Members of Congress who have daughters tend to vote in support of women’s rights. To get Congress to care for the needy … give them “daughters.” (More)

I wrote this earlier today in a comment to Winning Progressive’s excellent Morning Feature on the Occupy Wall Street movement’s demand to “Get Money Out of Government.”

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In discussing The Empathy Gap last week, I came upon a passage that indirectly challenged my thoughts on the role of campaign contributions. Like most Americans, I’m not happy with our campaign finance laws and what often seems like cash-and-carry government. But I’m still not sure where exactly the problems lie.

In Winner-Take-All Politics, Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker reported on research showing a strong correlation between votes in Congress and poll data for top incomes. That is, the more top-income Americans supported a position, the more likely Congress would vote for that position. The correlation between votes for median incomes was 0.5, that is, you could flip a coin as to whether Congress would vote with a majority of median-income Americans. The correlation for lower incomes was negative; the more low-income Americans supported a position, the less likely Congress voted for that position.

So Congress are more likely to pass laws favored by the wealthy … but why?

The easy and seemingly obvious conclusion is that members of Congress vote the wishes of their wealthy campaign contributors. I did some research during the health care debate and found that senators’ votes did not “follow the money” on that issue. But I carefully qualified my findings. That was a very high-profile issue with extensive public debate, and I was not sure the same pattern would exist on lower-profile issues where the public are not as extensively engaged. It may be a matter of campaign-dollars-for-members’-votes.

But it also may not be. In The Empathy Gap, Dr. Trout cites a study by Yale economist Ebonya Washington on the “daughter effect.” The more daughters a member of Congress has, the more likely he/she will vote in support of women’s reproductive rights and other women’s issues. The “daughter effect” applies independent of party and region. Similar effects exist for members of Congress who have a family member suffering from a particular illness. And similar effects are found in the population as a whole. Simply, we empathize more with those whose issues we have experienced personally.

As Dr. Trout notes:

If experience and arousal matter so deeply to accurate decision-making, the American electorate is in a serious bind. Victims of poverty are in a special predicament. Members of Congress, for example, earn $165,200 annually [when the book was written]. In addition to this personal salary and social perks, they typically enjoy a financial background and trajectory bound to isolate them from the poor. Their social distance from the poor will make it difficult for them to appreciate the personal impact of poverty. As challenging as their jobs must be, it is a good bet that none of them misses a meal, let alone experiences chronic hunger. Scientific research on the empathy gap, then, supports an intriguing prediction: comfortable and full, members of Congress will unwittingly discount hunger and its effects, just as their experimental counterparts do. How should Congress respond to this empathic challenge, when critical reflection just won’t do the job? Should they be hungry when they vote on poverty measures? Should they be sick when they vote on what to do about the forty-five million Americans without medical insurance? [Emphasis added.]

If this research is true – and the evidence is strong – then the reason Congress tends to vote the interests of the wealthy is that wealthy members of Congress find it easy to empathize with other wealthy people like themselves … and difficult to empathize with poor and median-income Americans. “Taking the money out of politics” may be a good idea for other reasons, but it will not solve the problem of Congress voting for and with the wealthy.

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How can we solve that problem?

As we saw last week, these biases are extremely resistant to willpower. Simply “holding Congress accountable” won’t work, because their bias toward the wealthy is involuntary and thus invisible to them. Like the rest of us, members of Congress are human beings with human frailties.

Instead, I propose that Congress enact a law requiring all members and their staff to work at least two hours a week at a program that provides assistance to the needy. The law should require them to work face-to-face with those receiving help, and to commit to a single program for the two-year term of a Congress, so they have time to get to know the beneficiaries as individual people and not mere statistics or archetypes. In short, give every member of Congress and their staff “daughters,” and bridge the empathy-inhibiting gap of familiarity.

There is ample precedent for this. The American Bar Association ethical standards require lawyers to perform at least 50 hours per year of pro bono work, although many states require fewer hours. Florida requires high school students to perform 75 hours of community service to be eligible for a Bright Futures Scholarship. Nor should it be a huge political hurdle, as members of both parties routinely emphasize the importance of charity and volunteer work to help the needy. I simply ask them to lead by example.

Again, I am not opposed to campaign finance reform. I agree that money is a corrupting political influence, if for no other reason than members of Congress 25-50% of their time soliciting donors. But even if all elections were publicly funded and there were no need for “call time,” most members of Congress would still be wealthy, and more likely to empathize with people they know. Wealthy people.

To change how members of Congress vote on issues that effect the needy, the research says we need to change the people they know. Give them “daughters.”