
ing pressure to be leaders, support the party line, and risk
being labeled “flip-floppers” if they change positions
(Hayes, Hibbing, and Sulkin 2010). Voters may view this
behavior as unreliable (Bender and Lott 1996; Lott and
Bronars 1993) or even dishonest, and partisan activists
may prefer a more consistent candidate in the next pri-
mary (Masket 2009). Remaining steadfast against a tide
of public opinion and changing economic reality and
switching positions to adapt to new circumstances both
come with political risks. In this paper, I present a theory
of how members of Congress balance these risks and test
it using indicators of economic well-being between 2007
and 2010.
In addition to their implications for democratic respon-
siveness, the findings of this study help us understand
how aggregate responsiveness occurs (Stimson, Mackuen,
and Erikson 1995; Wlezien 1995) even though individual
members of the House rarely reverse positions (Clausen
1973; Poole 2007; Poole and Rosenthal 1997; Stratmann
2000). Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson find that much
aggregate policy change happens between elections
through “rational anticipation.” This study sheds light on
who rationally anticipates a change in the public mood
and adjusts their positions accordingly and under what
circumstances they do so.
I test the theory that members of the House are more
likely to reverse a previously held position when their
district is affected by an issue in a way that makes their
prior vote less compatible with current conditions. For
example, if a representative votes to terminate federal
unemployment benefits in one year, but then unemploy-
ment increases in her district, in the next year, she will be
more likely to support unemployment benefits. This
expectation seems intuitive in light of the extensive
670271PRQXXX10.1177/1065912916670271Political Research QuarterlyCayton
1University of West Florida, Pensacola, USA
Corresponding Author:
Adam F. Cayton, Department of Government, University of West
Florida, 11000 University Parkway, Building 50, Pensacola,
FL 32514, USA.
Consistency versus Responsiveness:
Do Members of Congress Change
Positions on Specific Issues in
Response to Their Districts?
Adam F. Cayton1
While democratic theory suggests that representatives should be willing to adjust their issue positions to adapt to
new circumstances, politicians face serious political risks from “flip flopping.” How do members of Congress balance
these risks? Using an original data set of district economic conditions and opinion from 2007 to 2010 and sets of
repeated roll call votes, I leverage the exogenous shock of the Great Recession to explain position change on three
major economic policies. I find that position change occurs in response to the constituency on final passage votes, but
that partisan pressures exert greater influence, especially on procedural votes. This novel test of responsiveness has
implications for the nature of policy representation and the mechanisms behind aggregate responsiveness.
representation, legislative responsiveness, roll call voting, economic policy, U.S. House
4 Political Research Quarterly 70(1)
literature on the electoral connection, but at present, only
an alternative model of responsiveness on specific posi-
tions has been tested. Characteristics of the district may
also cause lawmakers from some contexts to be more
responsive than others. Pressure from constituents is not
the only kind lawmakers face. On votes for which party
leaders want a unified caucus, lawmakers should be more
likely to take the party position, possibly at the expense
of responsiveness to the district.
The period between 2007 and 2010 is useful for exam-
ining legislative responsiveness to economic changes for
two reasons. First, the housing collapse, financial crisis,
and recession presented an abrupt and severe exogenous
shock to the country, the effects of which varied by con-
gressional district and were uncorrelated with public par-
tisanship, representative ideology, and other political
variables. These conditions facilitate more reliable identi-
fication of constituency effects. Second, this period coin-
cided with the creation of several large data collection
projects that make it possible to construct annual mea-
sures of economic conditions by congressional district.
Using these sources, I examine lawmakers’ individual
responses to changing conditions in their districts and
compare the effects of economic changes in different
political contexts. The analysis shows that members of
Congress often respond to shocks to their constituency by
changing issue positions but are much more likely to do
so when the issue is simple, affects voters directly, and is
less subject to pressure from party leaders. Responsiveness
is confined to votes on final passage rather than proce-
dure, in which partisanship prevails, placing an important
limitation on the importance of responsive position
change. Lawmakers are also likely more responsive when
the party’s initial position is incongruent with problem
salience. These findings may represent the high end of
roll call responsiveness due to the salience of the eco-
nomic crisis. However, salience may increase public
scrutiny in this context. The findings not only contribute
to answering an important question about representation
but also shed light on how the U.S. House responds to an
unfolding economic crisis.
Measuring legislative responsiveness to constituents has
(with good reason) been a central focus of the representa-
tion literature, but most of the work in this area is limited
by the difficulty of measuring changes in legislative
behavior and constituency characteristics over time.
Scholars of representation have accumulated mountains
of evidence that lawmakers vote consistently with the
preferences of constituents, with some variation accord-
ing to issue domain, salience, and district-level factors
such as competitiveness and complexity (Ansolabehere,
Snyder, and Stewart 2001; Bailey and Brady 1998;
Burden 2004; Erikson 1978; Griffin 2006; Hurley and
Hill 2003; Jewell 1983; Miller and Stokes 1963; Page
et al. 1984; see Burstein 2003 and Shapiro 2011, for thor-
ough reviews, and Jacobs and Shapiro 2000, for a dissent-
ing interpretation of the evidence). Voters also appear to
reward and punish their representatives according to the
congruence of their legislative behavior with public opin-
ion (Ansolabehere and Jones 2010; Canes-Wrone, Brady,
and Cogan 2002; Figlio 2000; Stratmann 2000).
This evidence of congruence between public prefer-
ences (or some demographic proxy) and roll call patterns
is usually taken as evidence that lawmakers respond to
their constituents, but the data used are often cross-
sectional, and, thus, only able to show a correlation with-
out revealing the mechanism involved. As Kuklinski and
Stanga (1979, 1091) argue,
[T]he use of data collected at a single point in time . . .
precludes separating agreement resulting from simple elite-
mass sharing of policy attitudes and that due to the actual
response of officeholders. In short, the causal link . . . is
remote at best.
Responsiveness implies change over time, and a respon-
sive legislator will change behaviors following a change
in the wishes or material needs of constituents. Most
dyadic studies of position taking on roll call votes study
congruence and are unable to estimate the extent to which
it is caused by lawmakers changing their positions fol-
lowing changes in their constituencies or already holding
the positions that a plurality of voters support (Stone
1980, 1982 also addresses the conceptual and empirical
problem of separating congruence from responsiveness).
Numerous studies of other legislative behaviors do
explicitly theorize about and observe responsiveness
over time, including work on issue priorities (Sulkin
2005), communication with constituents (Fenno 1978),
aggregate roll call ideology (Glazer and Robbins 1985;
Kousser, Lewis, and Masket 2007; Poole 2007; Stone
1980, 1982; Stratmann 2000), and even issue-specific
scores (Hayes, Hibbing, and Sulkin 2010). Glazer and
Robbins’s (1985) analysis of change in roll call ideol-
ogy following redistricting and Hayes, Hibbing, and
Sulkin’s (2010) analysis of issue-specific interest group
scores and individual legislative priorities are particu-
larly relevant. Both studies measure responsiveness on
positions, but the measures are scores constructed from
aggregated roll call votes rather than specific positions
on individual bills. This study contributes to this litera-
ture by directly measuring “flip flopping” on specific
policy questions and testing responsiveness using an
exogenous shock that is uncorrelated with other social
and political characteristics.

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