When members of Congress aren’t busy taking credit for a new road or bridge or telling their constituents how great they are, they’re spending nearly a third of their time calling the opposition names, Harvard University professor Gary King
Kings’ conclusion isn’t opinion but is instead based on verifiable, scientific evidence. King, with the help of two graduate students, analyzed 64,033 press releases sent by all the members of the U.S. Senate from 2005 to 2007 and concluded that 27 percent were devoted to taunting the opposition.
“Members of Congress do need to be elected and reelected otherwise they are not going to be there and so they are certainly spending a lot of time doing this, taunting, rather than for example deliberating, rather than trying to make sure the government doesn’t go bankrupt,” he said. “It’s a fair amount of time, what’s the actual cost, depends on what you’d like your members of the United States Senate to be doing.”
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King, who is an expert on analyzing data, did not start out examining how often members of Congress insult each other but instead “set out to develop a method that would analyze large quantities of text” and members of Congress naturally came to mind.
“We went to members of Congress because they produce a lot of text,” he said. “Political scientists in the past have looked at what members of Congress do as flowing into eventually three categories. They advertise, they say look, I’m a member of Congress. They position take, they say look, I am a conservative Republican or I am a liberal Democrat. And they credit claim, they say here is a bridge that I brought to my district. … Basically those three things are about me, me and me, different versions of me.”
“So we used this methodology to understand the 64,000 press releases that we had in front of us. A new, different way of looking at it came through. … We call it partisan taunting. We found a lot of partisan taunting … more than one in four of the full press releases from members of the United States Senate are taunts of the opposition.”
By definition, taunting is an attack on the opposition party or its members, the president or leader of the opposition. In a preliminary study, King examined 200 press releases from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. Examples of taunting in Lautenberg releases in 2004 included calling Republicans “Chicken Hawks,” accusing the GOP of making “communities less safe,” and accusing the Bush administration of “intolerance.”
The research found that the taunting is pretty equally divided between both major parties but that the “party that doesn’t control the presidency tends to do it somewhat more.” The relative political strength of the opposition in the home district or state is also a factor. The more competitive an area is the less taunting there is.
“If there are very few members of the opposition in your district and you don’t need their votes it’s an easy thing to dis them,” he said.
Biggest offenders in the period from 2005 to 2007 include Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., John Thune, R-S.D., Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D-Nev.
King, who has also done research on polling, said polls are not very good at predicting results in the GOP field at this time, explaining it’s just too “far out.”
“Polls are quite good at forecasting the outcome of the election at about the time of the conventions,” he said. “So once we know who the candidates are, even before the general election campaign begins, we will have a pretty good sense of what the outcome is going to be. But at this point it depends on lots of fun events that are about to happen.”
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