In the News

How the folks back home are a massive influence on the voting patterns of members of US Congress

Mike McCartney

18th October 2021

Senator Joe Manchin set to block key Biden energy plan

I posted something back in January about how the 50-50 Senate would probably be something of an Achilles heel for the incoming President.

And it looks like it's set to happen.

It might seem remarkable to British students that an important plank of President Biden's plans to meet a key campaign pledge of going green can be railroaded by a member of his own party.

Without drilling down into tremendous detail, it is worth briefly considering what influences the way members of Congress vote.

In no particular order:

  1. Personal ideology. Members of Congress, much like MPs in the UK, start off in politics with some sort of vision of how society can be made better off. So by the time they become members of Congress they will have policy positions on most issues that are to confront them in the legislative chamber. So someone who is fiscally conservative is unlikely to vote on government bills that expand federal spending.
  2. Special intérêsts. Pressure/interest groups are far more influential in US politics than in the UK. This has a great deal to do with a much larger number of access points. So groups like the NRA, which is widely considered to be the most powerful interest group in the USA can be extremely powerful in lobbying members of Congress. Here we could look in some depth at the amount of money involved in US election cycles, how ‘the greenback always rules’, PACs and so forth, but we’ll just leave interest groups as a factor.
  3. Constituents. The ‘folks back home’ are more influential in the US political system than in the UK. This links to the idea of ‘bringing home the bacon’ and how members of Congress are far more likely to adhere to delegate principles of representation rather than Burkean ideals about acting as a trustee, or principle of the party mandate.
  4. Which brings us to the party itself. US parties historically are much looser coalitions than their UK counterparts. What is interesting is that in recent years parties in the UK and the US have very much been travelling in opposite directions. US parties have become more ideological and polarised (measured by voting records in the respective two chambers of Congress), and by contrast anyone familiar with the work of Philip Cowley will testify that British MPs are more rebellious than ever. Notwithstanding these contrasting trends US parties are not completely cohesive, and therefore Democrat party whips will struggle to steer the votes of the two most conservative Democrats in the Senate are Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
  5. Congressional colleagues. These could be other members of Congress from nearby states, or fellow members of committees, or congressional staffers, who may be able to influence how a member of Congress votes if one of the above factors is not central to their decision. There may be tactical or strategic reasons for supporting a particular bill, eg getting on side with a colleague may result in receiving their support at some future stage.
  6. Media influence. Depending on the size and importance of an issue, there may be pressure at a local or national level (much more likely to be local). A good example of the latter is national security.
  7. The administration. This is where members of the executive have to build good congressional relations. Indeed it is absolutely fundamental to the success of a Presidency given the nature of the separation of powers in the USA in order to avoid the prospect of gridlock. It is often said that of the geographical distance between Congress and the White House that ‘a mile and a half is a long way’. Many presidents in the past have exploited whatever tools available to them. Lyndon Johnson employed his years of experience in the Senate as a former Majority Leader (as well as making the most of the honeymoon period after John Kennedy’s death) to achieve radical reform (such as a civil rights act that his predecessor would probably not have done), and by contrast Ronald Reagan appealed over the head of Congress directly to voters to build support for his tax cutting agenda.

So looking at factors two and three, consider the case of the Senator from West Virginia.


"Coal is a dominant industry in Manchin's home state of West Virginia.

As of 2019, the state is the second-largest U.S. coal producer and relies on the fuel for 91% of its energy needs. The energy sector accounts for 6% of the state's employment, compared with a national average of roughly 2%.

The senator also has personal financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Last year, according to his public financial disclosure, Manchin received about $492,000 in dividends on stock from Enersystems, Inc., the coal business he founded in 1988, which is now controlled by his son Joseph. According to OpenSecrets, which tracks political fundraising, Manchin is the top recipient of donations from the oil and gas and coal mining industries this election cycle."


So there you have it. As former Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill once said, "All politics is local".

And with regards to the constitution and the separation of powers, as Professor Richard Neustadt wryly noted: "What the constitution separates our political parties do not combine".

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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