Can you “apply for credit” when you have voted against the bill? Yes. Yes, you can.


by Michael Bitzer

After the passage of the American bailout law, which contains the latest round of stimulus checks and other policy initiatives, Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn, of North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, sent Two tweet announcing several grants issued by the United States Department of Health and Human Services e funded through the ARA that would impact its western North Carolina district:

This is a classic example, drawn from political science research, of “claiming credit” by lawmakers to send cues and signals to their constituents (especially home voters) of the member’s legislative impact on the district.

Yet, on the effective vote for the ARA, Cawthorn was a “no” vote, voting against the legislation by proxy, and issued a declaration which read, in part:

“I voted no because only 9% of the funding in that bill was related to COVID,” Cawthorn said. “Americans paid an average of $ 5,000 in taxes to receive a sum of cents in exchange.

After the tweets announcing the grants, Democrats have begun to attack Cawthorn for his “no” vote while now “announcing” the return of funding to the Eleventh. The Democratic Party NC retweeted Cawthorn’s announcement, saying “he is shamelessly taking credit for the $ his district received from the US bailout, funding he voted against,” while Democratic National Party President Jamie Harrison also called out the first term representative:

“Rep Cawthorn is shamelessly advertising the benefits of the American Rescue Plan after voting against sending the same relief to his own constituents.”

Cawthorn released affollow-up statement trying to differentiate his communications through his personal Twitter accounts, compared to the official ones. And while bias is certainly driving this issue, the broader issue raised concerns the ability of lawmakers to claim credit for bills, especially those they voted against.

In political science, an important piece of research on Congress is David Mayhew’s 1974 “Congress: The electoral link“Now considered a classic, Mayhew took what Richard Fenno (another prominent Congressional scholar) found they were different motivations for members of Congress, such as seeking influence in the chamber, getting re-elected, or “doing good public policy.”

But Mayhew theorized that it was ultimately re-election efforts that drove members’ behavior. And with that simple assumption of imagining members of Congress as “one-minded re-election seekers,” Mayhew explored several aspects of how members can achieve this. One of the most important activities in achieving the goal of re-election was the claiming of credit.

Mayhew defined claiming credit as one of three activities (the other two being position-taking and advertising) that members engage in,

act in such a way as to generate in one or more relevant political actors the conviction that they are personally responsible for inducing the government, or some unit of it, to do something that the actor (or actors) considers desirable (pages 52-53).

Mayhew went on to come up with this credit claim idea as:

For the average congressman, the primary way to do this is to tinker with what may be called “particular benefits” (which) have two properties: (1) Each benefit is assigned to a specific individual, group, or region. … (and secondly, that) the benefit given to an individual, group or constituency can normally be viewed by members of Congress as one of a class of similar benefits given to a substantial number of individuals, groups or constituencies ( 53-55).

Normally, claiming credit could be done by things like providing election services, or seeking legislative funding (sometimes derided by the terms “pork barrel politics” or “signals”) to show that the member was “bringing home the bacon.” and then showing the constituents (ie voters) of the member’s influence and aid to the district.

Still, Mayhew felt that it was difficult to individually claim credit for an action in favor of the district, due to the “numbers problem” of only one member carrying out the policy, but also the fact that “information costs” make it difficult. for voters to go back. home to find out if “whether a member of Congress is making a valid claim or not” (60).

In combination with advertising (which Mayhew defined as “any effort to spread one’s name among members in such a way as to create a favorable image but in messages that have little or no problematic content” (49)), the claim of the credit serves as a useful tool for looking for voter votes by saying “see what I did for the district” and thus implying “re-elect me and I’ll do more”.

Of course, the theoretical assumption was usually that the congressman would claim credit for the legislation and policies he had supported and which he would ultimately support with a “yes” vote.

For example, Lee found that political parties in Congress now operate as “public relations” organizations, with a significant infrastructure to advertise both gains and attacks within the legislative process. However, such public relations efforts often turn into “simplistic” measures that “do not raise the quality or tone of the congressional speech” (139).

In his study of a polarized Congress, Lee (with co-author James M. Curry) found that the credit claim has also evolved into “blaming” the other party, with those in the majority taking credit while those in the minority blame.

But in their research, Lee and Curry find that credit claiming and indicting businesses aren’t necessarily absolute. Indeed, there may be majority party members who “strike” while minority party members will claim credit for the legislation, as evidenced in this graph:

For minority party lawmakers, the percentage of “positive” citations issued ranged from a high of forty percent to a low of about ten percent, with what appears to be an average of twenty percent.

Indeed, Lee and Curry find that among minority party members, a committee leader (referred to as a “rank member”) issues the highest percentage of positive citations on legislation, followed by base members and then party leaders. the less.

As for the Cawthorn rep’s messages and publicity, his attempt to claim the credit could be seen as wanting to. both ways: I voted against the legislation, but will publicize the apparent benefits of the legislation to my district.

This fits Cawthorn’s priority on communication (in Mayhew’s terms, advertising and credit) rather than legislating (Fenno’s idea of ​​”doing good public policy”): “I built my staff around communications rather than legislation”, Cawthorn wrote in an email to fellow members.

How many more Republican members of Congress will try to take credit for projects or funding stemming from the American Rescue Act is yet to be seen, but based on Lee’s research, it should come as no surprise that elected officials are taking credit after voting against. legislation. The latest proposal for a massive infrastructure bill, touted by President Biden and the Democrats, will likely be another strictly partisan deal, with Republicans voting against.

But if roads, bridges, broadband and other funded services return to their district from this bill, don’t be surprised if Republicans advertise “it’s a good thing” for the district and, by extension, hope it’s a good thing for the district. own re-election efforts.


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. Tweet a @BowTiePolitics.


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