This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Lugubrious adjectives such as venomous and broken are constantly bandied about to describe the modern Congress. Resigning members of Congress constantly cite gridlocking partisanship and obstructionism as reasons for their apparently early departures. Abysmally low approval ratings of Congress are also repeatedly cited with much gnashing of teeth. It appears that many are convinced that Congress today is an institution wracked with partisan division and obstructionism, unable to get anything done and setting itself on a course that will lead to its own demise. But is Congress really broken? To answer this question, one must ascertain how well Congress is performing its key functions of representation and legislating. First, are the individual MCs faithfully representing the constituents whom elect them? Second, does Congress adequately represent the nation as a whole? Third, are these constituent and national interests being translated into legislation? Instead of focusing on the high-profile partisan spats which draw in the ratings for the media, a nuanced and comprehensive examination of how Congress is performing its key functions will reveal that contrary to popular belief, Congress is not broken beyond repair. Congress still performs its core functions of representing district and national interests and passes pursuant legislation, but the problems which do indeed afflict it are secondary and remediable. First, are MCs faithfully representing the constituents whom elect them? By almost all metrics, the answer is an unequivocal yes. MCs serve their constituents in two general ways:
Tiemann 2 they advocate their interests to the federal bureaucracy by providing constituent services and represent their interests via the legislative process. The quest for reelection is an extremely strong incentive which has driven MCs to come up with new ways to gain the favor of their constituents. As noted by Mayhew and Fiorina, MCs began to aggressively expand their constituent services operations as a way to curry favor with their constituents in the pursuit of reelection. Constituent services are particularized benefits for which an MC can claim direct credit (Mayhew, p. 54); these are tangible particularized benefits provided to a constituent which have a high probability of endearing a constituent to his MC and thus secures the constituents electoral allegiance. MCs also deliver particularized benefits to constituents when they go to bat against the federal bureaucracy (Fiorina, p. 54). The amount of time and resources devoted by MCs to attending to their constituents’ needs has risen sharply to the point that constituent services is a routinized, almost expected, component of an MC’s job (Fiorina, Keystone Reconsidered, p. 11). MCs routinely travel home as new technologies have shortened travel time and cost, spending more time in their districts than ever before (Koger, p. 134). Despite the routinization of constituent services, the rise of this practice has indubitably increased the representational capacity of MCs. MCs are also generally independent from their parties in numerous aspects, especially in regard to relations with their districts. MCs are ultimately solely responsible for their own electoral success; sometimes their electoral fortunes are divorced from those of their party. This means that MCs must build up their own electoral coalitions among their constituents and establish relations to constituents in their districts. They are also responsible for accurately reflecting the interests of their districts in Congress. The raft of MCs thrown out for voting the wrong way on Obamacare and the 2009 Stimulus are illustrative. Many tie the rise of the safe
Tiemann 3 district and increasing rates of incumbency with the increased partisan polarization in Congress. Those who bemoan polarization argue that MCs are increasingly representing the extremists and activists within their districts and ignoring moderate voters. Redistricting is routinely indicted for the loss of the moderate MC. This is the line of argument advanced by Fiorina in Disconnect, observing the increased importance of issue activists and organizations to which MCs increasingly respond; Fiorina argues that MCs now only have shallow roots in their districts since they now depend mostly on specific constituencies whose interests are not shared by the wider population (Fiorina, Keystone Reconsidered, p. 23). Issue activists and extremists have indubitably gained influence, but there is a missing electoral step in the argument that MCs now only respond to these groups in their districts. This is the same problem with Lessig’s argument that small interests in society use large sums of money to influence MCs via campaign donations. If the extremists, issue activists, and wealthy interests are indeed in the minority, how do they translate their influence into electoral success? It is not the amount of money, activism, or time spent that translates into having your view represented by an MC in congress; it is securing the majority of a district’s voters. The argument that MCs are now more partisan than before solely due to the influence of small and wealthy activist groups ignores larger trends in the populations of Congressional districts. MCs are actually responding to increased polarization among their constituents; in fact, districts that are considered safe and are solidly composed of voters of one party have higher levels of satisfaction with their MC and Congress, and feel they are more politically efficacious (Brunell, pp. 35-46). American voters like to be winners, and they are more satisfied when a MC with whom they share a similar political ideology keeps winning in their district. These results mirror the trends of geographical selection and national partisan sorting identified by Polsby and Theriault; Americans now increasingly vote for the party which
Tiemann 4 best reflects their political ideology and they move into districts where they share a similar political ideology with the district’s constituents (Theriault, pp. 88-108). The increasing partisanship of a MC’s constituency is just as important as the party extremists in their district (Theriault, p. 128). Contrary to what Lessig and others may think, MCs are becoming more ideologically extreme not solely because of money or the party crazies, but because the constituents they represent are becoming more partisan. Furthermore, constituents in polarized and safe districts are more satisfied with the partisan MC who keeps getting reelected and Congress as a whole. Can one then claim that MCs and the parties in Congress are not representing constituents? Congress and MCs have become more partisan because constituents have become more partisan. MCs and Congress indubitably do not represent the preferences of moderate voters, but that is because the importance of these voters has declined. Furthermore, if these voters truly make up a majority of the electorate, they are not denied access to relief. They are not denied the right of free speech and petition; the same strategies employed by the issue activists and extremists may be utilized by these moderates if necessary. Second, does Congress adequately represent the nation’s interests? Again, one must examine the American electorate’s preferences and partisan trends. Overall, elections at all levels are becoming nationalized. The American electorate tends to be split down the middle on the majority of political issues, which has unsurprisingly translated into partisan battles in Congress. This reality reflects and compliments the polarization that occurs within districts. Furthermore, as Brunell demonstrates, an electorate that is made up of more safe and polarized districts better conveys the policy preferences of the larger electorate (Brunell, p. 11). Congress typically reflects the views of the American electorate at large, and the party of the majority in Congress is punished when it passes legislation and acts contrary to the wishes of the national electorate as
Tiemann 5 demonstrated by the 2010 midterm wave elections in which the Democratic Party was punished for Obamacare and the 2009 Stimulus (Dulio & Adkins). Congress, although exceedingly rare, also casts aside partisanship on issues that are highly salient to the electorate and which cut across the parties, thus producing overlapping preference distributions among the two parties which enable passage of legislation on these issues (Aldrich & Rohde, p. 289). Thus, partisan polarization typically not only reflects the preferences of the constituents of an MC’s district, but also the national electorate at large. Furthermore, for issues which the electorate cannot easily divide itself according to partisan affiliation yet which enjoy broad popular support, the conditional party governance Congresses of today still retain the ability to address these issues. Third, are constituent and national electorate preferences being translated into actual legislation that is passed and enacted? Increasing partisan polarization in the electorate has translated into polarization in Congress, especially in the House and to a slightly lower extent in the Senate. But has polarization created a ‘venomous’ and ‘toxic’ environment in which no legislative work can be accomplished? Pundits and political commentators regularly point to partisan logjams and examples of obstructionism, but the majority of these battles are actually procedural votes that are of secondary importance in relation to final passage. As demonstrated by Theriault, the majority of polarization in Congress is due to these procedural battles between the two parties (Theriault, pp. 218-228). For final passage, MCs typically vote in a manner that reflects the preferences of the constituencies they represent (Theriault, p. 223). Conditional party governance requires MCs to vote the party line on procedural votes since these votes typically are not salient to voters but may provide wedge issues which the parties can use to appeal to their party extremists and special interests. Much is made of these procedural battles, but for final passage MCs actually represent the interests of their constituents. Furthermore, it may simply be
Tiemann 6 the case that for votes on issues that are not salient to the public, MCs are then free to use their vote to satisfy partisan extremists, special interests, and the wealthy who contribute to an MC’s reelection campaign, as argued by Lessig. This is essentially the narrow interpretation of Lessig: MCs and Congress will consult the extremists and follow the money when an issue does not matter to constituents and the electorate; however, those considerations fly out the window on highly salient votes. This is the same logic for procedural votes. But what of the obstructionist tactics employed in the House but more prominently so in the Senate? Have these procedural votes, filibusters, holds, etc. reduced the amount of legislation that Congress can pass? First, Koger demonstrates that obstructionist tactics are primarily the product of the increasing value of legislative time to MCs (Koger, pp. 178-180). Minorities do not filibuster in the Senate simply because they want to prevent the majority from passing any legislation whatsoever until the next election; there are typically real issues and concerns involved. Self-restraint and reciprocity exists in the Senate still (Koger, p. 181). If the minority were truly engaging in obstructionism simply because they wanted to deny the majority the ability to pass any legislation, the majority will respond in kind when it is in the minority. Filibustering typically occurs within the Senate to signal disagreement where there are real problems with the proposed legislation or a senator believes there are more pressing issues that need to be addressed. Has polarization and the obstructionism oft decried in the media (especially in regard to the Senate) decreased Congress’s legislative output and made it impossible to get anything done? Again, as explained above, conditional party governance still leaves room for passage of legislation on a salient issue that cuts across both parties. Congress still passes legislation today, although the overall volume has slightly decreased as identified by Theriault and Mann and
Tiemann 7 Ornstein, ranging from a decrease of one vote per six congresses to as much as five votes per congress (Theriault, p. 164). However, when considered in light of the increased polarization of the electorate, this is not surprising. Compared to the Congresses of the Southern Coalition, legislation is passed today when there is broad support. Legislation gets stalled on issues where there is little or no consensus, given the partisan polarization of Congress; this is responsible party governance. This essay presents no evidence to support this assertion, but perhaps today legislation and issues are discussed and deliberated more than ever before. Voters today typically have two clear policy choices from which to choose according to their own partisan preferences. These preferences are concentrated into safe ideologically homogenous districts which send MCs who have deeper policy commitments than their counterparts of a generation ago (Fiorina, Keystone Reconsidered, p. 14), who will fight for these policy interests with like-minded MCs through a strong party organization. Considering all of the evidence, Congress does not appear to be defective in its key functions of representing the interest of constituents and the national electorate and passing legislation which reflects those interests. Far from it, Congress may even be better at performing these functions than previous Congresses. However, Congress is indeed broken in some respects. The general pessimism and lack of confidence which is the product of campaign contributions as explained by Lessig is a problem. The public may indeed have a lowered confidence in Congress due to the large amounts of money involved today in politics, although Lessig does not offer any data to prove this. However, this purported lack of confidence in Congress is apparently not enough to drive election participation rates to an abysmally low level nor cause voters to lower their approval of their MCs. Lessig may be on to something here, but he has not made his case. MCs do run perpetual campaigns and aggressively fundraise, but as demonstrated by the evidence provided
Tiemann 8 above, MCs still represent their constituents well. The one area in which Congress is truly broken is in regard to fiscal discipline. Unified Budget Accounting has allowed Congress to deceive the electorate (Wallner, 2011). As identified by Mayhew, Congress has a natural incentive to legislate fiscal matters unwisely, especially for spending which delivers particularized benefits to constituents but the costs of which are spread over the population at large so as not to have a disparate impact on a voting group (Mayhew, pp. 142-144). When Mayhew was writing his book, control committees in the House served as institutional control mechanisms on spending; the committees had different incentives from the rest of Congress to rein in spending due to the more conservative and experienced members that were appointed to them (Mayhew, p. 150). Today however, appointments to these committees are not only done according to seniority, but also partisan considerations. Overall, these problems are secondary to Congress’s key functions. The problems associated with a possible lack of public confidence in Congress due to money can be fixed with good campaign finance laws. Fiscal discipline can be institutionalized again with the right incentives. Congress may be currently broken in these aspects, but these are problems that can be fixed. Overall, Congress is still fulfilling its key responsibilities of representation and legislating. Increased polarization may appear at first glance to be detrimental to Congress’s ability to perform these key functions, but polarization has actually increased Congress’s capacity to do so in numerous ways. Finally, Congress is broken in some functions that are secondary to its key functions, but these problems may be easily remedied. Congress today is not broken beyond repair.
Aldrich, J. H., & Rohde, D. W. (n.d.). The Logic of Conditional Party Government: Revisiting the Electoral Connection. Brunell, T. L. (2008). Redistricting and Representation. New York: Routledge. Dulio, D. A., & Adkins, R. E. (n.d.). Riding the Wave. Fiorina, M. P. (1989). Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment. New Haven: Yale University Press. Fiorina, M. P. (2001). Keystone Reconsidered. Koger, G. (2010). Filibustering. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Mayhew, D. R. (1974). Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven: Yale University Press. Theriault, S. M. (2008). Party Polarization in Congress. New York: Cambridge University Press. Wallner, J. I. (2011). Unified Budget Accounting in the United States Congress: The Persistence of Government Deficits and Debt, 1967-2010. The Forum, Article 12.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.