One of the most enduring truisms of American legislative politics is that American politicians are, in the words of David Mayhew, ‘single-minded seekers of re-election’. One chief consequence of their focus on re-election is that legislators will try to sit on committees of interest to their constituents (e.g. members from more rural seats seeking membership on agriculture committees). Sitting on these committees increases their chances of being able to deliver tangible goods to their constituents, infamously labelled ‘pork’.
The reason politicians seek selection to these committees is because sitting on these committees increases their chances of developing relationships with constituents that might translate into personal votes (which increase their chances of re-election). Delivering pork certainly helps in this regard, but even if they aren’t able to personally deliver the bacon to their constituents, legislators can claim credit for any government expenditure that is spent on their constituents. Moreover, committee members are well-placed in positions (seemingly) of power to voice their constituents’ frustrations, especially when money isn’t being spent, and to reap the rewards for doing so.
Though a large body of research argues that such vote-seeking behaviour should be less likely outside the US, where parties are arguably better-equipped to prevent such behaviour from potentially distracting from the party’s agenda, we argue that such behaviour should be observable outside the US.
In our forthcoming article in Parliamentary Affairs, we argue that Irish politicians also care about committee selection and pork, too. While Irish committees offer many fewer opportunities for members to secure pork than those committees in the US, committees still offer members the chance to grandstand and increase members’ visibility among their constituents. Moreover, this visibility makes members more influential, as ministers and civil servants are sensitive to committee members’ interests – not least because committees are tasked with overseeing their activities.
All this visibility and (indirect) influence is essential for anyone running for office under STV, especially in a context where no-one’s seat (not even those who topped the poll in the previous election) is safe. The added benefit of cultivating personal votes can thus be crucial to saving one’s political career.
Evidence of our claims can be seen in Figure 1, which presents the percentages employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing (re-scaled to range from 0 to 1, low to high employment, for each term) for those who have sat on agriculture committees and those TDs who have not over the last four Dáil terms. Apparently, Irish politicians (and not just certain politicians from Kerry) love chasing after pork just like their American counterparts, as Figure 1 shows those sitting on agriculture committees having significantly higher percentages employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing than non-members. Even after accounting for alternative explanations, our article shows this finding holds.
Even in the North, where the Unionist/Nationalist divide dominates most aspects of political life, Figure 1 suggests Protestants and Catholics can agree on one thing: pork. Members of committees dealing with agricultural issues have, since 1998, come from constituencies significantly more invested in agriculture than non-members.
Our findings have important implications for understanding Irish politics. Chief among them is the fact that legislative politics cannot be understood without reference to the careers of politicians. Because politics is a profession where one’s job is dependent on one’s electoral performance, we can expect that TDs and MLAs will do what they need to hold on to office. Although our article only looks at selection to agriculture committees, the lesson to be learned applies across all activities in a politician’s day (e.g. think of the politicians who showed up to shake hands at the funeral you attended most recently), and not just to work on committees with the potential to deliver pork to one’s constituents.
Additionally, and perhaps on a brighter note for democratic theory, these findings suggest legislators have powerful incentives to cater to the needs of voters. Specifically, our results suggest that TDs and MLAs will work to reflect the concerns of constituents at every opportunity. While there are concerns politicians might try to manipulate outcomes by appealing to our baser demands (e.g. delivering ‘pork’ to constituents who have already had their ‘fill’), one can take heart in the fact that politicians recognise that their personal careers are dependent on responding to the concerns of voters.
Christopher D. Raymond is Lecturer in Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.
Jacob Holt is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Columbus State University.