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The Journal of Socio-Economics 37 (2008) 2443–2453

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

The Journal of Socio-Economics

j o u r n a l h o m e p a g e : w w w . e l s e v i e r . c o m / l o c a t e / s o c e c o

Constituents’ economic interests and senator support for spending
limitations

Christopher Dennis ∗, Marshall H. Medoff, Michael Magnera
California State University at Long Beach, United States

a r t i c l e i n f o

Article history:
Received 7 August 2007
Received in revised form 19 April 2008
Accepted 8 May 2008

JEL classification:
D72
H23

Keywords:
Congressional voting
Federal spending

a b s t r a c t

Peltzman [Peltzman, S., 1984. Constituent interest and congressional voting. Journal of Law
and Economics 27, 181–210] argues that if constituents’ economic interests have well-
defined “winners and losers” and are appropriately measured, then constituents’ economic
interests, and not legislator ideology, are the most important determinates of legislator vot-
ing. We test Peltzman’s theory by examining senatorial voting on three mandated spending
limitation bills. We find, consistent with Peltzman’s theory, that the ratio of federal spending
in a senator’s state to federal taxes paid by that state, and not a senator’s personal ideology,
matters on legislation where there are well-defined economic “winners and losers.” This is
particularly important because unlike other constituents’ economic interest measures that
only impact a fraction of the constituency, the ratio of federal spending to federal taxes in
a state represents the economic interests of all the constituents in a state.

© 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

During the past 25 years the determinants of political decision-making by elected representatives has been the subject of
considerable attention in the public choice literature. The question of principal interest to social scientists is: Whether, and to
what extent, do elected representatives cast votes on issues on the basis of their own ideological preferences or in accordance
with their constituents’ economic interests? The empirical evidence on this question is contradictory. Some researchers
find that elected representatives’ personal ideology dominates their constituents’ economic interests in determining their
voting behavior (e.g., Bernstein, 1989). Other authors provide evidence that representatives faithfully represent the economic
interests of their constituents (e.g., Uslaner, 1999).

This paper presents a methodology and empirical results that shed further light on the constituent economic
interests—legislator personal ideology debate by examining a salient and well-defined policy issue that affects the eco-
nomic interests of all an elected representative’s constituents. Specifically, this study analyzes the U.S. Senate votes on three
bills explicitly designed to reduce federal government spending and eliminate the federal budget deficit. The Senate votes on
these three deficit reduction bills provides a unique opportunity to directly address an important public policy question: do
elected representatives act against their own electoral self-interest by voting on the basis of their own personal ideological
preferences for (against) legislation which would unequivocally harm (benefit) the direct economic interests of all of their
constituents?

∗ Corresponding author at: California State University at Long Beach, Department of Political Science, 1250 Bellflower Boulevard., Long Beach, CA
90840-4605, United States. Tel.: +1 562 985 4711; fax: +1 562 985 4979.

E-mail address: [email protected] (C. Dennis).

1053-5357/$ – see front matter © 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.socec.2008.05.004

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/10535357

mailto:[email protected]

dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socec.2008.05.004

2444 C. Dennis et al. / The Journal of Socio-Economics 37 (2008) 2443–2453

2. Overview of deficit reduction bills

On 12 December 1985, the President signed the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings bill (hereafter GRH85) which was a deficit
reduction bill designed to remedy a major policy problem—the continuing and ever increasing federal budget deficits which
were widely believed to cause slower economic growth, higher interest rates, and elevated rates of inflation. GRH85, which
was first proposed and passed by a vote of 63-33 in the Senate and later approved by the House, was to take effect in fiscal
1988. GRH85 would cut the federal deficit by automatically triggering across-the-board reductions, by a uniform percentage,
in all government programs if the Congress and the President failed to reach specific deficit targets and timetables for
these targets. Half the spending cuts were required to come from the defense budget and the other half from non-defense
programs (Social Security and interest on the national debt were exempt from the cuts). Two other significant changes were
(1) to increase the vote margin necessary to waive the automatic GRH85 budget cuts from a simple majority to a three-fifths
margin and (2) require that any budget amendment must be revenue neutral (i.e., pay for itself).

In early 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that GRH85 was unconstitutional because it vested the power for implementing
the budget cuts in the General Accounting Office, a congressional entity, and thus violated the separation of powers doctrine.
As a result, a few months later the U.S. Senate passed by a vote of 64-34 and sent to the House which also approved, a second
Gramm–Rudman–Hollings bill (hereafter GRH87). This second bill corrected the automatic spending reduction procedure
in GRH85 by assigning the implementation of the budget cuts to the executive branch’s Office of Management and Budget.
Although the automatic spending reduction procedure had changed, GRH87’s budget cut provisions were identical to those
in GRH85.

The third deficit reduction bill we examine is the 1995 Senate vote on the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment (here-
after BBA) to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Senate failed, by one vote (66-34), to pass the BBA. The BBA, if approved, would
have required a supermajority vote of 60% in each chamber of Congress to approve deficit spending or issue new debt in any
given year. What made the BBA self-enforcing was the requirement that new debt could only be issued by a supermajority
vote. This ensured that legislators could not finance deficit spending by issuing more debt and would be forced to reduce
government spending programs. However, unlike GRH85 and GRH87, Social Security was not exempt from budget cuts and
the amendment did not mandate equal spending reductions between defense and non-defense programs. More importantly,
the BBA did not specify how much defense and non-defense programs would be reduced.

3. Methodological considerations

This paper complements and extends the extant literature on whether elected representatives vote their own ideological
preferences at the expense of the direct economic interests of all the constituents in their state in a number of method-
ologically important ways. Many of the studies on the role of the personal ideology of elected representatives failed to take
into account a number of significant conditions that must be present in order to undertake a properly controlled statistical
analysis of a legislator’s vote on an issue. First, the issue must be one in which a legislator has the expectation that there are
adverse reelection consequences (i.e., loss of votes) that would result from the vote on the issue. Arnold (1990) argues that
a legislator’s personal ideology is less likely to affect their vote on an issue where concerns about adverse reelection conse-
quences are present. Second, in order for there to be adverse reelection consequences on a vote, the issue must have clear
and well-defined economic consequences to a legislator’s constituents. The constituent economic gainers and constituent
economic losers as a consequence of the legislator’s vote on the issue must be readily identifiable and measurable. Third,
the issue must be easy for voters to understand, salient to voters, and relatively easy for voters to monitor a legislator’s vote.
Fourth, the legislator’s vote on the issue must be one where logrolling (vote trading) is unlikely to be present.

The Senate votes on GRH85, GRH87 and the BBA satisfy all the aforementioned conditions needed for a controlled statisti-
cal analysis. These votes represent issues where constituents’ economic interests should trump legislators’ personal ideology.
Each spending limitation bill would have a large economic impact on all of a state’s constituents. A vote-maximizing sen-
ator interested in being reelected should be more likely to vote in accordance with their constituents’ economic interests,
rather than their personal ideology, because of the salience of the issue to their constituents. A senator’s vote against their
constituents’ economic interests on such salient and important votes should have a negative impact on their reelection
probability. Logrolling is unlikely to be present on these votes. It is difficult to imagine what issue a senator would trade for
all their constituents’ economic interests. The vote by senators on GRH85, GRH87 and the BBA presents an unambiguous
opportunity to test the hypothesis that a senator’s personal ideology matters in explaining congressional voting behavior on
a clear and well-defined economic issue that affects all the senator’s constituents.

4. Previous research

A lively debate in the literature has ensued about the extent to which personal ideology and constituent’s economic
interests influence an elected representative’s voting behavior. Early research based on the work of Downs (1957) maintained
that legislators’ votes could be explained by a median voter model. The median voter model argues that, if voter preferences
are unimodal and can be arrayed along a single dimension, then a legislator primarily interested in being reelected or
advancing within the political hierarchy will mirror the position or preference of the median voter. In the median voter
model legislators’ ideological voting is perfectly aligned with their constituents’ economic interests.

C. Dennis et al. / The Journal of Socio-Economics 37 (2008) 2443–2453 2445

Stigler (1971) presented an alternative view that argued that a legislator’s voting behavior on economic issues could
be entirely explained by the demand of various constituent interest groups for votes on legislation that enhanced their
income or wealth. Constituent economic interest voting occurs when a legislator’s personal preference is for policy “A”, their
constituents’ favor policy “B” and the legislator votes for “B”. Ideological voting by the legislator occurs if the legislator votes
for “A”. Stigler’s economic theory of legislator voting maintains that a legislator’s personal ideology (i.e., the promotion of
altruistic or public interest goals) is irrelevant. The only relevant factors in explaining a legislator’s votes are the material
wealth gains that accrue to well-defined economic interest groups from the passage of the legislation.

A seminal paper by Kau and Rubin (1979) found that, even after controlling for constituent economic interests, a legislator’s
personal ideology is significant in explaining congressional voting on legislation that is primarily economic. Kalt and Zupan
(1984), using a similar methodological technique as Kau and Rubin, also found that after controlling for constituent economic
interests and constituent ideology an individual legislator’s ideology still matters. Kalt and Zupan assert that this finding
means that legislators are not faithfully representing the economic interests of their constituents. When legislators deviate
from the economic interests and the ideology of their constituents and vote according to their own personal ideology, Kalt
and Zupan refer to this phenomenon as “legislator-specific ideological shirking.”

Legislators are able to vote their own personal policy preferences over their constituents’ economic interests because the
extent of electoral control over legislators by voters is weak and monitoring by voters is costly. The cost to an individual voter
of monitoring a legislator’s voting performance far exceeds the highly diffused benefits given the infinitesimal probability
that an individual voter can determine the outcome of an election. Kalt and Zupan argue that their results suggest legislators’
personal ideology dominates their constituents’ economic interests in determining their voting behavior.

Legislators who vote on legislation in accordance with their own ideological preferences instead of their constituents’
economic interests are engaging in a consumption activity that provides legislators with utility (satisfaction), but does not
benefit their constituents. Rather than directly addressing the question of whether legislators’ personal ideology influences
their voting record, much of the literature has examined this question indirectly.

If legislator ideological shirking is a consumption good then it should be subject to the fundamental law of demand: the
higher the political cost of shirking (probability of not being reelected) the smaller the expected degree of legislator shirking.
This suggests that, if legislator ideology is an explanatory factor in legislative voting behavior, as the political cost of shirking
falls one would expect to find legislators engaging in more personal ideological consumption.

Nelson and Silberberg (1987) were among the first to test this proposition. They found that legislators shirk less on specific
spending bills (where constituent benefits are well-defined) than on general expenditure bills (where the distribution of
constituent benefits are unknown at the time of the vote). Other evidence consistent with legislator ideology as a consumption
good is that legislators who are retiring (no longer face reelection) and no longer have to worry about voters monitoring
their legislative record engage in relatively more ideological shirking (Kalt and Zupan, 1990; Van Beek, 1991; McArthur and
Marks, 1988).

Rothenberg and Sanders (2000) present evidence that in more recent Congresses (1991–1996) House members are more
likely to change their voting behavior and have higher absentee rates during the last 6 months before they retire. Additionally,
Canes-Wrone et al. (2002) report that the probability of legislators’ reelection decreases whenever they deviate from their
constituents’ economic interests and vote with the ideological extreme of their party. Moreover, Coates and Munger (1995)
find that legislators shirk less in close reelection contests than in those races which are relatively uncontested.

On the other side of this debate are those who argue that legislator ideology does not matter in explaining legislator voting
behavior. Peltzman (1984) was the first to argue many of the indices used to measure legislator ideology simply represent
omitted constituent economic interests. While a legislator’s ideology may have some influence, its impact is numerically
small once more appropriate controls for constituent economic characteristics are taken into account.

Others have argued that there is no empirical support for the contention that legislator ideology is a consumption good.
Goff and Grier (1993) find that there is no statistically significant relationship between the degree of legislator ideological
shirking and the percent of the vote received by the incumbent. Lott (1987) found that there was no statistically significant
evidence that legislators change their voting behavior the term they retire. Recently, it has been argued that the finding
by Rothenberg and Sanders (2000) that retiring members of Congress alter their voting behavior and engage in ideological
shirking is due to their failure to control for Congress—specific fixed effects (Carson et al., 2004) and measurement error in
constructing a legislator’s ideological preferences (Herron, 2004).

Dougan and Munger (1989) argue that legislators’ voting on the basis of their personal ideology is not shirking, but
is entirely consistent with their constituents’ economic interests. Voters may be selecting a legislator to represent their
economic interests on the basis of the legislator’s personal ideology in order to reduce legislator shirking. The more ideological
the legislator the less likely the legislator will vote against the economic interests of their constituents.

Clearly the empirical evidence of whether legislators’ ideology is a dominant factor in explaining congressional voting
behavior is inconsistent. One possible reason for the inconsistent empirical results is because researchers who find support
for legislator ideological shirking studied votes on specific legislation (e.g., minimum wage, strip mining, environmental
restrictions, defense weapons systems) where there are clear economic consequences from the proposed legislation. Those
finding no empirical evidence of legislator ideological shirking tended to study legislators’ broader voting records as mea-
sured by ideological interest group ratings (e.g., Americans for Democratic Action, League of Conservation Voters, American
Conservative Union) or votes on moral or quasi-moral legislation (e.g., death penalty, abortion, child pornography, prayer
in school). Another problem with many of the aforementioned studies is that they failed to clearly identify and control for

2446 C. Dennis et al. / The Journal of Socio-Economics 37 (2008) 2443–2453

many specific constituent economic interests—the gainers and losers from the proposed legislation. Part of the problem is
that many of the key constituency variables are unobservable or poorly measured, potentially resulting in omitted variable
bias.

In addition, the controversy in the literature about the role of legislators’ personal ideology in voting is crucially depen-
dent upon legislators’ expectation of electoral harm. Wright (1993) found that legislators who deviate from the desires
of their constituents face an average reduction of five percent in political support. Lott and Davis (1992) found that the
probability of reelection decreases for senators who deviate from the interests of their constituents by as little as 1.27%
points. Kau and Rubin (1993) found that the electoral margin of incumbent legislators decreases the more they deviate
from the interests of the average type of voter in their district. Arnold (1990) emphasizes that the expectations of electoral
harm need not actually be real, but can be perceived. He argues legislators will vote in a manner consistent with their
constituents’ preferences if they fear their vote will induce electoral audits of their past deviant votes by electoral chal-
lengers. Arnold argues that certain issues are conducive to electoral audits by potential challengers. These include issues
that are simple and easy for voters to understand and for which there is a seemingly uncomplicated public policy solution. A
deficit reduction bill is one such example where legislators’ personal ideology should be trumped by constituents’ economic
interests.

5. Theoretical considerations

Residents in all states pay taxes to the federal government and in return their states receive federal dollars for various
programs. All 50 states cannot be net beneficiaries of federal spending. Some states receive more in federal spending than
they pay in federal taxes and are net receivers (entitlement states). Other states pay more in taxes to the federal government
than they receive back in federal spending. These states (contributor states) subsidize federal spending in entitlement states.

Table 1 lists the federal spending to tax ratio—the amount of federal spending for each dollar paid in federal taxes for
each state for the years of the Senate votes on the three deficit reduction bills we examine: 1985, 1987 and 1995. A number
greater than 1 means that a state is an entitlement state—a state’s constituents receive more back in federal spending than
they sent in taxes to the federal government. Correspondingly, a number less than 1 indicates a state is a contributor state—a
state’s constituents send more in taxes to the federal government than they receive back in federal spending.

The three deficit reduction bills would reduce federal spending in all states. GRH85 and GRH87 require that defense
spending and non-defense spending (other than Social Security) be equally reduced by the same percentage. However, the
reductions in federal spending would not affect all states equally. As noted by Leonard (1999), entitlement states receive
more federal spending per dollar of taxes because they tend to have relatively more elderly on Social Security, military bases,
defense and aerospace firms, federal government facilities, and high poverty rates. The consequence of GRH85 and GRH87
is that entitlement states would tend to lose relatively more in federal funds than contributor states. In other words, the
relatively greater preponderance of federal spending programs in entitlement states means that automatic spending cuts in
GRH85 and GRH87 would fall disproportionately on entitlement states.

These spending limitation bills would alter the federal balance of payments between entitlement states and contributor
states. The return on federal tax dollars in contributor states would increase relative to the return on federal tax dollars in
entitlement states. For example, if two states paid the same amount in federal taxes but state “A” received one-third more
money from the federal government than state “B,” a 10% across-the-board reduction in federal spending would reduce state
“A’s” federal money 33% more than state “B’s” federal money. A self-interested vote-maximizing senator from an entitlement
state, who faithfully represents the economic interests of their constituents, should be opposed to the spending limitation bills
since the constituents of their state are net beneficiaries of federal spending. Conversely, a self-interested vote-maximizing
senator from a contributor state, who faithfully represents the economic interests of their constituents, should be more likely
to support the spending limitation bills since the constituents of their state are net contributors to the federal government.

While the constituents of a state may not know the exact ratio of federal spending per dollar of federal taxes in their state,
the results of that federal spending (e.g., highway, bridges, military bases, federal buildings, Social Security, Medicare, defense
firms) are readily apparent. Even though individual senators, from an entitlement or contributor state, may be personally
ideologically opposed to or in favor of government spending, they should be less likely to ideologically shirk and vote against
their constituents’ economic interests on legislation that clearly will affect the distribution of federal spending to all the
constituents within states that are net beneficiaries or net contributors of federal funds.

In addition, because GRH87 was identical to GRH85 (except for the triggering procedure) this means that Senate passage
of GRH87 was a foregone conclusion. Since the passage of GRH87 was known in advance to every senator, the Senate’s vote
on GRH87 provides a novel methodology to test the extent to which elected legislators cast a vote on the basis of their
constituents’ economic interests or their personal ideology. If constituents’ economic interests dominate, then one would
expect to find that vote-maximizing senators should vote only on the basis of how GRH87 affects the economic interests of
their constituents and not their personal ideology. Thus, if senators’ personal ideology matters then one would expect to find
senators’ personal ideology is a significant factor that dominates over their constituents’ economic interests in their vote on
GRH87.

However, underlying the empirical analysis in this paper is the implicit assumption of a link between economic interests
and political behavior (i.e., the rational choice model of voter behavior). The rational choice model argues that voters are
solely motivated by a benefit–cost calculation by which they vote for the candidate associated with the outcome they expect

C. Dennis et al. / The Journal of Socio-Economics 37 (2008) 2443–2453 2447

Table 1
Ratio of federal spending in a state to federal taxes paid by that state, 1985, 1987, and 1995

State 1985 1987 1995

Alabama 1.28 1.36 1.31
Alaska 0.97 1.24 1.21
Arizona 1.13 1.25 1.13
Arkansas 1.35 1.37 1.22
California 1.03 0.94 0.94
Colorado 0.91 1.15 0.95
Connecticut 0.92 0.81 0.68
Delaware 0.77 0.76 0.84
Florida 1.07 1.03 1.07
Georgia 1.28 1.36 1.31
Hawaii 1.45 1.31 1.26
Idaho 1.27 1.36 1.14
Illinois 0.69 0.73 0.74
Indiana 0.92 0.91 0.84
Iowa 1.04 1.14 1.06
Kansas 1.16 1.14 1.05
Kentucky 1.11 1.14 1.28
Louisiana 1.03 1.13 1.35
Maine 1.38 1.21 1.31
Maryland 1.25 1.25 1.27
Massachusetts 1.04 1.01 0.92
Michigan 0.71 0.74 0.77
Minnesota 0.90 0.93 0.78
Mississippi 1.54 1.67 1.54
Missouri 1.55 1.35 1.29
Montana 1.43 1.49 1.46
Nebraska 1.12 1.19 1.01
Nevada 0.88 0.88 0.73
New Hampshire 0.85 0.70 0.75
New Jersey 0.64 0.62 0.68
New Mexico 1.90 2.05 1.86
New York 0.87 0.83 0.87
North Carolina 0.88 0.90 0.95
North Dakota 1.57 1.74 1.47
Ohio 0.89 0.93 0.96
Oklahoma 0.99 1.21 1.29
Oregon 1.00 0.97 0.95
Pennsylvania 0.96 0.97 1.05
Rhode Island 1.01 0.98 1.15
South Carolina 1.25 1.20 1.20
South Dakota 1.53 1.59 1.30
Tennessee 1.09 1.12 1.07
Texas 0.79 0.93 0.95
Utah 1.32 1.46 1.08
Vermont 1.00 0.88 1.03
Virginia 1.45 1.48 1.51
Washington 1.18 1.11 0.98
West Virginia 1.17 1.25 1.59
Wisconsin 0.83 0.83 0.81
Wyoming 0.94 1.06 1.08

to leave them economically better off. An alternative view of voter behavior, first proposed by Brennan and Buchanan (1984)
and further developed by Brennan and Lomansky (1993), is the expressive model of voter behavior.

The expressive model of voting argues that the probability of an individual voter determining an electoral outcome is
so miniscule that the expected benefit from voting is negligible. Individuals vote not because they expect to influence an
election. Rather, individuals vote as an act of expressive behavior—to show a preference for or opposition to a candidate. That
is, expressing a preference for or opposition to a candidate has symbolic value to a voter.

Previous empirical studies testing for the presence of expressive voting have generally provided support for the expressive
voting model. Carter and Guerette (1992) and Fischer (1996), using individual responses from experimental trials, find that
individuals are more likely to vote for funds for charity (expressive voting) rather than for themselves (rational choice voting)
as the probability of influencing the outcome declines. Gerber and Morton (1998) present empirical evidence showing that
closed election primaries result in more extremist candidate choices (expressive voting by party activists) than in open
election primaries which include independent voters. Kan and Yang (2001), using data from the 1988 American National
Election Study, find that measures of whether a candidate makes a citizen hopeful, angry, fearful or proud have significant
effects on both voter turnout and voter choice. Copeland and Laband (2002), using data from 1986 to 1996 National Election
Surveys, find a strong positive relationship between political expressiveness (i.e., contributing to political campaigns, wearing

2448 C. Dennis et al. / The Journal of Socio-Economics 37 (2008) 2443–2453

campaign buttons, posting political stickers and/or signs) and voter turnout. Ashworth et al. (2006), using data from Belgium
municipal elections, find a non-monotonic relationship between voter turnout and the winner’s expected plurality. Sobel
and Wagner (2004), using U.S. state level data from 1972 to 1996, find that the probability of casting the decisive vote in a
given state is inversely related to the size of a state’s welfare expenditures. The larger the number of voters the less costly it
is for an individual voter to act charitably (i.e., vote expressively).

The basic thesis of the expressive theory of voter behavior is that individuals vote not because they can affect the outcome
of an election, but for expressive reasons. The empirical problem with the theory of expressive voting is that it is not obvious
or easy to measure what feelings a voter wishes to express or how one would go about testing for expressive voting. More
importantly, the expressive theory of voter behavior makes no predictions about how individuals vote.

In contrast, the rational choice model of voter behavior predicts how individuals vote if they vote. As a voluminous
literature in both political science and economics attests economic outcomes influence elections (see the review in Hibbs,
2006). For example, changes in real disposable income is …

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