Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) recently denounced President Trump’s behavior and announced that they will not seek reelection in 2018. Many wonder whether severing their ties to voters will free the senators to vote more often against Trump. Don’t hold your breath.
Voting counter to the interests of voters back home is known as “vote shirking” — and it’s rare. But retiring lawmakers are likely to change their behavior in other ways, including shifts in how they couch their words when they speak publicly on the big issues of the day.
Two ways for retiring lawmakers to shirk their ties to voters
Many expect that lawmakers who are not running for reelection will vote more freely. Why represent your district’s views if you no longer have to face the voters?
But studies find very little evidence of this. Ideological ties between lawmakers and voters remain strong. That’s because legislators’ ideological stances tend to be stable.
Retirement does lead to some changes in voting behavior. Most notably, lawmakers tend to miss a lot more votes during their last term in office once voters can no longer sanction them for being missing in action.
But lawmakers also shirk by changing the way they speak once they decide to retire. Call it “cognitive shirking.” This makes sense when you consider how our thinking — which changes in response to new situations — determines our language. Humans have the ability to look at the same problem in a number of ways. Which viewpoints we acknowledge will naturally change as our lives change.
Here’s how I studied “cognitive shirking” — or speaking out more freely
I collected remarks from the Congressional Record made by representatives on the House floor between 1997 and 2007. Using content analysis, I then compared language used by members before and after announcing retirement during those years. In all, the data included 103 representatives who chose retirement during that decade, 56 percent of whom were from the Republican Party.
I looked for patterns in language related to psychological indicators that measure the presence of greater complexity in thinking about an issue. For example, inclusive language like, “we are not so different, you and I” was marked as displaying greater complexity of thought — since it shows an attempt to see and accept several viewpoints on an issue.
In contrast, the language of certainty — like “you lost because you are weak” — was marked as displaying lesser complexity. Such statements suggest that a speaker is relying on clear-cut rules when thinking and speaking instead of accepting differences of opinion.
My hypothesis was that members of Congress who were shirking — shedding their sense of responsibility that they must represent their districts’ points of view at all times — would be more likely to think and speak with more complexity. The idea was that if you remove partisan responsibilities and the fear of electoral backlash for saying the “wrong thing,” they would feel freer to move beyond strict “black and white” ways of thinking.
Retiring lawmakers change their speaking habits in these three ways
So what changes did I find after lawmakers announce their retirements? One notable consideration is that these findings were consistent across partisan and geographic divides. The only significant factor that appeared to affect retiring members’ way of thinking was their own ideology. Interestingly, more extreme ideologues appeared to embrace more complex ways of thinking when exiting office, which inevitably links to a few key conclusions.
First, retiring members appear to feel more comfortable voicing their true — and more complex — opinions on political issues. Retiring representatives seem to develop new perspectives on salient issues.
Second, legislators tend to express appreciation for bipartisanship when deciding to retire. In retirement announcements on the floor, these lawmakers sometimes lament Congress’s partisan polarization.
That was true for Flake in his announcement, even though his votes place him on the far-right flank of the Senate. But that is not uncommon. Notably, when Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) retired in 2012, she bemoaned what she characterized as the Senate’s lack of bipartisanship.
And after leaving office in 2015, former speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) “gleefully released his mute button,” as a New York Times headline put it, to condemn what he called rampant factionalism in the Republican Party — for instance, calling Texas Sen. Ted Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh.” Boehner was recently in the news again, and again spoke nonchalantly about his disdain for his former colleagues’ overtly partisan behavior. Relinquishing institutional responsibilities may be especially cathartic for former party leaders.
Anecdotally, this helps explain why Corker and Flake were willing to publicly rebuke Republican Party leaders, including Trump, something that other Republicans tend to avoid.
Third, as you can see in the figure below, such language tends to ebb and stabilize over the course of a lawmaker’s last term. Retiring representatives shirk most in the first few months after choosing to retire — during their first taste of freedom. They then slowly return to stable patterns of thinking and speaking as they approach their term’s end.
But they don’t return to the same ways of speaking they used before. Rather, this final period is full of nostalgic public statements and testimonials to supporters. For example, during Snowe’s last few months in office she spoke warmly of the small businesses that supported her throughout her Senate career.
This final speaking style emphasizes, for one last time before finally leaving office, legislators’ bond with their constituents.
Those hoping to see voting mavericks when lawmakers declare they’re ready to retire, in other words, will be disappointed. But you may get to hear what they’ve really been thinking — but kept hidden behind their institutional responsibilities.
Michael K. Romano is an assistant professor of political science at Shenandoah University whose research focuses on how politicians use language when communicating with constituents. Find him on Twitter at @Romano_PoliSci.