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On January 20, 2018, exactly one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government shut down. Congress could not pass a bill to fund the government. Democrats insisted that the bill include protection against deportation for Dreamers, undocumented and generally long-time U.S. residents brought to this country as children. Republicans and the president opposed doing so. The president wanted to use protection for Dreamers as leverage for obtaining increased border security in separate legislation. Ultimately, Congress passed a short-term bill, creating the possibility of another funding crisis, which occurred the next month.

What happened in Congress in 2018 was extreme. But even under more ordinary circum-stances, the Madisonian system of the separation of powers and checks and balances compli-cates policymaking. Moreover, power is fragmented within Congress, and representatives and senators tend to be fiercely independent. One Senate leader declared that trying to move the Senate to act is like “trying to push a wet noodle”: when Congress faces the great issues of the day, it often cannot arrive at any decision at all.

The inability to compromise and make important policy decisions—what we commonly refer to as gridlock—does not please the public. Its approval of Congress has been in the single digits, the lowest it has ever been. Nevertheless, most of the members of Congress who ran for reelec-tion in 2018 won. It seems as though individual senators and representatives were doing what their constituents wanted them to do, although Congress as a whole was not.

Congress is both our central policymaking branch and our principal representative branch. As such, it lies at the heart of American democracy. How does Congress combine its roles of rep-resenting constituents and making effective public policy? Some critics argue that Congress is too responsive to constituents and, especially, to organized interest groups and is thus unable to make difficult choices regarding public policy, such as reining in spending. Others argue that Congress is too insulated from ordinary citizens and makes policy to suit the few rather than the many. Yet other critics focus on Congress as the source of government expansion. Does Congress’s responsiveness predispose the legislature to increase the size of government to please those in the public wanting more or larger government programs?

* * * * *

The Framers of the Constitution conceived of the legislature as the center of policy-making in America. Their plan was for the great disputes over public policy to be resolved in Congress, not in the White House or the Supreme Court. Although the prominence of Congress has ebbed and flowed over the course of American history, as often as not, Congress has been the true center of power in Washington. The tasks of Congress become more difficult each year. On any given day, a repre-sentative or senator can be required to make sensible judgments about missiles, nuclear waste dumps, abortion, trade competition with China, income tax rates, the soaring costs of Social Security and Medicare, or any number of other issues. The proposal for the 2010 health care reform bill was about 1,400 pages long and weighed 6 pounds. Just finding the time to think about the issues—much less debate them—has become increasingly difficult. Despite the many demands of being a senator or representative, there is no shortage of men and women running for congressional office. The following sections will introduce you to these people.


11.1 Characterize the backgrounds of members of Congress and assess their impact on the ability of members of Congress to represent average Americans. Being a member of Congress is a difficult and unusual job. A person must be willing to

spend considerable time, trouble, and money to obtain a crowded office on Capitol Hill. To nineteenth-century humorist Artemus Ward, such a quest was inexplicable: “It’s easy to see why a man goes to the poorhouse or the penitentiary. It’s because he can’t help it. But why he should voluntarily go live in Washington is beyond my comprehension.”1

The Members

To many Americans, being a member of Congress may seem like a glamorous job. What citizens do not see are the 14-hour days spent dashing from one meeting to the next (members are often scheduled to be in two places at the same time),2 the con-tinuous travel between Washington and constituencies, the lack of time for reflection ongress, and—perhaps most important of all—the feeling of many members that Congress is making little headway in solving the country’s problems. There are attractions to the job, however. First and foremost is power. Members

of Congress make key decisions about important matters of public policy. In addition, members of Congress earn a salary of $174,000—about three times the income of the typical American family, although far below that of hundreds of corporate presidents—and they receive generous retirement and health benefits. There are 535 members of Congress. An even 100—two from each state—are members of the Senate. The other 435 are members of the House of Representatives. The Constitution specifies only that members of the House must be at least 25 years old and have been American citizens for 7 years, that senators must be at least 30 years old and have been American citizens for 9 years, and that each member of Congress must reside in the state from which he or she is elected. Members of Congress are not typical or average Americans, however, as the figures

in Table 11.1 reveal. Those who argue that the country is run by a power elite are quick to point out that members come largely from occupations with high status and usu-ally have substantial incomes. Although calling the Senate a “millionaire’s club” is an exaggeration, the proportion of millionaires and near millionaires in Congress is much higher than it is in an average crowd of 535 people. Business and law are the dominant prior occupations; other elite occupations such as academia are also well represented. The prominence of lawyers in Congress is not surprising. Law especially attracts persons interested in politics and provides the flexibility (and often the financial support of a law firm) to wage election campaigns. In addition, many government po-sitions in which aspiring members of Congress can make their mark, such as district attorney, are reserved for lawyers. Some prominent groups are underrepresented. The percentage of Hispanics in both chambers is much smaller than their percentage of the population (17 percent). There are only three African Americans in the Senate. Asian and Native Americans are also under-represented. However, women may be the most underrepresented group; they account for more than half the population but for only about a fifth of both houses of Congress. Americans value descriptive representation—that is, representing constituents by

mirroring their personal, politically relevant characteristics.3 But how important are the personal characteristics of members of Congress? Can a group of predominantly white, upper-middle-class, middle-aged, Protestant males adequately represent a much more diverse population? Would a group more typical of the population be more effective in making major policy decisions? The backgrounds of representatives and senators can be important if they influence how they prioritize and vote on is-sues. There is evidence that African American members are more active than are white members in serving African American constituents,4 and they appear to increase African American constituents’ contact with and knowledge about Congress.5 On average, women legislators seem to be more active than are men in pursuing the inter-ests of women.6 In some instances women are also more effective lawmakers.7 By the same token, representatives with a business background are more pro-business (less supportive of regulations, for example) than are other members,8 while members from working-class occupations are more liberal on economic matters.9 Veterans are more willing to challenge the president’s use of force.10 Obviously, few members of Congress can claim descriptive representation. They may,

however, engage in substantive representation and so speak for the interests of groups of which they themselves are not members.11 For example, a member of Congress with a background of wealth and privilege may champion the interests of the poor, as did the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Moreover, most members of Congress have lived for many years in the constituencies they represent and share many of the beliefs and attitudes of their constituents, even if they do not share their demographic characteristics. If they do not share their constituents’ perspectives, they may find it difficult to keep their seats come election time. At the same time, women and African Americans in Congress are achieving important positions on committees, increasing the chances of making descrip-tive representation effective.

Why Aren’t There More Women in Congress? Sarah Fulton, a scholar of women in politics, found that in the 2016 elections,

women won 50 percent of the House races in which they competed and 38 percent of the Senate races.13 Yet, despite this record, women constitute only about a fifth of Congress. If women have proven themselves capable of competing with and winning against men, why aren’t there more women in Congress? Part of the reason for women’s underrepresentation is that fewer women than men become major party nominees for office. For example, in 2016, a female major-party nomi-nee contested only 38 percent of the 435 House races and 47 percent of the Senate races. In one article, Fulton and her coauthors found that women with children are significantly less ambitious about running for office than are their male counterparts, largely because of greater child care responsibilities; however, they found no gender disparity in ambition among women without children. The authors also suggest that women’s decisions to run are more sensitive than are men’s to their perceptions of the odds of winning: women are less likely than are men to run when they perceive their odds to be poor; however, they are more likely than are men to run when they detect a political opportunity.14 In addition to the supply of female candidates, there is the issue of the electorate’s

demand. Voters appraise women candidates higher than male candidates on non-policy characteristics such as integrity, competence, collaboration, and problem-solving skills. Once women’s quality advantage is taken into account, women encounter a 3 percent vote deficit relative to their male counterparts. Male independent voters are equally supportive of male and female candidates when women have a quality advantage. But when candidates have the same quality, male independents are 23 per-cent less likely to vote for female than male candidates. Thus, to win, women must be more qualified on average than their male opponents.

Congressional elections are demanding, expensive,16 and, as you will see, generally foregone conclusions—yet members of Congress are first and foremost politicians. Men and women may run for Congress to forge new policy initiatives, but they also enjoy politics and consider a position in Congress near the top of their chosen profes-sion. Even if they dislike politics, unless they get reelected they will not be around long enough to shape policy.

Who Wins Elections?

Incumbents are individuals who already hold office. Sometime during each term, the incumbent must decide whether to run again or to retire voluntarily. Most decide to run for reelection. They enter their party’s primary, almost always emerge victorious, and typically win in the November general election too. Indeed, the most predictable aspect of congressional elections is this: incumbents usually win (see Figure 11.1). In 2016, only seven House incumbents lost general elections. (Five others were defeated in primaries, three of them victims of redistricting.) Even in a year of great political upheaval such as 2010, in which the Republicans gained 6 seats in the Senate and 63 seats in the House, 84 percent of incumbent senators and 85 percent of incumbent representatives won their bids for re-election. In the case of the House, not only do more than 90 percent of incumbents seeking reelection usually win, but most of them win with more than 60 percent of the vote. The picture for the Senate is a little different. Even though senators still have a good chance of beating back challengers, the odds of reelection are often not as handsome as they are for House incumbents; senators typically win by narrower week, members spend some time in their home states or districts, even though that may mean traveling far from Washington. Similarly, members use the franking privi-lege to mail newsletters to every household in their constituency. In recent years, members of Congress have brought communication with their constituencies into the digital age. Congressional staffers track the interests of indi-vidual voters, file the information in a database, and then use e-mails, social media, or phone calls to engage directly with voters on issues they know they care about. Using taxpayers’ money, legislators employ a technology that allows them to call thousands of households simultaneously and deliver a recorded message, inviting people in their districts to join in on a conference call. With the push of a button, a constituent can be on the line with the House member—and often with 1,000 or more fellow constituents. Equally important, lawmakers know from the phone numbers where the respondents live and, from what constituents say on the call, what issues interest them. Information gathered from these events, as well as from e-mails and phone calls from constituents and from their social presences online, gets plugged into an electronic database, giv-ing incumbents something challengers can only dream of: a detailed list of the specific interests of thousands of actual or potential voters. E-mail allows for personal interac-tion—and another reminder of why the incumbent should be reelected.

CREDIT CLAIMING Congresspersons also seek to engage in credit claiming, which involves enhancing their standing with constituents through service to individuals and the district.18 Members of Congress can service their constituents and constitu-ency in two ways: through casework and through obtaining federal funds. Doing casework means helping individual constituents with problems such as Social Security checks or federal loans.

The second way of servicing a constituency involves winning federal funds for states and districts. The so-called pork barrel is composed of federal projects, grants, and contracts available to state and local governments, businesses, colleges, and other institutions. Members of Congress love to take credit for federally financed new highways, sewage treatment plants, or research institutes in their constituen-cies. Often they announce the awards through their offices. Moreover, the more often they claim credit, the more constituents support them.19 In the past, members have worked hard to obtain appropriations earmarked for specific projects in their districts, and members who succeeded have had an easier time in their reelection campaigns.20 Today, it may be that the impact of constituency-related activities has diminished as they have become an expected part of congressional service.21 As a result of the advantages incumbents have in advertising and credit claiming, incumbents, especially in the House, are usually much better known than their oppo-nents and have a more favorable public image.22 Nevertheless, advertising and credit claiming by themselves do not determine outcomes of congressional elections.23 WEAK OPPONENTS Another advantage for incumbents, particularly in the House, is that they are likely to face weak opponents.24 In part because the advantages of in-cumbency scare off potentially effective opponents, those individuals who do run are usually not well known or well qualified and lack experience and organizational and financial backing.25 The lack of adequate campaign funds is a special burden because challengers need money to compensate for the “free” recognition incumbents receive from their advertising and credit claiming.26 CAMPAIGN SPENDING It costs a great deal of money to get elected to Congress. In the 2015–2016 election cycle, congressional candidates, party committees, and out-side groups spent more than $4 billion to contest 435 House and 34 Senate seats. Not counting the massive outside expenditures, the average winner in the House spent about $1.5 million while the average Senate winner spent more than 10.5 million.27 Challengers have to raise large sums if they hope to defeat incumbents; the more they spend, the more votes they receive. Money buys them name recognition and a chance to be heard. Incumbents, by contrast, already have high levels of recognition among their constituents and benefit less (although they do benefit) from campaign spending; what matters most to the outcome of an election is how much their oppo-nent spends. (In contests for open seats, discussed later in this chapter, the candidate who spends the most usually wins.)28 It is not surprising that incumbents find it easier to raise money than do challengers.29 In the end challengers, especially those for House seats, are usually substantially outspent by incumbents. In Senate races in 2016, the typical incumbent outspent the typical challenger by a ratio of 2 to 1. For elections for House seats, the ratio was 4 to 1.30 The candidate spending the most money usually wins—but not always. In the 2014 Senate race in North Carolina, in-cumbent Kay Hagen and supporting outside groups spent $65 million but still lost the election.31 Obviously, prolific spending in a campaign is no guarantee of success. PARTY IDENTIFICATION Most members of Congress represent constituencies in which their party is in the clear majority, which gives them yet another advantage when they run for reelection. Most people identify with a party, and most party identifiers reliably vote for their party’s candidates. Indeed, about 90 percent of voters who identify with a party vote for the House candidates of their party. State legislatures have eagerly employed advances in technology to draw the boundaries of House districts so that there is a safe majority for one party. In addition, it is now more common for people to live in communi-ties where their neighbors are likely to have political and other attitudes that are similar to their own,32 which reduces the basis for party competition. Equally important to the creation of safe seats have been the significant changes in American politics over the past generation. As the differences between the parties have increased and as people have sorted themselves into parties that more closely match their policy views,33 voters have been less willing to cross party lines and support candidates who, for example, provided services for their constituencies. Instead, voters are more likely to support candidates of their party at every level of government. Because of the increase in party-line voting, the electoral advantage enjoyed by incumbents as a result of advertising and credit claiming has fallen over the past several elections to levels not seen since the 1950s, and incumbents has a much harder time winning in districts and states that lean toward the other party.34 They still win most of the time, but these victories are the result of districts that lack effective competition from one of the parties.

For decades, the Supreme Court declined to evaluate the boundaries of legislative districts because it would involve it in “political” questions. In Baker v. Carr (1962), the Supreme Court changed its view, ruling that the federal courts could review districts. In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), the Court held that each state should draw its congressional dis-tricts so they are approximately equal in population, thus instituting the principle of “one person, one vote.” Of course, being of equal size does not mean that districts are competi-tive. In 2018, the Court declined to decide two cases of partisan gerrymandering in which supporters of one party were disadvantaged by the drawing of district boundaries. We saw in Chapter 5 that the Court has made a number of decisions regarding race and the drawing of district boundaries, and it remains to be seen whether the Court will expand its definition of what violates fair districting.

Defeating Incumbents

Because incumbents almost always win reelection, it is reasonable to ask why anyone challenges them at all. One of the main reasons is simply that challengers are often naïve about their chances of winning. Because few have the money for expensive polls, they rely on friends and local party leaders, who often tell them what they want to hear. Sometimes challengers receive some unexpected help. An incumbent tarnished by scandal or corruption becomes instantly vulnerable. Voters do take out their anger at the polls. In a close election, negative publicity can turn victory into defeat.35 Incumbents can also lose many of their supporters when the boundaries of their districts change. After a federal census, which occurs every 10 years, Congress reap-portions its membership. States that have gained significantly in population will be given more House seats; states that have lost substantial population will lose one or more of their seats. The state legislatures must then redraw their states’ district lines; one incumbent may be moved into another’s district, where the two must battle for one seat.36 A state party in the majority is more likely to move two of the opposition party’s representatives into a single district than two of its own. Or it may split the district of an incumbent of the minority party to make that district more competitive. The Supreme Court has decided that state legislatures may redraw district boundaries at any time and not only after a census.37 And a state may draw its legislative districts based on the total population rather than only the total of U.S. citizens.38 Finally, major political tidal waves occasionally roll across the country, leaving defeated incumbents in their wake. One such wave occurred in 1994, when the public mood turned especially sour and voters took out their frustration on Democratic in-cumbents, defeating 2 in the Senate and 34 in the House. In 2006, the tide turned, and 6 Republican senators and 23 Republican representatives lost their seats. In 2010, it was again the Republicans’ turn: they defeated 2 Democratic senators and 52 Democratic representatives in the general election. In 2014, 5 Democratic incumbent senators lost.

Open Seats

When an incumbent is not running for reelection, and his or her seat is open, there is a greater likelihood of real competition for the seat. If the party balance in a constitu-ency is such that either party has a chance of winning, each side may offer a strong candidate who has name recognition among the voters or enough money to establish name recognition. Most of the turnover in the membership of Congress results when incumbents do not seek reelection.

Stability and Change

Because incumbents usually win reelection, there is some stability in the membership of Congress. This stability allows representatives and senators to gain some expertise in

dealing with complex questions of public policy. At the same time, longevity in office may insulate members from the winds of political change. Safe seats make it more difficult for citizens to “send a message to Washington” with their votes. It takes a large shift in votes to affect the outcomes of most elections, particularly in the House. To increase turnover in the membership of Congress, some reformers have proposed term limits for representatives and senators.39 Should we impose term limits on members of Congress? Enter the “You Are the Policymaker” debate to weigh the arguments for and against to vote for whomever they please. In addition, they argue, the U.S. Congress has plenty of new blood: at the beginning of the 115th Congress (in 2017), for example, most members of the House of Representatives and Senate had served fewer than 10 years. Moreover, changes in the party makeup of the House appear to reflect changes in voters’ preferences on public policy.* Congress seems to be responsive to public opinion. Proponents of term limits suffered two setbacks in 1995 when Congress failed to pass a constitutional amendment on term limits (which also failed in 1997) and when the Supreme Court, in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. et al. v. Thornton et al., decided that state-imposed term limits on members of Congress were unconstitutional. Here is the policy dilemma: Many Americans support a constitutional amendment to

impose term limits on members of Congress. At the same time, most voters are comfortable with their own representatives and senators and appear content to reelect them again and again.


Of all the roles that senators and representatives play—including politician, fund-raiser, and constituency representative—policymaker is the most difficult. Congress is a collection of generalists, short on time, trying to make policy on specialized topics. As generalists on most subjects, they are surrounded by people who know (or claim to know) more than they do—lobbyists, agency administrators, even their own staffs. Even if they were specialists and had time to study all the issues thoroughly, making wise national policy would be difficult. If economists disagree about policies to fight unemployment, how are legislators supposed to know which policies will work better than others? Thus, the generalists must organize Congress to help them make special-ized decisions. The Founders introduced just a hint of specialization into Congress when they split it into the House and the Senate.

American Bicameralism

A bicameral legislature is a legislature divided into two houses. The U.S. Congress is bi-cameral, as is every American state legislature except Nebraska’s, which has one house: it is unicameral. Our bicameral Congress is the result of the Connecticut Compromise at the Constitutional Convention. Each state is guaranteed two senators, and the num-ber of representatives a state has is determined by its population—so California, for example, has 53 representatives while Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming each have just one. By creating a bicameral Congress, the Constitution set up yet another check and balance. No bill can be passed unless both House and Senate agree on it; each body can thus veto the policies of the other. Table 11.2 shows some of the basic differences between the two houses. THE HOUSE More than four times as large as the Senate, the House is also more institutionalized—that is, more centralized, more hierarchical, and more disciplined.40 Party loyalty to leadership and party-line voting are more common in the House than in the Senate. Partly because there are more members, leaders in the House do more leading than do leaders in the Senate. First-term House members have less power than senior representatives; they are more likely than first-term senators to be just seen and not heard.


The Framers thought the Senate would protect elite interests, coun-teracting the tendency of the House to protect the interests of the masses. They gave the House the power to initiate all revenue bills and to impeach officials; they gave the Senate the power to ratify all treaties, to confirm important presidential nomina-tions (including nominations to the Supreme Court), and to try impeached officials. Despite the Framers’ expectations, history shows that when the same party controls both chambers, the Senate is just as liberal as—and perhaps more liberal than—the House.42 The real differences between the bodies lie in the Senate’s organization and decentralized power.

Smaller than the House, the Senate is also less disciplined and less centralized.

Today’s senators are more nearly equal in power than representatives are. Even in-coming senators sometimes get top committee assignments; they may even become chairs of key subcommittees.

Congressional Leadership

Leading 100 senators or 435 representatives in Congress—each jealous of his or her own power and responsible to no higher power than the constituency—is no easy task. Few members of Congress consider themselves followers. Much of the leader-ship in Congress is really party leadership. There are a few formal posts whose oc-cupants are chosen by nonparty procedures, but those who have the real power in the congressional hierarchy are those whose party put them there. THE HOUSE The Speaker of the House is the most important leader in the House of Representatives. The Speaker holds the only legislative office mandated by the Constitution. In practice, the majority party selects the Speaker. Before each Congress begins, the majority party presents its candidate for Speaker, who—be-cause this person nearly always attracts the unanimous support of the majority party—is a shoo-in. Typically, the Speaker is a senior member of the party. The Speaker is also two heartbeats away from the presidency, being second in line (after the vice president) to succeed a president who resigns, dies in office, or is convicted after impeachment. Years ago, the Speaker was king of the congressional mountain. Autocrats such as “Uncle Joe Cannon” and “Czar Reed” ran the House like a fiefdom. A great revolt in 1910 whittled down the Speaker’s powers and gave some of them to committees, but six decades later, members of the House restored some of the Speaker’s powers. Today, the Speaker: • Presides over the House when it is in session • Plays a major role in making committee assignments, which are coveted by all members to ensure their reelection

• Appoints or plays a key role in appointing the party’s legislative leaders and the party leadership staff

• Exercises substantial control over assigning bills to committees

In addition to these formal powers, the Speaker has a great deal of informal clout inside and outside Congress. When the Speaker’s party differs from the president’s party, as it frequently does, the Speaker often serves as a national spokesperson for the party. A good Speaker knows the members of the House well—including their past im-proprieties, the ambitions they harbor, and the pressures they feel. Speakers try to keep their parties unified and pass legislation that will create an attractive party record. Leadership in the House, however, is not a one-person show. The Speaker’s princi-pal partisan ally is the majority leader—a job that has been the main stepping-stone to becoming Speaker. The majority leader is elected by his or her party and is responsible for scheduling bills and rounding up votes on behalf of the party’s position on legisla-tion. Working with the majority leader are the party’s whips, whose job it is to convey the party’s position to rank-and-file congresspersons. Whips count votes before they are cast and lean on any waverers whose votes are crucial to the passage of a bill. Whips also report the views and complaints of the party rank and file back to the House leadership. The minority party is also organized, poised to take over the Speakership and other key posts if it should win a majority in the House. It has a minority leader as well as party whips, who operate much like their counterparts in the majority party. THE SENATE The vice president’s only constitutionally defined job is to serve as president of the Senate. However, vice presidents usually slight their senatorial chores, except in the rare case when their vote can break a tie. Modern vice presidents are active in representing the president’s views to senators, however. It is the Senate majority leader who,