A new, young, and more diverse cast of House members has come to Washington. Will they represent racial minorities, women, and young people more than other members? James Curry finds that older members of Congress are more likely to introduce bills on lower-profile senior issues, meaning the disproportionately elderly Congress may give Seniors a leg up in policymaking. Kenneth Lowande finds that women, racial minorities, and veterans serving in Congress are all more likely to intervene on behalf of those groups in the federal bureaucracy. Diversity of background does lead to real differences in legislating and constituency service.
Studies: “Lawmaker Age, Issue Salience, and Senior Representation in Congress” and “Descriptive and Substantive Representation in Congress”
Interviews: Kenneth Lowande, University of Michigan and James Curry, University of Utah
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Grossmann: Welcome to the Science of Politics, our new name replacing Political Research Digest. We’ll still be covering relevant new studies on American politics, hearing directly from the researchers. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
This week, which constituents get represented by Congress? A new young and more diverse cast of House members has come to Washington. Will they represent racial minorities, women, and young people, more than other members? Today, we’ll look at what bills members of Congress introduced to address policy issues relevant to their constituents and what contacts they make with federal agencies to serve their constituents.
In both cases, we’ll ask whether the demographics and experiences of the members themselves matter, or whether it’s the characteristics of the districts they represent. I talk to James Curry of the University of Utah about his American Politics Research paper with Matthew Hayden, “Lawmaker Age Issue Salience and Senior Representation in Congress.” They find that older members of Congress are more likely to introduce bills on lower profile senior issues. Meaning, the disproportionately elderly Congress may give seniors a leg up in policymaking.
I also talk to Kenneth Lowande of the University of Michigan about his new paper with Melinda Ritchie and Erinn Lauterbach, ‘Descriptive and Substantive Representation in Congress.” They find that women, racial minorities, and veterans in Congress are all more likely to intervene on behalf of those groups in the Federal bureaucracy. Diversity of background does lead to real differences in constituency service.
Both papers find that descriptive representation means real differences in congressional behavior. For Curry, that means older members better represent older constituents.
Curry: Older members of Congress focus on different issues in their official actions in Congress than do younger members of Congress. Specifically, older representatives are more likely to introduce and work to advanced policies that are important to or benefit senior citizens than younger representatives, and so many members of Congress are themselves senior citizens, may give Americans a bit of a leg up in terms of what’s on the congressional agenda.
Grossmann: For Lowande, it means members are doing more than legislating. They’re speaking on behalf of the constituencies they represent in Federal agencies as well.
Lowande: Members of Congress do a lot more than just vote and make public statements. Most of their day-to-day work involves intervening in the Federal bureaucracy just to make sure that programs are being executed consistent with their constituents’ preferences and that kind behavior when viewed in the context of kind of an unproductive more polarized Congress is increasingly important. As the executive branch tends to make more policy it becomes important to see how members of Congress are participating in that process. That’d be like a descriptive. That’s just generally what we were studying, but then when you look at that kind of behavior we essentially found that members of Congress tend to work on behalf of communities that they represent. Women tend to advocate more on behalf of women and women’s issues. Members who have racial and ethnic minority heritage tend to advocate on behalf of minority communities. Then members who have military service tend to spend more time advocating on behalf of veterans.
Grossmann: We know that some groups are better represented in Congress than others, but that could be because those constituencies are well organized in politics. Curry says he both confirms that view and extends it to incorporate the actual demographics of legislatures.
Curry: We both confirmed and extended, to a degree, the conventional wisdom. I think that’s the best way to think about it. For me, the conventional wisdom had been that older Americans benefit politically and therefore can drive the attention of Congress largely due to the higher rates of a political engagement compared to younger Americans. Older Americans typically vote more regularly, contact their lawmakers more often, and do other things that make them more visible to elected officials. That tended, for most people, to translate into what we call in the paper the senior power thesis or the senior power model that this is driven by seniors in their constituency.
We don’t really challenge this, and, in fact, we find some evidence that this is true, especially among what we designate as highly salient senior issues. Things that get a lot of attention. Things like Social Security, or Medicaid, or things along those lines, but we also find that seniors have substantial clout simply because a lot of the members of Congress who are working on these policies are senior citizens themselves and then, therefore, can identify or may more directly relate to these issues than would younger members of Congress.
Grossmann: Lowande also confirms the view that legislator traits matter, but he says prior research had found mixed results because they had only focused on hard to move metrics like legislative voting.
Lowande: If you actually look at the empirical literature on descriptive representation and whether it leads to behavioral differences for members of Congress, if you look at the literature on voting or bill sponsorship those findings are really pretty mixed and they tend to be pretty weak. The explanation that’s in that literature that we reference is that there are a lot of cross-cutting influences that tend to censor members’ behavior, so what gets to the floor is not the unilateral decision of the individual member of Congress. It’s a function of party control and negative agenda control in the House. That kind of thing … Those kinds of influences are plausibly kind of reduced in this context because members can really act on their own.
Grossmann: Curry’s paper is the product of a class discussion where they decided to fill a hole in the research.
Curry: The topic itself, why we got into it was really driven by my co-author Matt Hayden who’s a graduate student at the University of Utah with me. He was taking an independent study with me at the time and during our discussion of descriptive representation he noted that our lawmakers also tended to be generally older than most Americans just as they are generally more male or whiter or richer than most Americans. I remember replying that was interesting and that’s not something that had been closely studied in terms of how it might affect how Congress behaves and it could make a good paper. From there, he came back to me with the research design and a series of hypotheses and then we set to work. He was really the driver of the idea and then from there, it was just a collaborative process of, “Well, this is something we should know more about, so let’s dig in.”
Grossmann: Lowande and Ritchie both collected data on congressional inquiries to agencies for their doctoral dissertations and decided to collaborate.
Lowande: Melinda Richie and myself both independently wrote dissertations that involved collecting some of these correspondence logs. If you’ve spent any time with these logs, it’s pretty clear that it’s a good way to kind of track what’s important to members and what’s important to the executive branch. Melinda Ritchie has a study that argues that members use these contexts to serve cross-cutting interest and I have another one that argues Federal agencies are prioritizing them strategically. We essentially both realized that these records would be a good way to kind of shed light on some of this existing literature, so we kind of joined forces in that respect.
Grossmann: Let’s dig into each project. Curry and Hayden first found all the bills that addressed issues of most interest to older Americans and connected them to each legislator.
Curry: First and foremost, we relied on the Congressional Bills Project, which is a dataset maintained by Scott Adler and John Wilkerson. They have every bill introduced into the House of Representatives coded by its primary issue content. I mean, some of these issue topics that they use were clearly senior-focused. There’s one topic that’s called age discrimination and there’s another topic called elder issues and elderly assistance programs, and we coded all bills that were in one of those topic buckets as senior-focused legislation.
But we also identified an additional 20 issue topics among their topics that might have included bills that addressed senior issues. Basically, with them, we went through all the bills introduced into those 20 topics. Looking at their titles, reading their abstracts, sometimes reading the CRS summaries of the bills to determine whether or not those were primarily focused at senior citizens, which is essentially sort of the barometer we used. Was this something that was primarily focused on affecting policies related to senior citizens, addressing issues that primarily affect senior citizens?
In the end, we came up with over 400 bills over four years that we coded as primarily senior issue bills. That meant reading a lot of bills. I think we had to read a couple thousand titles, abstracts, and summaries in order to do this, but it gave us a dataset that we were pretty confident in.
Then in terms of distinguishing between which ones were high and low salience, we used the Policy Agenda Project’s coding of the amount of New York Times coverage each issue topic or issues area received during each Congress. We designated basically those bills that received an above median amount of media coverage in the New York Times as high salient and everything else is low salience. Generally, that broke down as things that addressed Medicare or other healthcare programs that affected seniors were generally the ones that were highly salient. Everything else largely were things that were low salience.
Grossmann: Like Lowande, Curry wanted a measure that was under the control of the member rather than later stage voting.
Curry: We wanted something that members of Congress had almost complete control over themselves in terms of what they did. Any member of Congress can introduce any bill on any topic that he or she sees fit. He or she can introduce as many bills as he or she wants on those topics or none at all. Their ability to introduce legislation is not really affected by any decisions made by the leadership or by their committee or by anything else.
If we were to look at what stuff receives a vote, that stuff that has to be approved from the leadership and other key members of Congress to get to the floor for a vote. Some members who may want to do more stuff on issues that affect senior Americans can’t. If those bills don’t come to the floor they can’t vote for or against it. With legislation, this is an indicator that these members of Congress made a point of drafting up and introducing legislation that addressed these issues and therefore had some reason to do so that may be affected by the constituency but may be affected by their own ages and around whether they were younger or older and how that related to their attention to these issues.
Grossmann: They found that both older constituencies and older members matter for different subsets of senior issues.
Curry: The senior power model is a term that we use to represent the idea that’s supported by a lot of scholarship that older Americans have strong influence in American politics because of their high rates of political participation. Our model, the demographic representation model, we might call it, or the idea that members of Congress have these … Their age is being some facet of their identity or who they are. That expects that seniors may have more power and clout because they make up such a larger proportion of elected members and simply because we know from other research that members’ identity traits, who they are affects how they behave in Congress.
Curry: What we find in the paper with respect to these two models is that they both matter. Senior constituencies have a lot of clout and influence over their representatives in districts with large senior constituencies, but largely in terms of driving their attention to or their propensity to introduce what we call highly salient senior issue bills. Meaning things that address things like Social Security or Medicare or other issues that clearly have obvious effects on seniors and that typically receive a lot of media attention.
Curry: The age of a lawmaker doesn’t matter that much for these sort of highly salient things, but it matters for lawmakers’ attention to other senior issues, what we termed low salience senior issues that affect seniors but typically fly under the radar. Policies like assisted living for seniors, later life care, continuing education. Issues like elderly abuse. These are issues that matter greatly to seniors but don’t get the same kind of attention that something like Medicare does. We find that older members of Congress are far more attentive to these issues, more likely to introduce legislation on these issues than younger members of Congress irrespective of whether their constituents tend to be younger or older.
Grossmann: The effects were not huge, but they would add up to differences in issue focus across legislative groups.
Curry: If you look at the results, it does look like a relatively small effect in terms of the number of senior-focused bills that a member of Congress introduces. But you have to remember that how few bills by any member of Congress that are introduced address any particular topic. There are simply a lot of potential topics that members can introduce bills on and there’s only so many bills. I mean, typically, most … The typical member introduces less than 20 bills. Some members don’t introduce any legislation. Some introduce just a few.
The way that I think it’s useful to think about it is this. If you got a group of 10 relatively young members of Congress, members that might be under 45 years old, our analyses would expect that they would introduce collectively no bills that affected seniors or no low salience bills. Basically, their age would predict that they aren’t paying much attention to senior issues beyond the highly salient Medicare type issues. But if you had a group of 10 older lawmakers, maybe 10 lawmakers over the age of 70, we would expect that they introduce two, three, maybe four bills addressing those same issues collectively. That makes a big difference when you recognize that most members of Congress skew older. There really are very few members of Congress that are under 45 and there is a large number that are over 65 or 70.
Grossmann: Curry says that might mean Congress, much older than Americans as a whole, collectively over-represents that subset of issues.
Curry: All we can do here is look at whether relative to their own specific constituencies, which do vary from district to district, whether the age of members of Congress seems to impact their behavior. I think we find some evidence that it does. It’s at least suggestive that if you had a membership in Congress that skewed younger the attention paid to different issues at least by individual members of Congress might be quite different than it is currently.
Grossmann: It could even be a reason why the American welfare state is so focused on older Americans.
Curry: Consistent with our evidence, the fact that most members of Congress are older likely plays a role in the fact that our social welfare mechanisms and programs are largely focused at the elderly. I don’t think it’s the only reason, by any means, and I don’t think that’s a sort of one-to-one conclusion we can draw specifically from the data in our analyses, but I think it’s certainly consistent with it.
Older members of Congress are more likely to focus on issues that affect older Americans and a lot of members of Congress are older. And so when they’re thinking about how to help people or what kind of programming might be useful in a welfare state, it seems natural that they might be directed more towards expanding programs that help senior citizens, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in any way. Senior citizens are vulnerable in a number of dimensions. They have a number of healthcare problems that younger Americans largely do not face or most younger Americans do not face and so on.
But you easily could have a welfare state that’s focused more at younger Americans. You could have programs and policies that are aimed at making college more affordable or forgiving college debt, or as we’ve seen in some states, a movement towards free higher education. You could have programs that essentially more heavily subsidize people buying their first homes. You could have programs that essentially instead of helping out people at the end of their careers with this financial assistance provide them with the financial assistance up front and see what happens after. That’s certainly entirely feasible and possible. I think it makes a great deal of sense and is consistent with what we find, that the fact that members of Congress tend to be older probably plays a role in why our welfare state looks like it does instead of looking a very different way.
Grossmann: Lowande, Ritcher, and Lauterbach looked beyond legislation to actions of members of Congress in the bureaucracy. Lowande explains why that matters.
Lowande: A lot of the legislation that is important, these important programs, important policies that are meant to correct historical injustices, whether it be civil rights legislation, equal employment protections, policies that benefit veterans once they come home, all of these policies require follow through, right? You can’t just pass legislation and then expect it to be implemented perfectly. Part of Congress’ job is to do this. Right? It’s to follow through and make sure that policies are being implemented correctly. If it’s the case that legislation gets passed and Congress is not representative of the people that the policies are designed to benefit then it might be the case the policies aren’t followed through in the way that we would hope they would be followed through on.
Grossmann: Members of Congress do have staff to handle these kinds of requests.
Lowande: Every member of Congress has a policy shop that will pick up the phone and either call bureaucratic agencies or write them letters. When I saw that they’re intervening on behalf of those communities I mean in that kind of usually private, unobserved activity. They are more likely to intervene on behalf of those communities compared to their male, or white, or non-veteran members of Congress.
Grossmann: What they actually ask Federal agencies to do varies a lot across groups.
Lowande: At the EEOC it’s going to be following up on a constituent’s discrimination case on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or national origin. At the Federal Reserve, there’s one member who requested a report on the proportion of minority-owned firms in the agency’s contracting and procurement. At DHS one member wrote a letter asking the secretary to fast track housing benefits for veterans after Hurricane Katrina, so it can be any kind of information request or some other intervention that’s either on behalf of a particular constituent or it could be on behalf of the group as a whole.
Grossmann: Lowande found sizable but not overwhelming effects. For example, a man legislator might have a 20% chance of making a gender-related request, whereas a female legislature would be predicted to have a 28% chance.
Lowande: The differences all tended to be … The point estimates were all around six to 10 percentage points differences amongst groups. For women, they were about eight percentage points more likely to intervene than their male colleagues. Now, the unconditional probability of contact in any given Congress for a member of Congress is about 20%, so the substantive effect is quite large even after you account for observables and even after you limit the sample in a couple of different ways, which we do in the paper. On behalf of women in the dataset, you would get 20% and the effect that we estimate is about eight percentage points for being represented by a female member of Congress.
Grossmann: They were able to show with a series of follow-up tests that it did seem to be the product of the traits of the members themselves.
Lowande: It’s hard to pull apart the influence of the constituency and the legislator’s background because, of course, the characteristics of the constituency is going to influence the selection of the legislator and probably the legislator’s behavior, so that’s the key problem. We do a couple of different things to try to get this. Like I said, we look at the split Senate delegations. The nice thing of looking at that is arguably their … Their constituency is held constant. Right? They have the same district and you still see a difference there. We control for some plausible observables, so demographic characteristics in the population, including Federal expenditures on veterans in districts. These are things that you could plausibly influence the selection of the legislator. Then finally, we go through a matching procedure to toss out observations that aren’t comparable on various covariants and the results are pretty consistent across each one of those.
Grossmann: They believe representation may increase based on motivated constituents and staff as well, but they found evidence that it’s probably tied to the shared experiences of the legislators.
Lowande: We found two pieces of evidence that suggest, at least to us, that’s it about shared experiences. First, in a separate analysis that we include in the paper, we look only at interventions that weren’t on behalf of individual constituents. The idea there is if it was all about constituents being more likely to contact a member who had a shared background then you wouldn’t see the kinds of differences that we do see. Now, we found even in that subset of cases where there’s no constituency actually asking for the intervention that differences among women, racial and ethnic minorities, and veterans are still there. Right? That, to us at least, suggested that it wasn’t just about the constituents changing their behavior.
Then also we found … For veterans, we looked at their levels of experience. We found that the effects that we found for veterans aren’t there or are weaker among members of Congress who were reservists. That, to us, suggested that it’s probably something about the shared experience of trying to access your VA benefits that makes members more likely to perform that kind of service when they’re in office.
Grossmann: Adding veterans gave them a chance to test for other kinds of experiences.
Lowande: I should say there’s a couple of advantages to including veterans. Veterans’ issues are generally considered to be … Compared to women’s issues or policies that tend to benefit racial and ethnic minorities, those veterans’ issues tend to be nonpartisan. Right? The fact that you still find differences among members of Congress who have and don’t have military service suggests it’s something about the experience and not necessarily the sort of partisan alignment that’s influencing that.
With respect to any of the categories, I think it’s really difficult to say for sure whether really it’s the Democratic women or it’s the Republican women who are driving the behavioral differences just because there aren’t enough comparison cases. There’s just kind of a power issue.
Grossmann: Curry agrees that’s lots of different social groups generate representation from shared member characteristics.
Curry: I don’t think anything about age is more or less important necessarily. Certainly not more important than the diversity that we tend to see a lack of that we’ve seen some growth in recently in terms of race or ethnicity or gender. For instance, if you looked at Nick Carnes’ research you would see how little diversity we have in terms of socioeconomic class, and that’s not something that’s changed much even as we’ve seen Congress become slightly more diverse in terms of gender and slightly more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity.
I think this is just yet another factor where we can see how clearly Congress is not broadly or perfectly representative of the American public. Not that we should necessarily expect that it ever could be perfectly representative of the American public, but that doesn’t mean that it’s unrepresentativeness along these dimensions isn’t important or doesn’t affect how it behaves and how members of Congress behave, and therefore, the kind of political and policy outputs we get from our legislative assembly.
Grossmann: He says that matters for the kinds of policies we get out of Congress.
Curry: This kind of representation, descriptive representation, whether it’s age or gender or race or class or sexual orientation or sexual identity or whatever, I think that kind of representation is really important in the terms of it changes the mix of who is in Congress, what interests are represented, and what things are being focused on by the members who have votes. The leaders have to push forward or make deals that they know their backbenchers can swallow. If you have a set of backbenchers that cares about X largely instead of Y then they’re going to focus on making sure they’re happy on X at the expense of Y. But if you have different backbenchers who are focused on different issues or prioritize different things when leadership is putting together big compromises, big deals, big negotiated pieces of legislation then they’re going to have to pay attention to those different priorities and interests.
Curry: If you have a Congress that looks different, is different in terms of descriptive traits and, therefore, focuses and prioritizes different policies and issues, that’s going to change what gets put into this legislation. The public may still end up kind of dissatisfied with big deals on a partisan basis, but the policies that come out of them would certainly be different if Congress looked different.
Grossmann: Curry sees Lowande’s agency-based measure as another great opportunity to test representation.
Curry: Yes, that’s another example of places where members of Congress can, to a large degree, kind of decide what they do and do not want to focus on. Just like with introducing bills, they can introduce a bill whenever they want, they can focus which constituent request they actually follow up on, which request that they send in to these administrative agencies. Obviously, members of Congress cannot do all of them and so they’re going to have to make decisions, and so looking at which ones they do and finding some sort of shared identity linked between which constituents who are more likely to help or more likely to follow up with service requests, it makes a lot of sense. I would expect the logic to be similar.
Grossmann: Lowande agrees that legislative and administrative activity on behalf of constituents are likely to go hand in hand.
Lowande: My sense would be that they would be complimentary, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the same folks that he found who were sponsoring those bills were also more likely to intervene in the context of the bureaucracy. I would expect those to be related, in part, because a lot of these activities are mutually beneficial, so when they’re asking for information in bureaucratic agencies a lot of time they’re getting useful information that they can use to write legislation. I think the activities probably feed into one another.
Grossmann: It’s even possible, according to Curry, the representation affects how people see Congress, but he says they are more likely to be looking at the results.
Curry: It’s certainly true that many folks do not like Congress because they see Congress as out of touch, and potentially perhaps for some young people the age of our representatives relative to their ages reinforces the perception. It’s certainly true. We know this from other scholarship. People feel better about their representation that they are receiving from government when they see themselves reflected in their elected officials in some obvious identity-focused way. This likely is true for age as it is for anything else, so it’s possible that having a Congress that doesn’t look like you would make you even more skeptical or sort of unhappy with the government and with Congress. It’s possible that a diversifying Democratic caucus will help improve its perception among some of the public.
But at the same time, one, I’m not sure we have any hard evidence to prove this, or at least there isn’t any that I’ve been able to see. I apologize if there is scholarship out there on this. I think that the outputs of the congressional process also play a big role in public satisfaction or dissatisfaction. If I had to peg one thing as to why the public’s generally dissatisfied with Congress it would be this. It’s that people rarely get what they want out of Congress because everything that passes through Congress is an awkward compromise between the two parties and between two parties that have very different priorities and goals and different constituencies. Rarely does one party get everything that they really want, and so they always have to compromise some things away, give the other side some of the things it wanted, water things down, and then everyone is inevitably dissatisfied.
Grossmann: The latest House Democratic caucus has boisterous young members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who Curry says might challenge the lack of visible representation for young people.
Curry: I think where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands, that is true. She is so much younger generally, and also not only is younger than most members of Congress but is consciously aware and talks about and embodies her youthfulness relative to other members of Congress, where it’s fascinating to the degree that she has sort of become sort of national representative for younger people in the country. I think that is, first, fascinating to watch and, second, has given me a lot to think about in terms of thinking more broadly about how age affects representativeness and representation in our government in a way that I didn’t pay particularly a lot of attention to before because we haven’t had someone like her. She’s certainly a rare member of Congress in that respect.
Grossmann: They’ve been challenging some of the older leadership, but Curry does not think the older leaders necessarily mean Democrats are the party of elderly interests.
Curry: Leadership is where I don’t see the findings in our study really extending to. I don’t think these things generally apply because the job of leaders in the House and the Senate is so different. Rather than being tasked with looking out for their constituencies and then their specific career and their specific interests like most rank and file or backbencher members of Congress, leaders are tasked with looking out for the party overall. For moving and negotiating the big-ticket items or figuring out how to resolve disagreements between the parties and between the chambers and between the branches.
I don’t think the fact that Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn are all senior citizens means that the Democratic party is any more or less inclined or less attuned to the interests of younger Americans than it would be with a younger leadership because ultimately they don’t have the luxury to make those kind of one-off decisions or individual decisions about what they’re going to pay attention to. We’ll see if having a batch or younger rank and file members, a younger batch of backbenchers behind them changes their focus because now they have to think about, “Where does my caucus want to be and what do they want to focus on?” But I think leadership is sort of one place where the age isn’t going to be as impactful as it is with sort of a typical rank and file member who gets to decide, to some degree, what their agenda is individually.
Grossmann: So where do we go from here? Lowande says there is important emerging evidence on the impact of congressional actions in administrative agencies.
Lowande: We do have a few studies, but, I mean, even before you think about those studies it’s worth noting that we wouldn’t be able to study this if the agencies didn’t keep careful records of themselves. The mere fact that they keep these records and they spend time and energy responding to them suggest that it matters to them to some degree. Who knows how much? But there’s at least that basic level of interest.
The three studies that I am aware of that have done on this, the first was by Russ Mills, Nicky [Collaff-Hughes 00:31:59], and Jason McDonald. They have a paper in the Journal of Public Policy that suggests that members’ request have almost no independent impact on agency decisions. They looked at the FFA. Then Melinda Ritchie and [Hey Ung Yu 00:32:13] also have a paper coming out in LSQ that suggests the exact opposite, that they have an impact on decisions in the Department of Labor. Then I have a paper in the Journal of Politics that suggests that agencies who have more political appointees tend to respond more quickly to members of the president’s party. In general, I think there’s some evidence that agencies are responding strategically to these kind of informal requests and that they’re listening to some degree, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done and the answer is probably going to vary by context.
Grossmann: Curry says there’s a lot of openings for research on how legislator age might matter for representation.
Curry: I’m particularly interested in how age affects how members of Congress interact with their constituents. Do they use different styles and approaches to interact with their constituents? Do they interact with their constituents more or less based on their age? Is there more direct in-person contact versus other kinds of contact? How does it vary? Does it vary along those lines?
I am also interested in that question you asked about dissatisfaction. I would like to know about more about whether people’s reaction to Congress and to their representatives changes based on their age and the age of the representative. I think there’s a lot more to be done on this. I don’t think we’ve only even begun to scratch the surface about age of members of Congress affects a variety of things with congressional representation and potentially congressional action.
Grossmann: One of Lowande’s innovations was to use Freedom of Information Act requests to get at the normally private data. He sees both pitfalls and opportunities with using this kind of data.
Lowande: You have to be pretty clear about what you’re after, so the general thing to keep in mind is agencies are totally overloaded with FOIA requests. There’s a massive backlog in almost every agency, so agencies are looking for ways to deny requests. If you don’t ask for … For example, I asked for a spreadsheet of information and I used the word spreadsheet and the information might be in another form. They don’t need to provide the request because I haven’t asked for the information correctly.
The other general advice that I would give is to be kind to the FOIA officers who handle these requests. In many ways, a lot of times this is kind of a thankless task for them. They get a lot of these requests. They’re overburdened. A lot of times people don’t know what they want. We think that the kind of information we used for the study could be broadly useful to social scientists, the public, to journalists, and, I mean, there’s a lot of projects that we have in mind, but I can easily imagine it being useful to others. We hope that the kind of information that we’ve been requesting will eventually … we won’t have to go through this FOIA process. That it’ll either be publicly available or that it’ll be aggregated by researchers like ourselves in a centralized database. That’s something that we’re trying to work towards.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to James Curry and Kenneth Lowande for joining me. Please check out their papers and join us next time.