You catch more flies with honey: an analysis of PAC punishment and congressional vote switching

Abstract

Previous research demonstrates that interest groups punish congressional allies by withholding campaign contributions. But, past studies did not indicate whether this punishment strategy is effective at getting members of Congress to change their voting behavior. The literature on vote switching in Congress ignores how legislators may respond to pressure, in the form of punishment, from allied interest groups. We propose competing hypotheses. Punishment could cause incumbents to switch their vote, but punishment may also be seen as an unwelcome tactic and met with resistance from incumbents. We also hypothesize that rewards will lead to more vote switching. We test this theory in the context of labor PAC punishment and reward of House Democrats who voted for free trade. We find that punishment backfires by making incumbents less likely to switch their vote on trade. We also find that rewards from labor PACs make it more likely that incumbent Democrats will switch their vote, while rewards from business PACs make it much less likely. We conclude with thoughts on the importance of understanding the effect of interest group tactics on vote switching in Congress and how labor’s strategic choices may affect its influence in American politics.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Quoted in Cox, James. 2000. “CEOs Hail Passage, While Unions Vow Revenge.” USA Today, 25 May.

  2. 2.

    We focus on Democrats only in our analysis because labor has been allied with the Democratic Party since the New Deal (Dark 2003), and labor PACs contribute heavily to Democratic candidates (e.g., Francia 2006), which provides the opportunity to punish via withholding. Labor favors the Democratic Party because of the ideological congruency even when controlling for the prospects of Democrats winning a majority in Congress (e.g. Rudolph 1999). There is no evidence that labor unions swing support to Republicans candidates when punishing Democrats. Instead, punishment is enacted by withholding campaign contributions (e.g., Jansa and Hoyman 2018).

  3. 3.

    This timeframe was chosen because it coincides with labor’s increasingly vocal calls for Democrats to remain committed to trade protectionism or else be punished. It is important to note, though, that data on vote-switching is sparse post-2008. There were no major trade votes tracked by the AFL-CIO in 2010 and no Democrats switched their vote on major trade bills in 2012. Incumbent House Democrats in 2012 are included in the dataset even though there was not switching. Attempts were made to extend to 2014 and 2016, but the data are missing for some control variables. Nonetheless, this time period provides an excellent context for testing the effectiveness of punishment.

  4. 4.

    Although this variable treats anti- to pro- switching and non-switching the same, this is a non-factor when it comes to modeling. When this variable is included in the conditional mixed process model described below, all switches from anti- to pro- get dropped because of the specified Heckman selection process in which an incumbent must have voted for free trade before they are able to switch or stand pat. Coding this way allows me to clearly describe what is happening with regard to the directionality of switching in response to punishment for the reader, and does not affect inferences made from the model. In fact, I alternatively coded the variable as 1 for switching from pro- to anti-, − 1 for switching from anti- to pro-, and 0 for no switch. I re-ran the models with this variable and obtained the exact same results. I also ran the models with switching to pro-free-trade as the dependent variable and obtained similar results with coefficients oppositely signed since we are modeling movement in the opposite direction.

  5. 5.

    Sometimes, the AFL-CIO position was ‘Yay’ and sometimes ‘Nay,’ but these positions always corresponded to an anti-free-trade position. The votes by members of Congress were simply coded as against the AFL-CIO and, therefore, pro-free-trade.

  6. 6.

    We also use the total amount of contributions in a given session from labor PACs as a control variable in separate but simultaneously estimated models. This process is described in detail below.

  7. 7.

    The operational definition of leadership is major party leaders, including Speaker of the House, Majority Leader, Democratic Whip, and Democratic Caucus Chair.

  8. 8.

    The labor punishment and reward variables are weakly related to one another because punishment is measured in the preceding election cycle for each observation, and reward is measured in the concurrent election cycle. This means these variables can be included in the same model without creating collinearity difficulties. The same results were obtained running the models separately for reward and punishment.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Blake Whitney and James Owen for excellent research assistance, and Jacob Neiheisel, Adam Newmark, Jeff Harden, and Justin Kirkland for helpful comments. This project would not have been possible without the outstanding guidance of Michele Hoyman. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the 76th Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, IL and the 70th Annual Meeting of the Labor and Employment Relations Association in Baltimore, MD.

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Jansa, J.M. You catch more flies with honey: an analysis of PAC punishment and congressional vote switching. Int Groups Adv 8, 184–207 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-019-00053-0

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Keywords

  • Campaign contributions
  • Political action committees
  • Labor unions
  • Trade policy
  • Congressional voting