Congress’s Socioeconomic Biases: Does It Matter for Tax Reform?

Ragusa Nicholas Carnes 12-2017.jpg

Last month, my LegBranch.com colleagues Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt created an interactive graphic of the net worth of the 114th House.  Check out their graphic, but spoiler alert: Our elected representatives are very wealthy!  According to Burgat and Hunt’s data, the average representative has 116 times the net worth of the typical American. 

Given Congress’s socioeconomic biases, a natural question is: Does the overrepresentation of wealthy, upper-class Americans matter?  Needless to say, this is a salient question given that Congress is about to pass the most significant tax reform package since 1986.

A fiery, pre-Thanksgiving exchange between Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) hinged on this very question.  Minutes before the Senate Finance Committee voted to advance the GOP tax bill, Brown accused his Republican colleagues of catering to rich.  Hatch, whose net worth is $3.7 million, shot back, citing his economic upbringing:

I come from the poor people, and I've been here working my whole stinkin' career for people who don't have a chance, and I really resent anybody saying I'm just doing it for the rich. Give me a break... I come from the lower middle class originally. We didn't have anything. So don't spew that stuff on me.

What this exchange highlights in a secondary question: If Congress’s socioeconomic biases matter, is it net worth or class that affects a lawmaker’s behavior? 

Let’s start with the reasons why a member’s socioeconomic background wouldn’t matter.  First, it’s hardly shocking that members of Congress do not “look like” the typical American.  In addition to their greater wealth, virtually everyone recognizes that our elected representatives are disproportionately old, white, married, and male.  Likewise, they are more highly educated and tend to be drawn from the legal and business worlds.  In short, we could find dozens of ways in which the typical member of Congress differs from the average American.  Perhaps representational biases cancel out in the aggregate, or are benign facts of political life. 

Second, there are a handful of key variables that reliably predict legislative behavior, raising the possibility that other factors trump the effect of a member’s background characteristics.  For example, if members care about winning reelection, which of course they do, then voting out-of-step with your constituents, based on your own personal characteristics, makes lawmakers electorally vulnerable.  In other words, it’s hard to square the belief that “members only care about reelection” with the claim that “rich lawmakers vote for tax cuts for the rich.”  Relatedly, party affiliation is such a strong predictor of lawmakers’ voting behavior that there may not be much variation left to explain.  Consider that every Democratic member of the House and Senate voted against the two tax reform bills, and that some of those members are very wealthy.  For example, the possibility that legislative behavior is shaped by members’ socioeconomic background is belied by Nancy Pelosi, who has a net worth of $101 million and is one of the most liberal members of Congress.

All of this is to say that isn’t obvious (1) whether or (2) how a member’s socioeconomic background matters.

Fortunately for us, a book by political scientist Nick Carnes provides some concrete answers to these questions.  Carnes does the yeoman’s work of cataloguing the net worth and pre-congressional occupation of members of Congress in order to test the effect of those factors on their legislative behavior.  As with Burgat and Hunt’s data on net worth, Carnes finds that our elected representatives are disproportionately drawn from white-collar occupations.  According to his data:

·       20% of lawmakers grew up in working class homes, compared to 65% for all Americans.

·       Blue collar workers have declined from Congress over time.

·       Democratic lawmakers—the presumed working class party—look more their Republican counterparts in Congress than the typical American family.

Back to the original questions: Does a member’s socioeconomic background matter, and if so, how?  In brief, Carnes finds that socioeconomics do indeed affect how lawmakers vote.  Lawmakers with white-collar backgrounds vote more conservatively on economic matters compared to their blue-collar counterparts, who vote in a more liberal direction.  Notably, this effect exists even in a model that controls for the usual suspects like party affiliation and constituency characteristics.  Carnes also finds that class shapes the kinds of bills members sponsor, which working-class lawmakers more likely to sponsor economic bills that receive more economically liberal votes compared to white-collar lawmakers.  As far as the class vs. net worth debate, Carnes finds that class matters more than worth.  In fact, Carnes' data suggest that net worth has no effect on how lawmakers vote on economic legislation, once you control for their class.

As far as how much class matters, Carnes gives us a few answers.  (By “matters” social scientists often mean a variable’s “effect size,” which is the estimate of how much a change in that variable increases or decreases the outcome.)  Because party affiliation is such a strong predictor of roll-call behavior in the modern period, it serves as a useful benchmark.  According to his model, class matters for legislative behavior about 1/3rd as much as party affiliation.  Another useful benchmark is the effect of a lawmaker’s constituents, measured by constituent ideology.  Carnes’ model shows that class matters only slightly less than constituent ideology.  Finally, Carnes simulates how a balanced Congress would vote on major economic initiatives.  By “balanced” Carnes means one that has the same percentage of white-collar and blue-collar members as the American public.  Notably for the current tax reform effort, his data show that the two Bush-era tax cuts, passed in 2001 and 2003, would have failed in a socioeconomically balanced Congress.

Granted, there are many factors that go into how lawmakers vote on any given bill, some we can’t include in a statistical model.  It’s also possible that the current tax reform bill is unique for a variety of reasons.  Needless to say, much has changed in American politics since Carnes’ book was published in 2013.  And in the social sciences, we can’t predict outcomes with certainty like some in the hard sciences can.  But it is reasonable to conclude, based on the available evidence, that Congress’s socioeconomic biases matter and may be playing an overlooked role in the GOP’s tax reform effort.    

A few final caveats.  First, why do lawmakers vote with class?  A simple, if somewhat cynical, view is that lawmakers are voting based on pure self-interest in an attempt to enrich themselves.  However, that’s not likely the case. According to a number of studies of what political scientists call descriptive representation, demographic characteristics—like class—shape a lawmaker’s experiences, the groups they identify with, and the information they bring to bear on a decision.  In other words, lawmakers with from different socioeconomic classes simply think differently.  Second, it is a strong assumption that the working class should favor liberal economic policies.  No doubt, many working class Americans oppose unions, want tax cuts for the rich, support right-to-work laws, etc.  Lastly, from a normative perspective, an argument can be made that we want economic elites running the country.  For example, many of the nation’s founders—mostly in the Federalist camp—worried about “common people” being in positions of power.  It boils down to how much democracy you want.  All in all, how you interpret these results no doubt depends on where you stand on a range of ideological and philosophical issues.

Lastly, a transparent plug: I have a paper on why Americans support increasing or decreasing taxes on the rich, which is relevant to the current debate.

Jordan M. Ragusa is an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston, where he directs the college's American Politics Research Team and is a research fellow in the Center for Public Choice and Market Process.