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Legislative Staff and Representation in Congress

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 November 2018

Columbia University
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of California, Santa Barbara
*Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Assistant Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia Universty,
Matto Mildenberger, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara,
Leah Stokes, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara,


Legislative staff link Members of Congress and their constituents, theoretically facilitating democratic representation. Yet, little research has examined whether Congressional staff actually recognize the preferences of their Members’ constituents. Using an original survey of senior US Congressional staffers, we show that staff systematically mis-estimate constituent opinions. We then evaluate the sources of these misperceptions, using observational analyses and two survey experiments. Staffers who rely more heavily on conservative and business interest groups for policy information have more skewed perceptions of constituent opinion. Egocentric biases also shape staff perceptions. Our findings complicate assumptions that Congress represents constituent opinion, and help to explain why Congress often appears so unresponsive to ordinary citizens. We conclude that scholars should focus more closely on legislative aides as key actors in the policymaking process, both in the United States and across other advanced democracies.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2018 

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Authors listed alphabetically and contributed equally to the project design and manuscript.

The authors thank Geoffrey Henderson for terrific research support and are grateful to Raymond O’Mara III, Lee Drutman, and Kevin Kosar for aid in drafting and disseminating the survey. Thanks to Pat Egan, Jacob Hacker, Tim LaPira, Robert Shapiro, Kent Jennings, Greg Wawro and participants at the Harvard University Inequality and Social Policy Seminar, UCLA Organizations and Markets Seminar, UC Santa Barbara Psychology, Environment and Public Policy (PEPP), Seminar, the Columbia Sustainable Development Workshop, the MPSA Political Institutions and Elite Behavior 4 mini-conference, the Nuffield College Oxford Workshop on Money in Politics, and Purdue University for feedback on earlier drafts. The Dirksen Congressional Center provided funding for the project through its Congressional Research Grant program. The authors thank Ken Benoit, the APSR editorial team, and the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful feedback and assistance throughout the publication process. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:



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