The Preference for Reciprocity in Congress

The forthcoming article The Preference for Reciprocity in Congress  by Christian Fong is summarized by the author below.

Most ordinary people help those who have helped them, even if they won’t get anything in return.  However, elected politicians might not behave like ordinary people.  Perhaps only the most cunning and ruthless people candidates can win elections, or perhaps the intense pressure and high stakes of their work numbs politicians to the feeling of gratitude that is so important to ordinary people.  Maybe politicians return past favors, but out of a cold, calculated desire to get others to help them in the future rather than any feeling of obligation or gratitude. 

This article shows that legislators, like ordinary people, like to help those who have helped them for its own sake, even if they don’t have anything to gain.  A survey presented state legislators with a hypothetical situation in which a legislator must vote on an amendment to increase government spending.  The state legislators reported that, even if the hypothetical legislator was about to leave office, he would still care more about whether the sponsor of the amendment had voted for his recent bill than whether the state was facing a budget deficit.   The results from this survey were reinforced by a study of how members of the US Congress who had just lost their campaigns for reelection voted in the two-month lame duck session between their defeat and when they had to leave office.  The legislators who received more campaign money from their party leader voted with the party more often, even though they were about to leave politics.  Finally, members of the US House of Representatives vote with their party at a higher rate after their party leader gives them an assignment to a prestigious committee, but only for as long as that leader stays in office.  As soon as that leader leaves office, they stop voting with their party so often. 

The survey and the study of the lame duck session both show that legislators repay past favors, even when they are about to leave politics and therefore have nothing to gain by repaying those favors.  The study of committee assignments shows that they feel gratitude toward the particular person who performed the favor.  Together, these three studies show that whatever character traits it might take to win elections, however much pressure holding elected office might place on politicians, legislators feel the same obligation to repay past kindness that most of us do. 

About the Author: Christian Fong is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. Their research “The Preference for Reciprocity in Congress” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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