Congressional Representation

Each member of the United States Congress comes from a different "home" and represents a different people and place. Consequently, each member must respond to a unique combination of personal, electoral and political influences. By the very definition and nature of their positions, members of Congress are representatives of local constituencies that have local interests. It is this reality that prompted former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill to declare that "All politics is local."

The most perplexing and constant challenge faced by members of Congress as they try to represent their constituents is that they must balance the local interests of "home" against the need to work with other members of Congress to create policies and programs for the entire nation. Given the tensions that sometimes arise between local and national interests and between members of Congress, it is a wonder that the Congress functions as well as it does. One member of the House of Representatives observed:

The United States Congress is a fascinating place. You snatch one person out of every 500,000 across the population, come up with 435 representatives of that population and put them in one little room together and expect them to get something done. Some observers of the Congress have likened the floor of the House to a beehive because of its level of activity, but it's not like a beehive at all because in a beehive all of the bees look alike. Members of the House are anything but clones of each other; but, notwithstanding all of their differences, there is a lot of common ground in the House--at least enough to govern a vast and extended republic. They manage to do so because, at the end of the day, all of the members of the House, each of them 500,000 people apart, somehow manage to work together.1

How do members of Congress "manage to work together" in Washington? They interact with each other on the House and Senate floor, in committee meetings, and it more private, informal settings. In the process, they discuss, debate, negotiate, persuade, and compromise. And then they cast their votes, establishing public policies that, to the greatest degree possible, balance national and local interests. Sometimes a member's constituents will be happy with the vote cast by their representative, sometimes they will not. In the American system of representative government, however, the process does not end with a vote cast in Congress. Each member of Congress has the opportunity to go back home and explain the votes he or she cast, listen to his or her constituents and then go back to Washington to represent them again. Indeed, congressional representation is a dynamic, interactive process, not a rigid relationship established on election day.

Making "Representative" Decisions

If congressional representation requires members of Congress to balance local and national interests as they cast their votes in Washington, D.C., how exactly do they strike that balance? Do they tend to emphasize local interests more than national ones or is it the other way around?

Writing in the 1970s, political scientist David Mayhew described a "universal coalition" in the United States Congress that worked to ensure that every member of Congress was able to send home some "bacon" to his or her district. According to Mayhew, all members of Congress went along because it improved their reelection chances. During their campaigns, they would "advertise" and "claim credit" for the things they had brought home from Congress, such as post offices, bridges, or education or law enforcement grants.2

Mayhew's arguments were based on the notion that members of Congress are "single-minded seekers of reelection." In other words, if you want to understand why a member of Congress behaves in a particular way, you simply need to figure out how the behavior in question improves his or her reelection chances. Other political scientists have also suggested that members of Congress are primarily motivated by the goal of reelection, even arguing that members of Congress have purposely created a complex bureaucracy in Washington that will invariably cause problems for their constituents. Then, when the people back home ask for help, it is provided by their member of Congress. Voters then reward their representative with their votes on election day.3

Fortunately, these perspectives of House members offer a view of House members that is too cynical. In reality, members of Congress are, in fact, motivated by reelection, but all members do not pursue it as "single-mindedly" as Mayhew and others have argued. Indeed, some members of Congress purposely cast votes they know will displease or even anger their constituents. Why? Because they believe their constituents are wrong. One member of Congress offered this example:

I've been consistently reelected in my district, by wide margins, because the people know where I'm coming from. I'm always up front and clear with people. I even sometimes manage to convince people that disagree with me that I'm right. For example, a lot of my constituents believe in term limits, but I've shown them how I've been able to be a better representative by serving as long as I have and some of them have gone away with a different perspective.4

Political scientists and political philosophers have suggested that representatives can choose to behave as delegates or as trustees. A delegate is a representative who casts votes that are consistent with the desires of the majority of the constituents he or she represents. A trustee, on the other hand, is a representative who casts votes based on what he or she thinks is best. Some members blend both approaches, behaving as a delegate in some instances and as a trustee in others. How do members of Congress decide how to approach their jobs as representatives? For some, the process is automatic or natural. Others, however, struggle with the question each new day on the job. One young member of Congress admitted:

I always think of the voters first and do what they want. Sometimes my personal beliefs differ from what they want and sometimes my personal beliefs might not even help them. I have a strong religious background that makes it difficult for me sometimes. It's very hard. As a public servant, I often end up being ambivalent about issues like abortion. In the end, I base my votes both on what my constituency wants and my convictions. It's a difficult balancing act. I bring my personal views with me to Washington and I weigh them carefully when I vote, but I really struggle with it. It's a challenge balancing my values with the values of others more broadly.5

Balancing local and national interests in the Congress is a difficult task. When members strike a balance that voters are happy with, they are likely to be reelected. However, when they cast too many votes that are too far removed from their constituents' wishes, members of Congress usually find themselves looking for a new job.

Who Gets Represented?

When members of Congress run for office, they almost always have to compete with an opponent for voters' support. Consequently, victories are rarely complete--the other candidate generally wins at least some votes. Is a victorious candidate obligated to represent the people who voted for the other candidate? To which people in their congressional districts do members of Congress listen most carefully? Are the interests of some constituents "represented" more effectively and faithfully than others?

These are difficult questions and the answers will differ from one member of Congress to the next. However, writing specifically about members of the House of Representatives, Richard Fenno, has provided a framework that can be applied to every congressional district. Fenno suggests that each district should be thought of as a set of concentric circles, with the outermost circle representing the geographic boundaries of the district. Everyone who lives in the district is inside this circle. These people are a member of Congress's "geographic constituency." The next smallest circle, the "reelection constituency" represents the group of people that actually voted for the member of Congress in his or her last election. Inside that circle is another representing those who voted for the member in the party primary. These people are the member's "primary constituency." Finally, the innermost circle is the member's "personal constituency," the people he or she knows and associates with regularly.6

In general, the smaller the circle, the more likely it is that a member of Congress will be to listen to and represent the people that are in it. There are two reasons for this tendency. First, most members of Congress are interested in reelection and will, therefore, try to please the people that voted for them in the last election in hopes that they will support them in the next election as well. Consequently, members of Congress will pay more attention to and reflect the values of the people who voted for them in the party primary and general elections. Secondly, members of Congress are, much like you and I, influenced by the people they know and experiences they have. As they talk and interact with the people in their personal, primary and reelection constituencies, they are influenced by them. When they go to Washington, they will naturally reflect the views and interests of those people more than they will the interests of people outside of those constituencies.

Assessing Representation

On what basis should a constituent evaluate his or her representative? First, a constituent might determine how consistently the representative's votes reflect the opinions and interests of the people he or she represents. Should a representative behave as a trustee or as a delegate? In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison strongly suggests that the representative form of government established by the Constitution would be best served by trustees, not delegates. A republican form of government, he argued, has the capacity to:

. . . refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the same purpose.

But there are times when it might be better for members of Congress to listen to their constituents. Representatives and their constituents often differ on issues such as abortion, military funding, prayer in school and term limits. Should representatives vote their conscience on such matters or follow their constituents? Ultimately, the answer to that question lies in the hands of the voters. If a representative behaves as trustee when his or her constituents want a delegate, the voters will probably elect someone else.

Watching Your Representative

To assess the job your member of Congress is doing, you need information. Where can you find it? Both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate have Internet web sites you can visit for general information. Additionally, virtually every member of Congress has a web site with information about them and their legislative activities. On each member's site you can also find information about contacting them in Washington or at home, by telephone, regular mail or e-mail. You can also do research on your House member and Senators at the Library of Congress's Thomas site, which includes information about pending legislation, committee proceedings, floor speeches and votes. Many newspapers also provide coverage of local congressional delegations. You can also watch congressional proceedings on C-SPAN. Visit the C-SPAN web site for scheduling information.

Another basis on which a constituent might evaluate a representative is the representative's approach to his or her work in Washington. Members of Congress generally adopt either a constituent, policy or political party focus on Capitol Hill. Members with a constituent focus emphasize constituents concerns and problems back home and try to use the legislative process to address those problems and to send resources to their districts or states. Members of Congress with a policy focus are comparatively less concerned with day-to-day constituent concerns. Instead, they pursue broader policy goals, such as strengthening national defense, protecting the environment, improving education or balancing the budget. Members who adopt a political party approach to their Washington work are interested in helping constituents and enacting policies they support, but they do so within the framework of their political parties. These members tend to vote with the majority of their party and are often less inclined to compromise and work with members of the other party.

Each of these distinct styles can be an effective way for a member of Congress to represent his or her constituents. The kind of representation provided by each approach, however, differs substantially. Constituent-focussed members help the people they represent with their daily, practical problems, such as late Social Security checks and deteriorating roads. They also work hard to send as many dollars and projects home to their districts as possible. Members with a policy focus provide their constituents with substantive policy representation by supporting policies and programs they support. A partisan member represents constituents who affiliate with his or her party by supporting and building the party.

Once again, none of the three approaches is obviously the "right" or "best" approach. Constituents must decide what they expect out of their members of Congress and judge them accordingly. The burden is on the shoulders of each member of Congress to determine what his or her constituents expect and to establish a good representational relationship with them. If more voters would pay more attention and participate more in the process of representation, there would be less complaints about the Congress and the views of the people would be reflected more accurately in the laws that are passed.

The Member "Organization"

Members of Congress have an impressive range of resources at their disposal as they work to represent their constituents. Each House Member has a budget of approximately $1 million to spend each year on staff, computers, travel and rent (for offices in the district). Budgets for Senators are dependent on the population of the states they represent. The staff in a congressional office typically consists of fifteen to twenty persons plus several interns and congressional fellows (professionals and government employees who work in Congress for a short period of time, generally a year).

Given the complexity and breadth of the issues the Congress addresses, Representatives and Senators simply cannot keep up with it by themselves. While members are free to use their budget allotments as they see fit (within reason), most office staffs are headed by a Chief of Staff or Administrative Assistant, a Press Secretary and a Legislative Director. These are generally the highest paid and most influential staffers in a member's office. In addition to these positions, each office usually employs several Legislative Assistants to help the Legislative Director and the member of Congress keep up with the legislative business of the House. Legislative Correspondents are generally hired to assist with the mail that goes through a congressional office and virtually every staff includes a receptionist, a scheduler and a computer support person.

Members of Congress also maintain at least one office in their states or congressional districts where they employ people whose primary responsibility is to handle constituent requests for help and to schedule the member's time when he or she is back home.

In addition to staff, members can use their official budgets to pay for travel to and from the district, non-campaign mailing to their constituents and other expenses related to maintaining their offices in Washington and at home.

Members of Congress who serve as committee chairs or as party leaders have additional resources at their disposal, including staff and office space.

1. Quoted in Jonathan Mott. Washington Style: Members of Congress on Capitol Hill (Dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1998), 1.
2. David R. Mayhew. Congress: The Electoral Connection (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974).
3. Morris Fiorina. Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
4. Private Conversation with Author.
5. Quoted in Mott, 118.
6. Richard Fenno. Home Style: House Members in Their Districts (Harper Collins Publishers, 1978), 1-25.