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.
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.