Public Choice

, Volume 87, Issue 1–2, pp 67–100 | Cite as

Legislator voting and shirking: A critical review of the literature

  • Bruce Bender
  • John R. LottJr.


We set out to critically review the progress in answering two related questions: what determines how legislators vote and how can shirking by legislators be measured? In the first category, the hypothesis that legislators shirk in order to indulge their personal ideological preferences has led researchers astray. The theoretical underpinning is shaky on two counts. First, legislators who indulge their preferences at the expense of their constituents' preferences put themselves at a competitive electoral disadvantage. Second, the original two-stage procedure used to measure ideological shirking is severely flawed. Among many other problems, the residual measure of shirking implicitly assumes that the median voter is the relevant constituent-principal for the legislator-agent.

The empirical research overwhelmingly shows the risks that shirking politicians face. A large number of papers strongly indicate that congressmen's voting records are quite stable over time and do not respond to incentives that presumably induce shirking. Even small deviations result in the politician being removed from office. The evidence is consistent with political markets efficiently sorting politicians.

The presumption that a faithful representative serves the median voter is simply inconsistent with the empirical evidence. The common occurrence of a state having two distinctly different senators is an awkward phenomenon for the median voter model, which predicts that candidates' platforms will converge. Alternative models distinguish between a senator's geographical and electoral constituencies. Although different in approach, recent research emphasizes this distinction, and it offers empirical explanations for the spatial separation of a state's senators. Measurement of shirking can no longer be treated as a mechanical procedure which routinely includes the average values of a district's residents' characteristics. Therefore, further delineation of electoral constituencies appears as a useful task for theoretical and empirical analysis.

Legislators face both the constraint of voters' interests and the campaign contributions of interest groups. While the simultaneous behavior of the actors in the political market is clear, the specifications of the structural equations are in need of theoretical refinement. Recent research on contributor behavior provides needed insight into the optimizing behavior of contributors. Yet, whether one believes that contributors should be included in any definition of a legislator's constituency, this work suggests either that the shirking induced by campaign contributions is minimized or nonexistent. Incorporating this work on contributor behavior as well as the work on electoral constituencies into a simultaneous-equations model appears to be a promising direction for research.

While better and more complete answers to the question of what determines legislator voting will no doubt be forthcoming, the theory and evidence regarding this subject tends to move in the appealing (to economists) direction of revealing the similarities between the behaviors of political and economic actors. Whether the indication of legislator shirking can progress beyond an examination of the consistency over time of the legislator's voting record is problematical. A different but related subject that this review has just touched on in passing is the efficiency of the political market as opposed to the faithfulness of the individual legislator-agents. Shirking by individual legislators tells us nothing about how well political markets as a whole work.

We hope future research will do more than identify whether opportunistic behavior by politicians exists. Still larger samples or improved techniques may ultimately show that politicians alter their behavior when the cost of shirking declines, and we should expect some level of shirking to exist since it is not costless to monitor political behavior. Yet, if significant shirking by individual politicians is eventually identified, there are strong reasons to suspect that such shirking is offset by changes in which politicians are elected to other offices. Testing this would then be the next obvious step since the ultimate motivation for this research has not been to see whether some politicians shirk but to determine how well political markets function as a whole.

The effort to identify shirking by individual politicians has created a mistaken emphasis for yet one additional reason. As Demsetz (1969) points out in another context, market failure — whether in economic or political markets — cannot be defined as simply occurring because some cost exists. The question is really what is the alternative to the mechanism being examined, and Nirvana is certainly not one of those alternatives. Without comparing the relative alternatives, research has no policy implications. The task is now to build upon these insights into how well political markets guarantee performance by comparing them with other markets such as the ones in which firms operate.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bruce Bender
    • 1
  • John R. LottJr.
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.School of BusinessUniversity of Wisconsin — MilwaukeeMilwaukeeU.S.A.
  2. 2.Graduate School of BusinessUniversity of ChicagoChicago
  3. 3.The Wharton SchoolUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaU.S.A.

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