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Cover image: Hijacking the Agenda by Christopher Witko, Jana Morgan, Nathan J. Kelly, and Peter K. Enns

500 Million Words Explain Why Congress Is Oblivious to the Plight of Ordinary Americans

How wealthy interests win the political influence war

by Jana Morgan, Nathan J. Kelly, Peter K. Enns and Christopher Witko

Many of the country’s largest problems — such as economic inequality, stagnant wages, and climate change — disproportionately impact lower and middle-class Americans. But Congress often ignores these issues in favor of narrow business concerns like depreciation schedules. Why are the concerns of average Americans so often forgotten?

Our new book Hijacking the Agenda: Economic Power and Political Influence answers this question: it’s all about power.

Experts have long argued that controlling what gets on the governing agenda is critical to exercising power, but few studies have examined this process in detail. Hijacking the Agenda examines how both kinetic power — the mobilization of tangible resources — and structural power — the power actors wield by virtue of their position in the economy — enable economic interests to influence what gets on the agenda, and ultimately what policy gets made.

Most Americans would likely be surprised to learn that researchers have often concluded that campaign contributions have little to no influence on policy. In contrast, Hijacking the Agenda substantiates the public’s intuition that power and resources matter for policymaking. To do so, we analyze how economic power focuses the attention Congress gives to different economic issues and — perhaps most importantly — what issues they push aside.

Buying Attention

To systematically understand how much attention Congress pays to the economic priorities of wealthy interests versus those of ordinary Americans, we analyze every word spoken in Congress from 1995 to 2016 — nearly 500 million words. We show that speech predicts other more commonly used measures of the legislative agenda, like committee hearings and bill introductions, but our speech measures are much more nuanced. They allow us to identify how much (or how little) each member of Congress spoke about each issue in each session of Congress. We then use campaign finance data to evaluate how the financial support each member received from wealthy versus lower/middle-class interests affected their subsequent speech.

The figure below shows the results from one of our analyses examining how changes in campaign support each member of Congress received from organized labor — representing lower/middle-class interests — and from corporate, membership or trade/industry groups (CMT) — representing wealthy/business interests — were followed by changes in how much those policymakers talked about particular issues. It shows that increases in campaign support from wealthy interests are associated with greater subsequent attention to upper-class concerns and less discussion of lower/ middle-class priorities, while increased contributions from labor unions are followed by greater discussion of lower/class concerns and less attention to the priorities of the wealthy.

Expected change in number of words spoken on each topic following an average increase in campaign contributions from labor versus wealthy interests

While the effect sizes for each individual member of Congress are not huge, several considerations illustrate the importance of these results. First, some issues like inequality almost never get mentioned in Congress. For these issues, even minor shifts have large potential implications. Second, aggregating across all members, these effects become substantial. Indeed, our analyses indicate that if labor union contributions had kept up with corporate contributions during our period of analysis — which was definitively not the case — there would have been about 10,000 more mentions of lower/middle-class economic priorities in Congress and about 12,000 fewer mentions of upper-class concerns.

And this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of wealthy interests’ advantage, in part because campaign donations are just one way the wealthy wield kinetic power. They also spend on lobbying, public relations, and so forth. More importantly, financial resources are just one element of their influence because wealthy interests also wield structural power.

Structural Power Benefits the Affluent

Structural power — the power that accrues to groups seen as holding important positions in the economy — is notoriously difficult to evaluate empirically. But if wealthy interests enjoy a structural power advantage, then members of Congress will focus on business concerns more than other priorities and equate business profitability with the performance of the economy.

And this is what we find — Congress gives much more attention to business than to ordinary workers.

Average annual mentions in Congress of “labor” and “worker” versus “corporation” and “business,” 1995–2016

Congress also associates overall economic well-being with corporations not workers. An indicator of this is members use the words “economy,” “growth,” and “investment,” in close proximity to the words “business” and “corporation” much more frequently than the words “labor” and “worker.”

Policy Processes and Political Power

To evaluate precisely how structural and kinetic power operate and ultimately shape policy outcomes, we also conducted in-depth analysis of policy processes surrounding an upper-class priority — financial deregulation — and a lower-class priority — the minimum wage. These case studies show how the structural power of business surfaces again and again in congressional debate with legislators echoing the perspectives of business and often seeing “Wall Street as the foundation on which Main Street is built” (floor speech by Sen. Phil Gramm, November 4, 1999). This helps get business concerns onto the agenda, shapes policy after the issue arises, and keeps policies that wealthy interests oppose sidelined.

We also show how leveraging kinetic resources at important junctures explains policy choices better than alternatives like constituency preferences, partisanship, or ideology, in many cases. Close analysis reveals how business’ kinetic activity accelerates around key points in the policy process. For one example, see the figure below which details the contributions of Citibank — one of the largest beneficiaries of deregulation — immediately preceding key legislative moments on this issue.

Citibank donations to members of Congress and key dates for Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernization Act, 1999

Bottom Line

The book presents even more evidence in support of our core argument that it is an unfair fight between lower/middle-class interests and the wealthy. Obviously, the concerns of ordinary Americans occasionally gain traction on the policy agenda — we discuss the types of kinetic power most available to these interests and the conditions under which they have influence. And the book’s conclusion outlines reforms that might foster such conditions and make lower- and middle-class concerns more of a congressional priority. But right now, congressional attention to the concerns of ordinary Americans remains the exception, not the rule.

About the authors:

Jana Morgan is professor of political science at the University of Tennessee.

Nathan J. Kelly is professor of political science at the University of Tennessee.

Peter K. Enns is professor of government, Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and Director of the Center for Social Sciences at Cornell University.

Christopher Witko is professor of public policy and political science and Associate Director of the School of Public Policy at Penn State.

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Jana Morgan

Jana Morgan

UTK PoliSci Prof ~ UNC PhD ~ Scholar of representation and marginalization ~ Books: Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse + Hijacking the Agenda