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Bartels: Constituency opinion and Congressional policy making

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Bartels. 1991. Constituency opinion and Congressional policy making: The Reagan defense buildup. APSR 85 (June): 457-74.

In Brief

In this article, Larry Bartels tries to empirically estimate the allegedly direct connection between constituents' opinions and congressional policymaking (i.e. responsiveness). He examines defence spending under the Reagan administration and concludes that regardless of the specific political context (namely, in the absence of significant congressional turnover), Congress is indeed responsive to the electorate's desires and opinions.

Research Question

How does constituency opinion get translated into public policy?

Main Conclusion

Bartels fails to directly answer this question. Nonetheless, he argues that public opinion is indeed a powerful force of policy change. The impact of constituency opinion appears to be very broadly based and capable of influencing all types of representatives across a wide ideological spectrum for specific defence spending issues.

The impact of constituency opinion is largely independent of the specific political circumstances in which policymaking takes place. Congress can produce substantial policy changes even in the absence of significant turnover. Policymaking responsiveness depends on a complex mixture of motives which go beyond the representatives' appetite for reelection.

Place in Literature

A challenge to the modern democratic theory of "responsible party" (e.g. APSA 1950).


The modern definition of representative democracy is grounded upon the existence of a prevalent responsiveness of elected politicians to the interests and preferences of their constituents. Nonetheless, there have been few attempts to directly estimate the nature of this relationship. It has been held (rational choice and responsible party theorists and realists) that this responsiveness is dependent on the existence of large-scale turnover rates in Congress. Given the high levels of incumbency which characterise the US Congress, responsiveness should not be expected. In order to examine this claim, Bartels analyses defence spending during the Reagan administration. By inferring the representatives' positions and identifying the variables which most affect these positions, Bartels finds that there was a strong pro-defence sentiment in the US as a whole in 1980 (107 out of 108 congressional districts favoured defence spending increases). In terms of economic interests, if greater defence spending will yield benefits for the representatives' constituencies, then Congressmen will be most likely move towards greater spending (the opposite is also true). Finally, the analysis of partisanship suggests that ceteris paribus Republican representatives want greater defence budgets (~3.9 billion more) than Democrats and that wherever the representatives' vote trailed Reagan, there was a desire to spend $4 billion more on defence than wherever Reagan's vote was outpolled.


Bartels uses a technique (developed by Krehbiel and Rivers) to estimate representatives' positions in a given policy dimension by relating characteristics of the representatives and their districts to observed behaviour on a sequence of related roll call votes. Sequence of votes analysed include three stages of the FY1982 defence appropriations process, namely an amendment to reduce the amount of money allocated for specific weapons procurement; the appropriation bill itself; and the conference report reconciling the House and the Senate's figures.

Operational Variables

  • Y: Representatives' positions in terms of defence appropriations.
  • X: Constituency opinion, economic interests and partisan political factors (including the representative's own partisanship and presidential influence).