PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series. This month, we feature Patrick Hickey, whose article “Electoral Vulnerability and Presidential Support in the House of Representatives” was included in the March 2019 issue of PSQ.
Patrick Hickey is assistant professor of Political Science at West Virginia University. His research investigates how presidents build winning legislative coalitions in Congress. Patrick’s work finds that members’ voting behavior on the presidential agenda results from constituency influence and members’ electoral incentives. This finding holds true for both presidential support votes and veto override attempts. Normatively, this research finds that representation and democratic accountability are alive and well in the American political system. Patrick’s work has been published in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Congress & the Presidency, 42: Inside the Presidency of Bill Clinton, and The Roads to Congress 2016. In addition to his passion for empirical research, Patrick strives to deliver a high quality classroom experience for both undergraduate and graduate students. He received the 2016 West Virginia University Eberly College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Teacher Award for his efforts in the classroom.
What initially sparked your interest electoral vulnerability and presidential support?
I was initially interested in how presidents can successfully influence members of Congress to support the president’s policy proposals. The main obstacle to answering that question is the fact that most attempts at presidential influence occur privately through phone calls and face-to-face meetings with no public record of what is said between the president and a member of Congress. I decided that a better approach would be to figure out which characteristics make members of Congress likely targets for presidential influence. Electoral vulnerability seemed to be one of those characteristics. If vulnerable members of Congress are, in fact, targets for presidential influence campaigns, one implication is that they will cross party lines on presidential support votes more often than other members. My article tests whether that intuition holds up when subjected to rigorous empirical analysis.
How do you think your work on this article will guide you in your future research?
I see this article as helping to establish the field of play, so to speak. Many members of Congress are hard-nosed partisans, but others could vote either way on important bills. This article is one step in discovering who these “toss up” members are. Future research will identify more members whose votes are in doubt on major bills. For instance, I’m currently working on a project that investigates whether ideologically extreme (very conservative or very liberal) members of the president’s party are more likely to vote against his positions than their fellow partisans. Preliminary analyses suggest that they are. We saw this dynamic in action during the 115th Congress when the conservative House Freedom Caucus opposed President Trump’s initial efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. After completing that research project I hope to investigate how presidents can be more or less successful in winning these “toss up” members’ support, which is the question that initially inspired my research agenda.
What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?
I believe that most citizens do not properly understand the president’s power in Congress. We overestimate the president’s power during unified government and underestimate the president’s power in divided government. During unified government, we tend to think of the president as a sort of prime minister who can use his partisan majority to pass anything he likes. On the other hand, during divided government we tend to think of the president as powerless and certain to be stuck in stalemate and gridlock. These conceptions do not fit with the empirical record of executive-legislative relations. Both President Obama and President Trump entered office with majorities in both chambers of Congress. Yet, they were each only able to enact one piece of signature legislation during their first two years in office. My hope is that this article inspires readers to think about how citizens can set reasonable expectations for the president’s work with Congress. What can we reasonably expect presidents to achieve through the legislative process? What truly counts as presidential success or failure? How have changes in the legislative process affected the president’s legislative power?
One main takeaway from my work is that the American people have a voice, but that the strength of that voice depends on our institutional arrangements, our laws, and our own political behavior. I hope the article inspires people to think more about how the increase in political polarization and partisan gerrymandering affects legislative outcomes. My article shows that vulnerable members of Congress who represent competitive districts are more responsive to their constituents. Competitive congressional seats have declined over the past thirty years for a number of reasons. What effect does this decline have on policymaking and the legislative process? How can expect members of Congress to work across party lines if their districts are drawn with a heavy partisan tilt? Has the decrease in competitive congressional elections made Congress less responsive to the electorate? How can we hold members of Congress, and the president, accountable if members’ reelection is almost certain?
Professor Hickey can be contacted at PatrickHickey@gmail.com