James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Congressional Constants

by James M. Lindsay
January 11, 2011

Opponents of the health care bill during a rally outside the Capitol.

Opponents of the health care bill during a rally outside the Capitol. (Jason Reed/courtesy Reuters)

In previous posts I noted two constants about congressional behavior. First, members of Congress gravitate toward issues voters care about. That is why domestic issues and not foreign policy ones will top the political agenda this session.

Second, Skaggs’s law reigns supreme—the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Tea Partiers will have an outsized impact on what happens in the House in coming months not just because of their numbers but because of their passion to remake Washington. Should that passion ebb, say because they discover that keeping their promises to slash spending will alienate the voters who sent them to Congress, their distinct policy impact will ebb as well.

To these two congressional constants I would add a third: Lawmakers do not need to be on the winning side of an issue, but they do need to be on the right side of an issue. Why? If you win but your constituents dislike what you’re doing, you are in trouble. If you lose while fighting for what your constituents want, they’ll blame the other guys.

I stumbled upon this iron law of congressional politics three decades ago when reading David Mayhew’s classic book, Congress: The Electoral Connection. (Obligatory Full Disclosure: Professor Mayhew sat on my dissertation committee.) So let’s call the need to be on the right side rather than the winning side Mayhew’s Law. It explains a lot of what we are witnessing on Capitol Hill.

Take for example the upcoming House vote to repeal “Obamacare.” The repeal effort is going nowhere because the Democrats still control the Senate. So in terms of the policy impact the vote is pointless. But the vote allows Republicans to stay true to their campaign promises. When the repeal bill fails to move forward, that’s the Democrats’ fault and (for anti-Obamacare voters at least) an additional reason to vote in more Republicans.

These three congressional constants can interact. An acquaintance recently assured me that Senate Democrats will save the foreign aid budget from House Republican budget cutters. That prediction presumes that Republicans and Democrats bring equal passions to the debate and believe that their respective constituencies care equally as well.

But House Republicans almost certainly care more about cutting foreign aid than Senate Democrats do about protecting it. Domestic programs matter more to most Democratic voters, so that’s where Senate Democrats will devote their legislative energies. As long as Senate Democrats bemoan “reckless” Republican budget cuts, losing the foreign aid budget fight won’t hurt them because they are (at least in the eyes of their constituents) on the “right” side of the issue.

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