The power of economic interests and the congressional economic policy agenda

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Peter K. Enns, Associate Professor in the Department of Government,
Cornell University
Nathan J. Kelly, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Tennessee
Jana Morgan, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Tennessee
Christopher Witko, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of South Carolina


While there is an oft-noted “bias” toward upper income groups in the U.S. organized interest system, it is debatable whether this bias matters very much since many studies find that lobbying and campaign contributions have a limited effect on policy outcomes. How bias may shape which economic problems are addressed or neglected in the first place has seldom been studied, however. We argue that in order to receive resources from organized interests members of Congress must “signal” their support for these interests by discussing the economic problems that they prioritize. Because there is upper class bias in the interest system this process produces disproportionate congressional attention to the economic problems of greatest concern to upper income interests and a relative neglect of economic problems that concern other groups. To examine this argument we develop measures of attention to various economic problems using congressional speech in the Congressional Record from 1995-2012. We find that during this period of relatively high upper class bias in the interest system there was a great deal of attention to the concerns of the wealthy, and far less attention to some of the concerns of lower income groups. At the microlevel, using a difference-in-differences analysis we observe that when individual MCs become more reliant on the resources of upper income interests they subsequently discuss the problems prioritized by these interests more.

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