Federal Funding and Length of Service in the Senate

According to a report by the Tax Foundation, some states receive more from the federal government than they pay in taxes on a per capita basis, while others receive less.  The Tax Foundation contends that the reason for this imbalance is higher incomes in some states and a progressive income tax, which accentuates the revenue differences between high and low income states.  There is, however, a relationship between the ratio of federal expenditures to tax revenues and state population.  States with small populations tend to receive more money from the federal government than they pay in taxes.  This can be explained by the fact that each Senator has equal bargaining power, but an unequal number of constituents with whom to share federal funds and tax breaks.  Furthermore, Senators from less populous states tend to have longer term lengths than their counterparts in more populous states, which allows them become the chairmen of committees and obtain even more funds from the federal government, as well as wield more power in favor of their constituents.  State population, federal funding and term length are all related and serve to deliver more wealth and power to less populous states.

The above graph shows that the states with larger populations tend to have a lower ratio of federal expenditures to tax revenues per capita.  The data on the y-axis are an average of the ratio of expenditures to revenues from 1981, 1990, 2000 and 2005.  The state population data are averages of the US Census data from 1980, 1990, 2000, and, for 2005, interpolated population values calculated from the data from 2000 and 2010.  If a state has a large population, that means that the state’s Senators are less powerful on a per capita basis than a state with a small population.  All other factors being equal, each Senator should be able to get an equivalent number of earmarks per state, which means that larger states have to divide the same amount of federal cash among a larger number of constituents.  Equivalently, a Senator must divide any tax breaks he or she can secure among his or her constituents, which will result in a smaller per capita advantage for large states.  The Tax Foundation study includes individual income tax, corporate income tax, social insurance taxes, excise taxes, estate and gift taxes, and customs duties as part of the total federal tax burden of each state.  This means that there are a variety of ways for a Senator to secure more funds, including reducing taxes on certain products or finding tax loopholes for corporations.  As part of the federal expenditures of each state, the study includes retirement and disability, other direct payments, grants to state and local governments, procurement, and salaries and wages.  Consequently, there are a multitude of ways for a Senator to obtain money from the federal government, including funding for research, state parks, and grants to local municipalities.

The twelve states with the highest ratio of expenditures to revenues are New Mexico, Mississippi, North Dakota, Alabama, West Virginia, Virginia, Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  The twelve states with the lowest ratio of expenditures to revenues are New Jersey, Illinois, Nevada, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Delaware, Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, California, and Texas.  The twelve states with the highest ratios have an average ratio of 1.49 and an average population of 2.34 million.  The twelve states with the lowest ratios have an average ratio of 0.81 and an average population of 9.61 million.  Overall, there is a -0.3728 correlation between the federal expenditure/revenue ratio and state population, which means that 61% of the variance of expenditure/revenue ratio is explained by state population.  This is a moderate correlation, but there are so many factors contributing to federal expenditures and revenues that this is significant.

Related to federal expenditures and revenues is average Senatorial term length.  In the figure above, the mean term length for all Senators in a state’s history is plotted against the mean proportion of the state’s population from 1790 to 2010.  The mean state population over those years was not used because the population of the country has changed so much over the past 220 years.  Instead, the proportion of the US total population that each state represented at each decade was calculated.  Those numbers were then averaged over all decades from 1790 to 2010.  The data were taken from a Wiki entitled “Historical Statistics of the United States Senate” which computed average term length from a list provided by the official website of the US Senate.  The correlation between the two datasets is -0.394, which is moderate and explains 62.7% of the variance in mean term length.  However, if the outliers in the states with lower populations are removed, the correlation improves to -0.483, which explains 69.5% of the variance.  Removal of the outliers only improves the linear correlation value.  The outliers are states that have low populations and mean term lengths that are 2-3 times as high as the average Senatorial term length of 10.7 years.

The relationship between longer mean Senatorial term lengths and state population proportional to the country could be explained by a combination the advantage small states get in bargaining power per capita and the Senate rules on seniority.  Senators from less populous states could use their large per capita bargaining power to obtain earmarks or tax breaks from the federal government in exchange for votes on larger issues.  Once the constituents of these Senators realize the economic benefits of these earmarks, they will have a favorable view of their Senators and will likely continue to vote for them.  This mechanism allows Senators from less populous states to stay in power longer and accumulate seniority.  These Senators can then become even more powerful and obtain even more earmarks by becoming the chairmen of Senate committees.  All bills originate in committees, and committee chairmanships are generally given to the Senators with the most seniority.  This results in a feedback loop which can keep Senators from small states in office for decades.

The US Senate website keeps a list of the longest serving Senators on record.  The largest state which has Senators on the list is Georgia, and the vast majority of Senators on the list come from states that are either small or medium-sized.  The states which produced the longest serving Senators in US history represented 0.28% of the population of the US, from 1900 to 2010.  The average state represented 2% of the population, so the states that produced the longest serving Senators were only 14% as large as the average state.  The longest serving Senators tend to come from small states.  The effects can be seen in Senate committees, which are often chaired by Senators from small states.  Robert Byrd, the longest serving Senator in history, was the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, the most powerful committee in the Senate, before he passed away.  This position is now filled by Daniel Inouye, who is the second longest serving Senator in history.  Both of them represent states with small populations.  These finding confirms the relationship between state population, federal funding of states and term length.

There are many reasons why the Senate should be reformed, including racial disenfranchisement, the ease of the filibuster, unequal representation for citizens in different states, and differences in federal funding between large and small states.  All of these imbalances come from the fact that each state receives the same representation, regardless of population.  In order to create a government that serves all people equally instead of giving undeserved priority to small states, we should either abolish the Senate completely, make the institution much less powerful or change the distribution of representation among the states.  In the next and final post on the Senate, these alternatives will be explored in more detail.

2 thoughts on “Federal Funding and Length of Service in the Senate

  1. Alex,

    Yea, I agree with you. People don’t want to give up their Senators who have accumulated a lot of seniority because they afraid that they will lose perks. Incumbents already get elected at a rate of around 90% each election, and incumbents are usually more well-funded than their challengers, so we have a situation where getting rid of long-serving Senators who we don’t like is quite challenging.

    Changing up the way chairmanships work would be interesting too. The Senate seems to use seniority quite a bit in determining who is in charge. I can think of other organizations which don’t rely so heavily on seniority for making decisions on whom to place in power. It’s kind of ridiculous now how Senators who represent states with populations less than San Diego can wield such enormous power.


  2. Even more important than the small state pork imbalance, is the “cost” of wanting a new senator. The benefits of incumbency will reinforce a senate choice that may be politically unwanted. Constituents must choose between the old guy they don’t like but gets money, or the new guy they want but who will be at the bottom of the totem pole. Chairmanships should be randomized and rotating throughout the term to avoid favoring one or another senator. Chairs should also be stripped of any power besides striking a gavel a few times in debate.

    It’s especially frustrating because a Senator should be thinking about what he/she believes in, not about staying elected and toeing the line so they can rise to better positions. If they start thinking about competing in their little club, they forget about the real problems they’ve been sent to D.C. to solve.

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