Monday, June 13, 2011

Attentive and Inattentive Publics: Citizens United and the Montana Senate Race

Debit and Credit Card Swipes.
A vote on a rule governing debate on the 2012 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill.

Who would’ve thought that these two obscure issues would become major issues in the Montana Senate race?

Senator Jon Tester has received a lot of press—both statewide and nationally—for his amendment to delay implementation of a federal rule putting a cap on the fees banks collect from debit and credit card transactions. That amendment, by the way, failed on the Senate floor late last week by a vote of 54 to 45 (the vote needed 60 to pass).

Meanwhile, Congressman Rehberg voted, back in April, against the Ryan Plan to overhaul Medicare (read a summary here). Of course, given the high percentage of seniors in the state of Montana, this vote made perfect sense. However, a vote on rule governing the debate of the Homeland Security appropriations bill is being cited as evidence that Rehberg actually supports the Ryan plan. What gives?
Both of these issues illustrate nicely the concepts, articulated by Doug Arnold in the The Logic of Congressional Action, of attentive and inattentive publics. In The Electoral Connection, David Mayhew explains that the primary factor motivating the behavior of members of Congress is the need to get reelected. The positions taken and the votes cast by members are all a function of the need to face voters at the ballot box. According to this account, members of Congress are delegates and not trustees—they merely do what the voters want.

Arnold argues, however, that Congress often must make hard choices and do things which are not popular but necessary. For example, it is not a popular position to close a military base in one’s congressional district, but it might be necessary to cut the budget. Congress must make decisions which are not always in the electoral individual interests of members. Given this fact, how does Congress and individual members make those decisions?

To answer that question, individual members first ask if the issue concerns something that the public cares about or not. Arnold discusses attentive and inattentive publics. If the issue is salient to voters and there are strong feelings about the issue, then the member will vote with the public UNLESS the traceability chain is weakened. Members do not want to be blamed for an unpopular vote, so Congress will often design procedures to make it harder to individual members to shoulder the blame for an unpopular vote. Congress will often delegate to bureaucracies or commissions to make the hard choices and the collective result will then be ratified by Congress. This is exactly what Congress did when it had to close military bases: they delegated to a commission (BRAC), it made the difficult choice, and the Congress merely ratified it.

But when the public is inattentive to an issue and is not particularly passionate about the issue then the member can use more discretion in casting their vote.
Unless, of course, that inattentive becomes an attentive public and that attentive public is on the other side of the issue from their member. How are attentive publics created? In lots of ways, but one way an issue can become salient among the public and opinion become solidified is through the actions of interest groups. And the power of interest groups to create attentive publics has much greater in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United (2010), which allows corporations and labor unions virtually unfettered access to the political airwaves during campaigns.

What does this have to do with credit card swipes and the Ryan plan? Very simply put, it is much harder for members of Congress to cast votes under the radar screen and out of the public limelight because it is much easier for interest groups to spend money to mold public opinion and generate attentive publics.
Take the issue of the credit/debit swipes. Senator Tester argues that it is important to delay the fee curtailment because—even though every bank in Montana is exempt because they are capitalized at less than $1 billion—Montana banks will be placed at a disadvantage. Large banks will have to lower their swipe fees, forcing small banks to do the same in order to remain competitive. This could hurt smaller banks much more than larger banks—so Tester argues.

Retailers, however, favor this bill because it lowers the cost of business for them. They have sponsored advertisements (hear them here) throughout Montana painting Jon Tester as the tool of big banks and Wall Street. And, according to some polling on the issue, it looks like what was once an obscure banking regulation fight between banks and retailers is no longer obscure. These ads and the press accounts have created an attentive public concerning the issue in the state, and this attentive public seems to think that delaying the fee cap is a bad idea. Part of the problem Senator Tester faces is his argument is complicated; it takes 30 seconds to explain while the retailer argument takes 5 seconds. Complicated arguments, unfortunately, often lose in politics even if they may be right.

In the case of Congressman Rehberg, he voted against the Medicare plan—which is the correct vote in the sense that Medicare has an attentive public (seniors) who feel strongly about keeping Medicare as it is. In short, Rehberg can say quite simply that he was defending Medicare for seniors.

The wrinkle, however, is the fact that the Congressman also cast a vote in favor of an open rule governing House debate on the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. Open rules have become exceedingly rare in the House (see Barbara Sinclair’s work on this), as they allow anyone to amend the bill under discussion at any time and on any point (as long as the amendment is germane) during the course of the allotted debate. Democrats complained in 2006 of the increasing use by the Republican majority of closed rules, which oftentimes allowed no amendments from the floor on a bill and strictly limited debate. Democrats, however, found themselves arguing against this rule. Why?

Because the rule also contained a self-executing provision. This provision, once the rule passed, deemed that HR 34 (The House GOP Budget plan, of which the Ryan Medicare plan is a part) “shall have force and effect… in the House as though Congress has adopted such concurrent resolution” (see The Hill’s account here). In other words, once the House passed the rule establishing the parameters for debate on the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, the House budget which the Senate previously rejected would be considered in place. Congressman Rehberg voted for the rule—and Democrats are now claiming that Rehberg supports the Ryan Medicare plan (see “Congressman Rehberg votes to end Medicare as we know it”, a Montana Democratic Party press release, dated June 1, 2011). The hope, of course, is to suggest to an attentive public that Rehberg is no friend of Medicare.

On the one hand, what the Democrats are doing is smart politics—they are trying to tag Rehberg as a flip flopper and do so on an issue about which a group feels strongly about. The devil’s in the details, however. Did Congressman Rehberg vote for the rule in order to fund Homeland Defense or did he vote to implement the Ryan plan? Technically, he did both. The trouble from Rehberg’s perspective—even if the Democrats are grossly oversimplifying the issue—is a defense of his vote is complicated and makes him sound like a Washington insider. The Democratic version of the story is short, sweet, and already plays into perceptions seniors have about Republicans on the issue of Medicare.

To summarize, I think Senator Tester did himself few favors when offered his amendment to delay implementation of the credit/debit fee ceiling and the House Republicans did Congressman Rehberg few favors when they structured the rule governing debate on the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill as they did. Citizens United—whether you agree with the decision or not—has made it much harder for candidates to control the political debate and to protect themselves from being on the wrong side of public opinion that can be much more easily mobilized and shaped today by interest groups, corporations, and labor unions than at any time since 1974.

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