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Commentary: How representative are our legislators?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Traditionally, we were taught to believe that those we elect to Congress either voted the views of their constituency or felt that the electorate selected them to choose the best alternatives for the polity. On some issues, voting one’s conscience might be an expected course of action.

More recently, scholars and pundits have posited other reasons for voting strategies. Self-interest becomes the key decider.

In 1974, David Mayhew’s “Congress: The Electoral Connection” separated many congressional careers from a base in altruism or patriotism. Mayhew posited that members of Congress geared their activities, including voting, in terms of re-election.

Their desire to continue to serve was paramount in their decision-making. Continuing in office necessitated gauging sentiment in the district and raising funds necessary to run campaigns. (Note: More districts were competitive when Mayhew wrote his book.)

The re-election desire also influenced the committees members wished to serve on. Desirable committees could be chosen for their prestige, e.g., Foreign Affairs. Or they might be sources of pork to bring back home. Projects that aid employment are good pork to provide. This could be a military base or a harbor project.

Take a representive from a rural district: Membership on the Agriculture Committee and a key subcommittee dealing a crop grown in the area would be very useful. That representative would likely support crop subsidies, pleasing constituents and agribusiness. Voter support and campaign contributions would then result.

Representatives will also refrain from taking stands on social values that would be antithetical to constituent desires. For instance, representatives from large cities by and large would support collective bargaining and equal pay for women while those from the hinterland are less likely to.

It should be noted that hundreds of votes are taken in every congressional session. Most do not get public scrutiny so that representatives can vote as they see fit.

In the almost 40 years since Mayhew’s influential book appeared, there have been significant changes in the political parties, and these necessitate a few addenda.

One much always remember that having three branches of government—executive, legislative and judicial—and two houses within the legislative, the United States has not enjoyed the strong political parties or the party discipline characteristic of Great Britain and other European nations. Parties do not choose their flag bearers. Primaries determine who the party’s candidates are. And that has allowed for a good deal of variation in issue positions.

The re-elections Mayhew devoted energy to were general-election contests between candidates of the two parties. Today however, careful political gerrymandering means far fewer swing districts exist. Congressional seats have been so drawn as to maximize voters from one party. Therefore, the primary most often becomes the critical election.

Today, many Republican representatives and senators from heavily red states fear a primary challenge from the right, more than a Democratic challenge. The rise of the tea party, which has successfully challenged some incumbents, has made this fear more real. It has also led to greater party discipline than we would normally expect within the American system.

In addition to fearing a tea party challenge, members also fear the PAC money that might attach itself to these potential right wing opponents. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, independent committees can raise unlimited amounts from unidentified donors to help candidates. Campaigns have become increasingly expensive, and this PAC money can fund many television attack ads. An incumbent’s voting record would be fair game, and opponents and/or their funders will ferret out those decisions that could hurt.

Serving in Congress is a comfortable existence. Members have large staffs, barber shops and a state-of-the-art gym. They also receive attention and may be able to appear on Fox or MSNBC. It is a life few wish to willingly give up. Many serve into their 80s. And re-election is paramount.

Today this means voting with one’s party more often than not. For the Republicans, it means catering to the growing coterie on the far right. It still means pleasing campaign donors and interest groups. It still means paying attention to one’s constituency, which means frequent trips home to meet and greet and knowing that issues that might allow flexibility in voting. The growth in strength of the right in the Republican Party has meant the divide between the two major parties is greater and each has more ideological purity. 

Re-election remains the goal, but the means of achieving that goal have become more complex since the 1990s. Members still want committee assignments that will help their districts or draw them outside support. But they experience more constraints in voting. Most take care not to have their votes stand out from the pack. These factors have aided the gridlock that becoming characteristic of Washington. The emerging party discipline does not facilitate the smooth functioning of separation of powers, particularly when government is divided.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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