The long and short of it is this: people in Congress want to re-elected, and the vast majority of their behavior can be understood as contributing to their re-election efforts in one way or another. To use political science jargon, this is a rational choice theory of how Congress operates. There are essentially three ways a Congress-person pursues this goal: advertising, which encompasses not just standard political advertising but any effort that is likely to increase their name ID among the electorate; credit-claiming, or finding ways to plausibly take ownership of stuff like pork-barrel spending in their district or other benefits from legislation; and position-taking, or stating a stance on an issue that should gain them votes in their district because it is popular with a constituency--no action is necessary for this to be effective. Just holding the position is enough. As someone that spent a number of years working in a legislative office and on campaigns, I can say that most of this felt pretty much correct to me. There is nothing wrong with these activities per se, and we have created a system that incentivizes officeholders to act in the ways they do.
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Compared to other democratic assemblies, the parties within it are weak. Often, the President and Congress are of opposing parties — further complicating issues of whom to hold accountable when things are going poorly and whom to reward when things go well.
Despite these potential problems and complications, Congress, according to David Mayhew, still performs remarkably well in representing the interests of its constituents and members. Mayhew wrote Congress at a time when little academic research existed on Congressional behavior, and at the same time, rational choice theory was gaining popularity among political scientists. In his studies, Richard Fenno concluded that members are motivated by reelection, prestige within Congress, and good public policy.
When we say that a Congressman is unbeatable, it is not to say that incumbents have a structural advantage that makes them invulnerable; rather, it is because they do the things such as answering mail, serving constituents, and voting for projects in their district that gain favor among their voters and help their reelection campaigns. Credit claiming refers to actions which promote the belief that the member is the person responsible for desirable results.
Therefore, claims must be believable. Such claims are perceived as unbelievable whether true or not. Mayhew believes this is part of the reason we see a proliferation of pork barrel projects and earmarks in Congress while complex and nuanced issues are ignored.
Often, position taking is done formally through a roll call vote. Mayhew argues that the best strategy for position taking is a conservative one. Since about only half the electorate can name their Representative, members spend much of their time trying to build their reputation as an experienced, valuable, and knowledgeable politician. Incumbents have a large advantage in advertising since they can use franking privileges to correspond with constituents and are more likely to get news coverage.
Mayhew provides several examples of Congressmen who ramped up their presence going as far as hosting radio and television shows in order to advertise after close elections. These three elements make up the majority of Congressional activity and ultimately support the goal of reelection. However, these activities focus on the individual members and not the institution itself. Part 2 of Congress focuses on how members organize within Congress to fulfill their needs.
Staff, franking privileges, and availability of other resources allow members to effectively pursue their goals. In the public mind the connection between the two is there, but it is decidedly ambiguous. Congress would cease to be effective if the desire to spend was not in some way checked by the diligent work of members concerned with issues beyond their own reelection. Mayhew spends a significant portion of his book examining the role of parties in Congress especially compared to other democratic legislatures.
He concludes that they are generally weak and take a backseat to the interests of individual members. Although I believe this is still true for many members from marginal districts — for example, those districts in which Rahm Emanuel recruited conservative Democrats to run and to which the party allows a wider range of ideology — I believe parties and party loyalty occupy a greater role in congressional behavior since the mid-term elections. Further, as gerrymandering creates more districts that are solidly one party, there is a greater tendency for candidates in those districts to align themselves with the party.
If a member strays too far from the party line in a solidly one party district, he will be punished by primary challengers. The general election is often more closely contested in marginal districts and the primary more so in one party districts.
So, the fewer marginal districts there are, the greater importance getting through the primary becomes. One way of doing that is to demonstrate that you are the most Republican or most Democratic candidate.
Congress: The Electoral Connection
Opening Statements[ edit ] Mayhew claims that the book is theoretical; it pursues an argument and considers the implications for exploratory purposes. He references the decreasing turnover rate of congressmen as evidence for the transition to full-time politicians interested in advancing their careers. It is also the goal that must be reached in order for any other goals legislation to be achieved. Is there a connection between what they do in office and their need to be reelected? Examines the salient structural units of Congress offices, committees, and parties and the ways in which these units are arranged to meet electoral needs. Explores the "functions" that Congress fulfills or is thought to fulfill. Examines structural arrangements in Congress that promote institutional maintenance.
As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. If you have more recent summaries to add to this collection, send them my way I guess. Sorry for the ads; they cover the costs of keeping this online.