Does Congress Have a Conservative Bias on Gay Rights Issues?

Justice Scalia argued in his dissent in Romer that:

This Court has no business imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected

This fits a more broadly held perception that laws are more progressive on LGBT rights than voters would like them to be because elites are more liberal. A new working paper by Katherine L. Krimmel, Jeffrey R. Lax, and Justin H. Phillips (all Columbia) shows that this presumption does not hold for members of Congress. Indeed, the results imply the reverse. The authors use a method developed (in part) by our own Andy Gelman to estimate public support in Congressional districts for specific policies related to gay rights. They then compare public opinion to the actual roll-call votes of Congressmen. One of their key findings is that there is a conservative bias in Congress: on average public support in a district for a liberal policy towards gays needs to be well over 50% for a Congressman to vote in favor of that policy. Moreover, when opinion in a District changes, Democrats are much more likely to change their votes than Republican Congressmen.

The figure below illustrates their findings for the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell issue. There were only small pockets in the country where majorities opposed changing the policy. Votes against it in Congress were much more numerous than we would expect from public opinion. The paper is very rich in empirical detail, so go read the whole thing.

8 Responses to Does Congress Have a Conservative Bias on Gay Rights Issues?

  1. JWells March 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    Of course, it is interesting to note that some representatives voted in favor when public opinion opposed repealing (SE LA; E TX).

    • nhJeff March 23, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

      It’s not all that interesting. Note the MANY districts that favored repeal of DADT where legislators voted against repeal. That’s the point: Legislators were FAR more likely to take a conservative (anti-gay) stance, against the wishes of their constituents, than vice versa.

  2. NYer March 21, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Note the public opinion split in the red states on this issue. Save a tiny chunk of FL and VA, the blue states are unanimously in favor of repealing DADT. Among the red states, however, the libertarian mountain states have split from the Bible Belt. Even Utah favors repeal.

  3. KevinR March 21, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    It would be interesting to see these map but only with those who “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree”. My guess is that there are a lot of people who are pretty tepid in their support, and a small minority who are very passionate about their opposition (as well as a minority who very passionate about their support). I would guess that among those who are passionate there would be a likely split closer to how Congress votes.

    The logic being that a lot of people sort of support it, but how their member votes on DADT will have little to no bearing on if they vote for them again. But there is a small section who will be very upset if their member votes to overturn DADT.

    • Andrew Flores March 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      What is interesting about the strength of support or disapproval is that it is attributable to a couple items: the question wording and when the question is asked. On gay marriage, for example, my own research showed that there was more strong disapproval than strong approval of the issue in 2008. And now, the issue is highly polar, with the proportion of the public strongly approving is about same size as those strongly disapproving.

      But research in Intl. Journal of Public Opinion by Heerwig and McCabe also shows how the question is asked affects the valence of support or opposition.

  4. Dan Nexon March 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm #


  5. Wonks Anonymous March 22, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    How about judges? Are their opinions generally in line with vox populi?

    • nhJeff March 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Government is designed to be inherently conservative. Congress is more conservative than its constituency. And the judicial branch is extremely conservative.

      At the trial level, judges are seldom willing to risk rebuke by higher courts by breaking precedents. (In other words, the decisions based on out-dated mores continue to hold sway.) The many levels of review assure that the system as a whole is more conservative than the average trial judge.