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In picturing their districts, legislators see some and not others

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Illinois political science professor Kristina Miler says legislators have a "limited and flawed" picture of their districts thanks to unconscious mental shortcuts.

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1/25/2011 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Hundreds of new and returning representatives arrived on Capitol Hill this month probably thinking they know their districts well.

But the picture in their heads of the constituents they represent is in fact “limited and flawed,” thanks to unconscious mental shortcuts that determine who they see and don’t see, says Kristina Miler (pronounced Miller), a University of Illinois political scientist.

As a result, certain constituents have “mental access” to legislators and their staffs, even before any lobbying or persuasion on specific bills, according to Miler, the author of the new book “Constituency Representation in Congress: The View From Capitol Hill” (Cambridge University Press).

U.S. House districts now number more than 700,000 people, more than triple the number of a century ago when the House membership was frozen at 435, Miler said.

“Members of Congress have this incredibly difficult job of representing their constituents,” she said. To determine who’s in their district, they must employ cognitive shortcuts “and it turns out the results are not random, there’s a pattern.”

It’s no surprise, however, who rises to the top in the minds of legislators and their key staff, in the flawed view that Miler describes: It’s people who make campaign donations and contact the legislative office. (Yes, writing your legislator makes a difference.)

Many political stories imply a quid pro quo, a link between specific votes and specific donations, but Miler suggests in her book that money and contact have an influence even before bills are written or deals made.

“It’s shaping the way they view the world,” Miler said, “and (where money is concerned) it’s that much harder to regulate or to control or to take into account, because it’s not necessarily conscious … and so to me it suggests that the role of money in politics might be more far-reaching than we’ve realized.”

The effect is more subtle than an implied trading of favors, but also “somewhat more troubling,” Miler said. It suggests a “seeping” influence of money that’s harder to trace through any laws or regulations, she said.

“Those things actually then have a one-two punch. First, they’ve shaped their vision of what their district is, and then they also still sometimes have a more direct effect.”

In the research for her book, Miler chose two issues, health care and natural resources, and then identified staffers responsible for those issues in congressional offices. She then chose 80 to interview. The representatives they worked for were a sampling of parties, regions and seniority, and included both those on committees relevant to the issues, and those not.

As part of the interviews, she asked open-ended questions about who the staffer saw as the relevant constituencies on the issue. She also interviewed six representatives to check that their viewpoints were consistent with their staffers.

Miler then matched the responses against data from the districts represented, using sources such as the census, business surveys, government statistics and employment data.

At the center of Miler’s research is the question “Who do legislators in Washington see, and who goes unseen?” – especially in the day-to-day work when a legislator or key staffer is asked “Who’s this important to in your district?”

She brought to her research insights from psychology about cognitive shortcuts we all use, but which had been tested little in the work of government decision-makers.

“The basic idea is that it’s really hard to be completely comprehensive when making judgments … that the information that we come into contact with frequently, the information that’s most salient to us, is what we tend to remember and what informs our judgments,” Miler said.

For example, when a visitor asks us “Where’s the best place to eat?” we generally don’t do research, Miler said. We rely on our experience, our preferences, what we’ve been told – we take mental shortcuts to provide an answer.

That kind of advice has little consequence for society, Miler said. “But when we think about legislators and their staff members using these shortcuts and coming to judgments that may be biased or may be limited, then that actually can have serious implications.”

As for the consequences of her research, Miler said it suggests there would be a benefit in the public financing of campaigns, though she thinks that’s unlikely to happen.

It also suggests a benefit in expanding the House beyond its current 435 members in order to create smaller districts, but that may not be worth it given the difficulties involved in managing a larger House, she said.

“It also suggests that we be a little bit realistic about what we’re asking of our elected members, and how difficult that task really is,” she said.

Editor's note: To contact Kris Miler, call 217-333-3062; e-mail kmiler@illinois.edu.

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