How a Member Decides to Vote
One of the most important responsibilities a Member of Congress has is to vote. Members are called upon hundreds of times a year to cast a yea or nay on a wide variety of bills, motions, and amendments. Votes on floor amendments refine policy proposals reported from congressional committees. Votes on procedural motions may decide whether a specific issue is even debated. Votes on final passage lead to new laws for the nation. In the last Congress (1997-1998), Senators cast 612 floor votes and Members of the House cast 1187!
Members take voting very seriously — the overall average rate of participation for Members in the last few Congress has been 95% of all votes held. In 1998, sixteen Senators and nine Representatives had perfect scores, registering 100% participation.
The questions Members are asked to decide include all the contemporary issues of the day — gun control, school safety, abortion rights, education assistance, environmental programs, social security reform, Medicare costs, trade with China — and many more.
Before a major vote, Members are overwhelmed with differing opinions sent months, weeks, and sometimes even minutes prior to voting. Congressional offices receive mailbags full of letters, e-mails, faxes, and phone calls from constituents, all expressing a wide array of conflicting opinion. Members receive statements from expert witnesses testifying before congressional hearings. Special interest groups send them background material. Congressional agencies provide reports and studies. Colleagues in Congress send letters with recommendations, and the Administration weighs in with its position. There is no shortage of material on both sides of any issue before the Congress.
How, then, does a Member sort through all these conflicting voices to arrive at his/her voting decision? Some claim Members simply vote the way special interest groups or party leaders tell them to; others say Members vote only how they see fit, regardless of all the pressure put on them. The truth lies somewhere in between. More thought, study, and analysis goes into the all important decision of how to vote than is generally recognized. It involves a complex process of interaction between Members and a variety of influences — including the President, the party leadership, constituents, colleagues, special interest groups, the media, and political contributors. The process of making that decision is an individual one and cannot be easily categorized. However, the following five factors are usually present in the process:
Members become familiar with the main arguments being offered by the various sides surrounding a public policy issue. These arguments may be based on constitutional or legal analyses, on statistics or data compilations, on moral or ethical rationales, on public policy arguments, or all of the above. When reviewing this material, Members also pay attention to factors such as cost to the taxpayer, benefit to society overall, perceived consequences for the future.
Members have access to neutral, objective research and analysis on issue proposals from the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan in-house staff of experts. Committee reports, newspaper articles, editorials, statements from the Administration, and Dear Colleague letters from other Members also give them a sense of the main arguments surrounding an issue. In addition, some Members may choose to rely on information provided by advocacy organizations — e.g. a special interest group, think tank, or trade association with a specific point of view.
Members are accountable to their constituents and others for each and every vote, and are regularly asked to explain why they voted the way they did. Their explanations almost always include substantive information from the sources just cited.
Members spend a great deal of time seeking an accurate idea of how a majority of their constituents feel about specific legislative proposals. They do not rely exclusively on the correspondence or calls received by their office, for they understand that many constituents will not take the initiative to contact them. They are also fully aware that those constituents and groups with passionate views on a subject will organize mass mailings or a barrage of phone calls or visits that may not accurately reflect the wider electorate.
Rather than rely only on the voices of those constituents who volunteer their opinion, most Members engage actively in outreach to a broader spectrum of the electorate. Virtually every Member of Congress goes home several times a month to meet with constituents, seeking them out at public events, holding open office hours and town meetings, visiting shopping centers and other community centers. They closely follow public opinion surveys, and often undertake polling of their own constituents.
Members are keenly aware that they have a responsibility to reflect the viewpoint of a majority of their constituents in their work in Washington, and that if they fail to read the pulse of public opinion in their District or State accurately, a majority of the voters in that area will find someone else in the next election who does.
The issues Congress considers are so many, and often so highly complex, that their wide range may fall outside of an individual Member?s expertise. It often helps Members to become informed about the views of respected outside experts and known authorities in an issue area. Members also rely on the recommendations of experts and colleagues within Congress, whose judgment and specialization in particular issues are respected — especially senior colleagues with experience, such as committee chairmen.
While Members rely heavily on outside groups and experts for policy analysis, they rely chiefly on each other for an understanding of the broader political ramifications of a vote.
Both the majority and minority leadership of Congress make certain that their Members fully understand the party?s positions on particular issues. Party caucuses supply their own research and analysis to Members on their side of the aisle promoting specific arguments and positions. On major issues, it is common to see a majority of one party voting one way while the majority of the other party takes the opposite position. In 1998, surveys found that almost 56% of all the votes cast in both the House and Senate reflected strong party unity — however, this also means that 44% of all votes cast were not decided on a straight party line.
Senior Members may solicit votes and point out the political rewards — committee assignments or congressional committee campaign contributions — that might ensue to those who help pass an item. Members may promise their vote to a colleague, knowing that they may need a favor from that colleague on another matter.
The political influence of the President is also very important. The President has a bully pulpit, from which to set the nation?s agenda and to appeal directly to the American people to support his positions. Members know that if they vote against the President?s position on an item they will be asked to defend their opposition by both the public and the press. Part of any Member?s voting decision is to examine the Administration position on an issue, to discover whether a threatened veto might block passage of a measure, and to assess whether the President might promote or block projects in their District or State as a result of their vote.
Most Members arrive in Congress with a specific ideological viewpoint on the issues of the day, and a known political perspective. They are elected after repeatedly advocating and explaining the basis for their opinions during their campaign for office. They do not arrive as blank slates, awaiting only the directives of others. Their own personal histories and key beliefs definitely influence their voting decisions.
Those core beliefs may be driven by religious faith or secular ethics. Opposition to abortion and prayer in school can come from Members of both parties, as might support for capital punishment or gun control. Issues with a moral component do not confine themselves to partisan categories. A Member?s ethnic heritage, gender, or family history may also influence their outlook on a specific issue.
In the end, constituents tolerate exceptions to the rule based on personal principles, and every Member has issues where their personal judgment overrides other arguments. Members? core beliefs and personal identities do matter when they decide how to vote.
The factors which influence a Member?s voting decisions are not a matter of science but of individual and varied circumstances. There is no neat, mechanical formula that is followed nor can a computer model predict the thought process a Member goes through in arriving at a vote.
No single factor is the most important across-the-board for all Members on all issues. Policy arguments do not always persuade. Political pressures are often withstood. Campaign contributions are not always rewarded. Public opinion is always gauged but not always followed. Members consult their consciences, but sometimes cede to the majority perspective.
The decision-making process that precedes casting a vote is often lengthy and complex and known fully only to the Member going through it. And as they vote, each Member knows that in our democracy they alone will be held accountable for the decision they are about to make.