SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor, assistant professor of political science, studies the U.S. Congress, particularly congressional leadership, partisanship and the policymaking process. Photo by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross
Despite the majority of federal legislation receiving bipartisan support, how members of Congress communicate the details to constituents is divided by party lines, said SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor, assistant professor of political science.
“Unfortunately, there is a lack of objective information coming from Congress,” said Gaynor, who studies the U.S. Congress, particularly congressional leadership, partisanship and the policymaking process. “Around 80% of all bills, and pretty much all major legislation, are bipartisan. How the political parties choose to talk about different aspects of each bill is what makes it appear to be a partisan issue.”
This summer, Gaynor worked with Delia Drace ’24, collecting and analyzing data related to how members of the Congress communicate infrastructure grants with their constituents. What Drace found supports Gaynor’s previous work: Messaging is heavily partisan, with legislation details unshared with constituents if they don’t support the politician’s personal or campaign messaging.
Gaynor’s analysis revealed that Republicans are more cohesive and unified in their messaging, while Democrats are more disorganized and ideologically much broader. An example of this is how messaging associated with climate change is constructed. Those who champion funding for climate-related projects and mitigation shy away from the phrase “climate change” in order to prevent the initiatives from getting bogged down in red tape or excluded from funding packages.
In explaining the COVID-19 relief bill, Democrats focused on the medical care aspects of the bill, while Republicans touted the business and industry financial support through Paycheck Protection Program loans, Gaynor said.
Another example is the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. Through her work as part of the Weiss Summer Research program, Drace found that while legislators were generally unbiased in how federal grants are allocated, their messaging was not.
“Legislators who are considered liberal and moderate Republicans were more likely to talk about the act and send out a press release. However, conservative Republicans who received funding for a bridge in their district didn’t send out a press release. It’s not just the language used; the silence also sends a message,” Gaynor said.
Some of this is playing out in real time as Congress debates the National Defense Authorization Act, a historically bipartisan bill. The increasingly significant language gap in terms of how congressional delegates talk about the bill, primarily focused on what they think their constituents want to hear, is helping create more division, Gaynor said.
“House Republicans are focused on abortion access and transgender health care in the military, two polarizing issues, while Democrats have been quiet. These are two small parts of a large funding bill, and the rest is being overlooked. Even these normally dry topics are becoming, unfortunately, more relevant for political polarization,” she said.
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