Understanding Congressional Decisions Through Vectors
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Understanding Congressional Decisions Through Vectors

  • This presentation consists of 81 slides.

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INTRODUCTION

Understanding Congressional Decisions Through Vectors

Understanding voting decisions by Members of Congress is difficult because so many factors affect any one decision. Complex processes are made more understandable by using analogies.

We use a vector model, but it does provide some insights that may be lacking in other modes of analysis.

Understanding a phenomenon often requires mastering specialized terms and concepts. Clicking on bolded terms in this module will take you to the glossary.


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Why Not Just Do The Right Thing?

Voting decisions in Congress are seldom based on simply making the "right" decision. Politics in Congress (as elsewhere) deals with issues over which reasonable people can disagree. There is seldom one correct answer. Members of Congress get a lot of advice from others as to which option they should support. Our task is to try to understand how a Member of Congress responds to conflicting advice.


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Buffeted Like a Billiard Ball

Members of Congress face many competing pressures. These pressures differ both in the direction they attempt to push the Member and the degree to which they influence the final decision. In many ways, Members are like billiard balls buffeted by different CUES. A ball on a billiard table struck by the cue ball gets pushed a measurable distance in a certain direction depending on the speed and direction of the cue ball.


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A slight direct tap on one side pushes the ball a short distance

Away from the direction of the incoming force. A harder direct hit

From the other side pushes the ball further in the opposite

direction.


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A slight direct tap on one side pushes the ball a short distance away from the direction of the incoming force. A harder direct hit from the other side pushes the ball further in the opposite direction.


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Result


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A Moment with the Physicists

Students of physics talk about physical forces as VECTORS. A vector has DIRECTION and MAGNITUDE. The direction tells where the force is pushing the TARGET. Magnitude indicates how much of a force is involved. A good understanding of the various vectors hitting a target allows the physicists to predict exactly where and how far the targeted ball will move. Although physics deals with physical force, the underlying principles apply in our model.


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Of Physics and Politics

With some allowances, the physical laws associated with vectors can be applied to understand how individual Members of Congress make decisions. Analysts of Congress cannot measure the direction and magnitude of the vectors exactly. Our targets are human beings whose reactions to an influence is based more on perception than on the physical laws of nature. Yet by making some assumptions, we can apply what we know from the physical world to better understand congressional decision-making.


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The Source of the Force

Political necessity and personal preferences lead Members of Congress to pay attention to a variety of potential forces. Some Members feel free to respond to their own personal preferences based on years of experience. Others may be more responsive to constituents, so that communications from citizens become more important. Presidents have their own political preferences and attempt to influence congressional outcomes. Interest groups are organized around various policy areas and preferred outcomes.


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The expectation they will represent constituents make communications from citizens important.

Presidents have their own political preferences and attempt to influence congressional outcomes.

Interest groups are organized around various policy areas and preferred outcomes.


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Who Should I Listen To?

People who serve in Congress can’t measure the force of these influences numerically. But they do develop a gut feeling of who they need to pay attention to and who they can disregard. Some general strategies Members use include: [click to view each]

  • Out of sight, out of mind: If you don’t hear from a group or individual, they don’t care enough about the issue to be important.

  • My people, not your people: Members of Congress are elected from a constituency and feel more beholden to constituents or groups who have a constituency tie.

  • Politics makes consistent bedfellows: Members of Congress ofen see themselves as a team of fellow party members who may be encouraged to cooperate by a president from their party.

  • Picking and choosing is a part of politics: Members of Congress often have to make tough choices, heeding the desires of one group or individual over another.


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How Much Should I Listen to Them?

Members also vary in how much attention they pay to potential sources of influence. Member strategies in this realm include: [click to view each]

  • You can’t be a statesman without being elected: Needing to win election drives many decisions. Members with weak electoral margins are much more responsive to constituents than those who win in a walk.

  • In unanimity there is strength: Interest groups and presidential administrations that speak with one consistent voice exert more influence than those who are diverse. Two interest groups of equal importance to the Member pushing in opposite directions can cancel each other out.

  • Presentation and persistence matter: Groups and individuals skillful at making their case with facts, figures, and local applications increase their potential to influence.


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The Playing Field

In order to use the vector model, we need to represent a Congress Member’s options in a graphic form. Let us assume the Member has three choices as represented below. He or she can vote for, vote against, or abstain from voting on the legislation. Each Member has a starting point. We will call it a neutral position, meaning they are neither for or against it. The scale indicates how far the Member could move away from having a neutral (or “no preference”) position on the issue.


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Member’s Position: No Preference


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The Vectors in Action

Different influences can come along and push the Member of Congress along the scale toward one of the decision points.


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-10

-8

-6

-4

-2

0

2

4

6

8

10

Strong Opposition

Weak Opposition

Starting Point/No Preference/Abstention

Weak Support

Strong Support

The Vector:

Personal Preference

+3

Member’s Position: Weak Support


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The Vector:

Interest Groups Pressure

-5

Member’s Position: Weak Opposition


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The Issue

Members of Congress make choices on issues. Let us assume that Congress is taking up a bill to limit handgun ownership. We will also assume that Members of Congress are able to place an explicit weight on the importance of various influences that might affect their vote. For example, a Member might say that interest group pressure is twice as important as the president’s position. While such precision is unrealistic, we do know that Members do make rough estimates of the relative importance of various influences every day. Political decisions may not be driven by a precise formula, but they are far from simple random actions. To make our task easier, we will limit the number and variety of outside influences.


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Preparing for Action

INFLUENCE/VECTOR

WEIGHT (in hypothetical power units)

While there are some general rules, vectors ultimately apply to individuals with unique political needs. Let us assume that Representative Able is faced with a vote on the proposed limit on handgun ownership. Previous experience and his evaluation of the political environment have led him to weight the potential influences on his vote in this way:

- Personal preference (FOR LIMITS)

3

- Constituency opinion

5

- President’s preference

1

- National Rifle Association (NRA)

3

- Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence*

1

*Formerly Handgun Control Inc.

In the abstract, Representative Able has decided that constituency opinion is the most important factor followed by his personal preference and input from one of the two interest groups. The president’s position and that of the Brady Campaign are relatively unimportant.


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Vectors in Action: A Simple Decision

The vote is about to occur and Representative Able has received no guidance from anyone. He feels he has to vote, so his decision based on personal preference alone would look like this:


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The Vector:

PersonalPreference

+3

Member’s Position: Weak Support

The Lesson


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The Lesson

Lacking any other pressures, yet feeling an obligation to vote, Congressman Able falls back on his own personal preferences, perhaps based on his upbringing or ideology. He may be able to guess where other players (constituents, interest groups, or the president) stand, but their lack of action on this issue suggests he does not have to pay much attention to them. His strength of commitment and the lack of other pressures also imply that his vote will be a timid one. He probably will not be going around to line up other supporters. Policy makers respond to those interested and aware enough to make themselves heard, or in colloquial terms, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”


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Emboldening Vectors

INFLUENCE/VECTOR

WEIGHT (in hypothetical power units)

At times the influences are so strong and consistent that the decision is easy. In these cases, the strength of the influences not only suggests how to vote but also how much vigor to put into it. Let us assume that Congressman Able has heard from all of the following in support of more gun control.

- Personal preference (FOR LIMITS)

+3

- Constituency opinion(FOR LIMITS)

+5

- President’s preference(FOR LIMITS)

+1

- Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence*

+1

- National Rifle Association (NRA)

*Formerly Handgun Control Inc.


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The NRA may not know he values their input and write him off prematurely. Under these conditions, his decision would look like this:


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Personal Preference

+3

President’s

Preference

+1

Brady

Campaign

+1

Constituency

+5

Member’s Position: Strong Support

The Lesson


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The Lesson

Numerous consistent pressures not only suggest how the Member should vote but also increases the intensity of the commitment. Vector forces are cumulative. With everyone pushing the Member in the same direction, he or she will become emboldened, making a floor speech on behalf of the proposal and encouraging colleagues to support it. This is an example of a decision when all the forces are aligned in the same direction.


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INFLUENCE/VECTOR

WEIGHT (in hypothetical power units)

When Conflict Arises

- Personal preference (FOR LIMITS)

+3

- Constituency opinion(AGAINST LIMITS)

-5

So far we have assumed that all the influences are pushing the Member in the same direction. Obviously, this is not always (or even often) the case. What happens when conflict arises? Either a Member must ignore one or more of the influences or find a way to deal with multiple pressures. It is here that the vector model promises to add the most insights. Let us assume that Congressman Abel is faced with the following influences:

So far we have assumed that all the influences are pushing the Member in the same direction. Obviously, this is not always (or even often) the case. What happens when conflict arises? Either a Member must ignore one or more of the influences or find a way to deal with multiple pressures. It is here that the vector model promises to add the most insight. Let us assume that Congressman Able is faced with the following influences:

- President’s preference

- Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence*

- National Rifle Association (NRA)

*Formerly Handgun Control Inc.

Under the specified conditions, the decision-making process would look something like this:


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Constituency

-5

Personal Preference

+3

Member’s Position: Weak Opposition

The Lesson


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The Lesson

Conflicting forces can cancel each other out and dampen each other’s influence. In this case, strong constituency pressure against the legislation tempered the Member’s personal support, leading to weak opposition.


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“Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don’t Do”

At times, Members of Congress are under equal pressures to vote in conflicting ways. In the following case, strong constituency pressure is completely cancelled out by opposing personal preference, presidential demands, and interest group pressure. The decision would look like this:


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Personal

Preference

+3

President’s

Preference

+1

Brady’s

Campaign

+1

Constituency

-5

Member’s Position: Equal Pressure

The Lesson


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The Lessons

What does one do when the pressures are perfectly equal? Often this leads to inaction. Members of Congress have a number of options: [click to view each]

  • “Flip a coin”:Make a decision irrespective of the pressures.

  • “Opt out” by voting “present.”This maintains one’s attendance record but does not count toward the final vote.

  • “Take a walk”:Simply do not vote on the issue.

  • “Have one’s cake and eat it too”:Congressional procedures allow Members to “PAIR” with a colleague who would have voted the other way. Both participants announce how they would have voted, but their votes do not count toward the total. This allows the Members to soften the blow of offending some of those pushing him or her to vote the other direction by being able to say their vote did not affect the outcome.


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Up Close and Personal: The Vector Model in Action

The magnitude of vectors varies across individual Members of Congress depending on their political needs. Let us assume that Congressman Junior is in his first term after winning a tough race by a small margin. He is faced with a decision to strengthen gun control legislation, a position regularly taken by members of his party. In his campaign, he often told the story of how his brother was wounded in a carjacking as the basis for his desire for stronger gun laws. His district voted strongly for a popular president of the opposite party. Congressman Junior received modest PAC contributions and a clear endorsement from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a pro gun control interest group. Polls show that 60% of his constituents and 75% of those who voted for him support tougher gun control legislation. The NRA is a presence in his district. He realizes he will never get their full support, but hopes to stake out a position that will not make him a target for removal by them.


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Which influences do you think will be most important in his decision? [choose two]


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The Correct Choices:

Constituency and Personal Preference

Junior and politically insecure Members are very attuned to their constituencies, especially their base of supporters. Given the dramatic impact on his life and his public commitment to gun control, personal preference is likely to play a pretty big role in his decision.


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INFLUENCE/VECTOR

WEIGHT (in hypothetical power units)

- His constituency(FOR THE LEGISLATION)

+3

- Personal preference(FOR THE LEGISLATION)

+3

- The Brady Campaign(FOR THE LEGISLATION)

+2

- The National Rifle Association(AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-1

- The President(AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-1

Congressman Junior recognizes the following potential influences and has weighted their magnitude as follows:


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Using the vector approach, where do you expect he will come out on this vote?

Strong supporter

Weak supporter

Abstention

Weak opponent

Strong opponent


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Weak Supporter

INFLUENCE/VECTOR

Correct Choice

WEIGHT (in hypothetical power units)

- His constituency(FOR THE LEGISLATION)

+3

While Congressman Junior would undoubtedly support the legislation, there are some opposing pressures that would temper his support. He is likely to quietly vote for the bill but not serve as a major strategist trying to drum up support among his colleagues.

- Personal preference(FOR THE LEGISLATION)

+3

- The Brady Campaign(FOR THE LEGISLATION)

+2

- The National Rifle Association(AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-1

- The President(AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-1

Graphically, the decision would look something like this:


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President’s

Preference

-1

Personal

Preference

+3

Brady’s

Campaign

+2

NRA

-1

Constituency

+3

Member’s Position: Weak Support


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Up Close and Personal: The Vector Model in Action II

The magnitude of vectors varies across individual Members of Congress depending on their political needs. Let us assume that Congressman Senior is in her tenth term after winning regularly with a margin of over 60%. She is also faced with a decision to strengthen gun control legislation, the favored position of her party. Her district voted strongly for a popular president of her party, and as a party leader she wishes him to look good as a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment’s “right to bear arms” clause.

On the personal level, she is conflicted. She does not like guns but understands the philosophical arguments opposing controls. Recognizing her past support on anti-gun control legislation, the NRA supported her campaign with the maximum allowable direct contribution ($5000 in the primary and $5000 in the general election). They also favored her with large independent expenditures. Polls show that 70% of her constituents and 85% of those who voted for her oppose tougher gun control legislation, understandable in a rural district with many hunters. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has yet to make any headway in the district.


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Which influences do you think will be most important in his decision? [choose two]


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INFLUENCE/VECTOR

WEIGHT (in hypothetical power units)

- The National Rifle Association (AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-4

- The President(AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-4

- Her Constituency(AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-2

- Personal Preference(AGAINST THE LEGISLATION)

-3

- The Brady Campaign(FOR THE LEGISLATION)

0

Congressman Senior recognizes the following potential influences and has weighted their magnitude as follows:


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Using the vector model approach where do you expect he will come out on this vote?

Strong supporter

Weak supporter

Abstention

Weak opponent

Strong opponent


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Strong Opponent

Correct Choice!

With every important influence pushing her in the same direction, Representative Senior not only will vote against the legislation but she is likely to play a key and very public role in trying to line up other opponents. This could involve trying to move weak opponents into becoming strong opponents (who will then go out on their own to try to influence other colleagues). She may also try to temper the support of Members planning to vote for the legislation. She might try to move them from being strong supporters working actively for the legislation to weak supporters simply voting for it.

Graphically, the decision would look something like this:


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Personal

Preference

-3

President’s

Preference

-4

Constituency

-2

NRA

-4

Member’s Position: Strong Opponent

Off the Scale


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What is Missing From This Picture?

In order to make the concepts more understandable, this module has made a number of simplifying assumptions (above and beyond the assumption that we can precisely measure the magnitude of influences). Two of the simplifications are: [click to view each]

  • LIMITING THE NUMBER OF INFLUENCES: Members of Congress are buffeted by many more potential influences. For example, we have not really taken into account party leaders or Members’ staff in our analysis. The module also only includes two interest groups, when in reality dozens may be involved in any one decision.

  • ASSUMING CLARITY OF DIRECTION: The module assumes the message from each influence source is clear and unambiguous. That is not always the case. For example, even though a Member may desire to support the position of his or her constituency strongly, constituencies who split down the middle on an issue may nullify their potential influence. Divided constituents may force Members to choose among components of the constituency. They might put more weight on past supporters or on those who are more vocal. In any case the more split the constituency, the more it reduces the magnitude of that influence.


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Some Overall Lessons

(click to view each)

  • Support and opposition form a continuum- There is a difference between strong and weak supporters of a position, while balanced pressures may lead Members of Congress to opt out of a tough vote. Moving someone from strong support to strong opposition requires significant pressure. In some cases it may be enough to move them only a short distance to gain one’s goal. For example, on a close vote it may be enough to move some Members from weak opposition to opting out.

  • The magnitude and direction of influences are additive- Equal influence in opposite directions can cancel each other out, while consistent influences pushing in the same direction may strengthen a Member’s position.

  • Magnitude of an influence is not universal- Members of Congress vary as to what they deem important, but that variation is not simply random. Some patterns do prevail.

  • Timing is Important– Pressure not applied is largely pressure which has little effect. Representatives try to anticipate reactions less than react to real ones. Decisions are often made before all the influences are apparent.


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The Dirksen Congressional Center

http://www.dirksencongressionalcenter.org


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