Study: Senators, Especially Democrats, More Responsive to the Wealthy, Ignore the Poor

U.S. Senators are most responsive to their upper-income constitutents and are not responsive to their lower-income constituents, a published study finds. While partisan differences were small, the study found that Republicans were more responsive than Democrats to the middle-income in one Congress and Democrats became even more responsive to the upper-income after gaining power in another Congress.

Thomas Hayes, assistant professor of political science at University of Connecticut, examined the extent to which Congress responds to the wishes of different income groups from 2001 to 2010 for a study, "Responsiveness in an Era of Inequality: The Case of the U.S. Senate," published in the August 2013 issue of Political Research Quarterly.

To understand how well Congress represents the interests of different income groups, the study compares Senate voting records to public opinion for each income group over that period. Each income group was assigned an ideological score, from liberal to conservative, based upon self-identification in a public opinion survey. These scores were compared to ideological scores assigned to members of Congress based upon their voting records.

While all three income groups were more conservative than liberal, the middle income group ($35,000 to $75,000) was the most conservative, followed by the upper income group (above $75,000). The lower income group (less than $35,000) was the least conservative.

The Senate was consistently responsive to the wealthy, across all five of the Congresses studies (107th to 111th), Hayes found. His model indicated no evidence that Senators were responsive to their poor constituents. Only two of the Congresses, the 110th (2007-2008) and 111th (2009-2010), showed responsiveness to the middle income, after controlling for other variables.

Hayes also looked at partisan differences. After testing whether Republican senators or Democratic senators were more responsive to any particular income group, he was surprised at what he found. Since Democrats often claim to be more responsive to the poor, and Republicans often tout protecting the wealthy from tax increases, he expected Democratic Senators to demonstrate greater responsiveness to those in the lower income bracket, and Republicans to show a preference for the wealthy.

"These results run counter to my initial expectation that Democrats would be more responsive to lower income groups and that Republicans would be more responsive to upper income groups," he wrote.

For the most part, both parties were about equally responsive to the upper income. In the 109th Congress (2005-2006), though, Republicans showed a greater responsiveness to the middle income, whereas the Democrats were not responsive to the middle income in any of the Congresses studied.

Hayes was also able to look at what happens when a particular Congress switches party control. The 107th Congress (2001-2002), switched from Republican control to Democratic control after Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) switched his party allegience. After gaining control of Congress, the Democrats became even more responsive to the wealthy than they were before they had control of Congress, he found.

A Senate that is more responsive to rich people than poor people is problematic for a representative democracy, Hayes believes.

"The fact that lower income groups seem to be ignored by elected officials ... remains a troubling observation in American politics," he wrote.

Another consideration, though, is whether the Senate is behaving as the Founders intended, Hayes added, given that the House of Representatives is the "people's house," and the Senate "was set up to control popular excesses."

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