It’s The Frequency, Not The Size: Compromise & Credit Claiming in Congress

As the new Congress starts up and we enter President Obama’s final two years in office, much has been written—and assuredly will continue to be written—about how and whether various politicians (from McConnell to Obama) and more generally, either (or both) the GOP or the Democrats should and will claim credit for public policy victories.

Is credit claiming a good thing or a bad thing? Well, as every good parent knows, credit claiming per se is pretty innocuous. The question is whether claiming credit secures a reward. In politics, of course, the traditional reward is a vote or, perhaps, a donation. So, is rewarding credit claiming a good thing or a bad thing? On the “good thing” side, rewarding credit claiming can motivate incumbents to actually, you know, work for their constituents so as to have something to claim credit. On the “bad thing” side, if some claimable things just happen to, ahem, happen anyway, then rewarding credit claiming can actually reduce the amount of effort incumbents exert on behalf of their constituents.[1] All that said, one might ask—how, and how much, does credit claiming actually work?

Justin Grimmer, Solomon Messing, and Sean J. Westwood have recently examined this question in this 2012 article in the American Political Science Review (APSR) and this 2014 Princeton University Press book, The Impression of Influence: Legislator Communication, Representation, and Democratic Accountability. Quoting from the abstract of the APSR article, Grimmer, Messing, and Westwood find that:

Constituents are responsive to credit claiming messages—they build more support than other nonpartisan messages. But contrary to expectations from other studies, constituents are more responsive to the total number of messages sent rather than the amount claimed.

This is a particularly interesting finding in the context of the current (divided) Federal government. I have several (confirming, buttressing) ideas about (perhaps) why they find what they find, but here I wanted to briefly consider the question of how this finding speaks to the best strategy that either party could follow over the next two years.

Two simple facts are that good governance requires constant tinkering and patching[2] and tinkering and patching sometimes requires no effort at all. The Grimmer, Messing, and Westwood finding focuses our attention, as do the two above-linked posts, on the fact that it is sometimes really good to focus on getting a lot of victories, rather than focusing on winning “the big one.” That is, Grimmer, et al. find that it is more important to have done a lot of things lately than to to have done one arguably really awesome thing. [3]

So, while it is always complicated to set aside the (arguably venal) motivation to not only win but “make the other side lose,” the GOP and Democrats should, according to Grimmer, et al.’s findings, race to effect good change on as many things—even, or perhaps especially, the “small stuff”—as they can, and set aside the grand fights. This means moving toward “work horse” stuff (as discussed by Wallach) and at least for a time putting the weapons down over politicized/polarized issues like Obamacare, immigration reform, and the Keystone XL pipeline.

It is important to remember, Congress is a menagerie both varied and occasionally horrifying, but the apparent polarization and fractiousness of this collection thinly masks the most common of threads: most Members of Congress seek reelection, and in that pursuit, they’ll be seeking to claim credit. The smart ones will be those who have the most, not the biggest, things to claim credit for.

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[1] This is because the range of rewards (e.g., a vote) are typically bounded: once the incumbent has secured your vote, he or she has less incentive to “work for you” than if you could give him or her, say, two (or more) votes.
[2] Of course, necessary and sufficient conditions are distinct: I am not saying that constant tinkering and patching suffices as good governance.
[3] Again, I have some ideas about why this is a good thing (or, in put-you-to-sleep terms, a characteristic of voter behavior in the welfare maximizing equilibrium).

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]