Legislative Staff and Representation in Congress

Legislative Staff and Representation in Congress

by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Columbia UniversityMatto Mildenberger, University of California, Santa Barbara and Leah C. Stokes, University of California, Santa Barbara

Legislative staff play an important role in helping Members of Congress to understand and represent their constituents. But what do staffers do to gather information about constituent preferences and how accurately do staffers perceive citizens’ opinions in their district or state? Using an original survey of senior U.S. Congressional staffers fielded in 2016, we show that legislative staff systematically mis-estimate constituent opinions on raising the federal minimum wage, repealing the Affordable Care Act, implementing background checks for gun sales, enacting tighter climate change regulations, and boosting infrastructure spending. Similar to past work on state politicians, we find that Congressional staffers from both parties exhibit a strong conservative bias in the perceptions of their constituents’ policy preferences. We next evaluate the sources of these misperceptions and find that staffers who rely more heavily on conservative and business interest groups for policy information tend to have more skewed perceptions of constituent opinion. Staffers also tend to think their constituents agree with their own personal opinions—even when this is not true in practice. Our findings complicate assumptions that Congress represents Americans’ public opinions, and help to explain why Congress often appears so unresponsive to ordinary citizens. We conclude that scholars should focus more closely on legislative aides as key actors in the policymaking process, both in the United States and across other advanced democracies.

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American Political Science Review / Volume X / Issue X / November 2018

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