The Congress of the United States of America is an incredibly powerful entity. It writes the federal laws of the nation, controls appropriations to government agencies, and regulates interstate commerce, among many other powers. The Founders designed Congress to be the branch of the government closest to the people and the power of the five hundred and thirty-five members of Congress is given solely from the people they represent. They created Congress as an entity held accountable by the people through elections. Because their constituents can remove them from office in the next election, members of Congress have an incentive to keep their constituents pleased with their performance. But, are congressmen concerned solely with elections, or are they concerned with policy goals as well? Political scientists have offered many theories on what exactly fuels the actions of the members of Congress. This essay will examine and compare three theories regarding the incentives of Congress members and how these incentives determine the actions members of Congress make, as well as present tests that would prove or disprove these theories.
One of the leading theories on Congressional incentives is Morris Fiorina’s theory. Fiorina believes that Congressmen are driven by the incentive of reelections. He assumes that the majority of Congressmen act self-interest, and that many Congressmen are driven to seek reelection by the power, prestige, and excitement that the job of Representative or Senator brings them. He mentions that some Congressmen may have policy-oriented goals, but for them to take part in the policy-making process, they must remain in office (Woll 337). His theory states that for a politician to obtain reelection, he must appease his constituents by granting their wishes and doing favors. Every action is a calculated action that aids the politician in achieving reelection. Fiorina states that Congressmen participate in primarily three actions: lawmaking, pork barreling, and casework in order to secure constituent’s votes (Woll 338). Casework helps appease constituents, even those with a different ideology from the Congressman, by assisting them with bureaucratic morass (Woll 340). Pork barrel legislation brings jobs to the district and is easy to claim responsibility for (Woll 338). Lawmaking, on the other hand, is difficult for a Congressman to claim credit to, and often divides the support for the Congressman (Woll 340). Congressmen must calculate the amount of votes he or she will gain and he or she will lose when they make a legislative decision (Woll 341). David Mayhew, whose theory also insists that Congressmen participate mainly in reelection activities, participate in lawmaking in order to take positions. He views Congressmen as speakers, rather than doers, who use floor speeches and roll call votes to take positions on issues important to a majority of his or her constituents (Woll 361).
To test this theory, a political scientist must assess the time and resources used by Congressmen for certain activities (while working, of course), and find that the Congressmen emphasized reelection through their time and resources. If a Congressman were primarily concerned with reelection, he or she would spend most of their time and resources focusing on reelection- providing constituent service, passing pork barrel legislation, making noticeable speeches or voting to make their positions clear. If they did not spend a majority of time and resources working on reelection, then reelection would not be their prime incentive in Congress, because they would be spending most of their time and resources on activities not relevant to reelection. This theory appears to be false, because if it were the case, Congressmen would spend a majority of their time and resources doing constituent service and legislating pork. Lawmaking and position taking would be much less prevalent, because there is a substantial risk in losing support from voters, as Fiorina said. Why would a Congressman spend time in Washington, often in committee (and away from audiences), passing non-pork laws if they could garner enough electoral support simply by either staying at home and doing constituent service or passing pork barrel legislation? What use does passing laws irrelevant to the district do for the Representative in terms of reelection? It seems as though this theory may not answer the entire question, as Congressmen spend a substantial time performing activities irrelevant to reelection.
Another theory is that of Lawrence Dodd, which states that while reelection is important to Congressmen, it is not the prime incentive of Congressmen. Incumbent Congressmen are widely reelected with secure electoral margins, and they have independent financial and human resources that can focus on providing constituent service (Woll 347). Dodd instead proposes that members of Congress are driven by the desire to control policy decisions and the desire to obtain positions of power (Woll 346). He argues that if Congressmen were primarily concerned with reelection, the member of Congress would be at home more often than in Washington, and while in Washington, would only sit on committees important to their constituency (Woll 347). This theory would pass the critical test given previously, as Congressmen do, as Dodd points out, spend most of their time in committee and subcommittee, making detailed policy, and not making speeches and voting in Washington or doing constituent service in the district (Woll 348). But this theory, while passing the critical test, makes assumptions about Congressmen that may only be explained by a desire to be reelected. For example, Dodd states that a majority of incumbent Congressmen are reelected with wide margins, but does not state why. Is it the time spent in Washington in committee and subcommittee, where media coverage is sparse, or is it the time spent in passing pork-barrel legislation, making speeches, voting, and completing constituent service? While Dodd states that reelection is not the prime incentive of Congressmen, a Congressman would have more trouble being reelected if they did not commit time and resources to these activities. It seems that this theory does not entirely explain the incentives of Congressmen, because in order to achieve power in Congress, one must be reelected many times, and in order to be reelected, a Congressman must commit substantial time and resources to being reelected.
A final theory on the incentives of members of Congress is the theory of Richard Fenno. Instead of committing to either reelection or congressional power as the driving incentive behind Congressmen, Fenno states that both are essential and important to members of Congress. He identifies Congressmen as having a Washington career and a constituency career. Being a Congressman entails maintaining a balance between the two. In the beginning terms of a Congressman’s career, he or she will concentrate on the district, in order to gain voter support. Fenno cites evidence showing that first term members go home more frequently, giving support to the idea that Congressmen are at first very concerned with reelection (Woll 363). In the first few terms of his or her career, their power in Washington will be very limited (Woll 364). Eventually, when they have garnered enough unfaltering support from the constituency, the Representative or Senator will begin to focus more on their Washington careers. In doing so, they will lose some electoral support, but if they have focused enough resources in the past on reelection, they usually continue long careers in Congress. A Congressperson who wants nothing but the power and prestige of being a member of Congress will do nothing but seek reelection
(Woll 365). But, most Congressmen do in fact have other goals, and therefore shift their focus to Washington at some point (Woll 367). This theory passes the previously given test, because it shows that Congressmen do spend a substantial amount of time seeking reelection, and a substantial amount seeking power in Washington. It does not assume the wide reelection margins, like Dodd’s theory did. This theory would have to pass another critical test, though. To test this theory, a political scientist would have to measure the time spent seeking reelection and the time seeking positions of power in Washington. In order for this theory to be true, the political scientist would have to see a transition in the amount of time spent by the member of Congress, with the Congressman initially investing highly in reelection and eventually spending a majority of time seeking power in Congress.
Human motives are incredibly complex, and the exact reasons Congressmen spend time engaging in certain activities is incredibly complex as well. But, while Dodd’s and Fiorina’s theories generalize the incentives of Congressmen into either reelection or congressional power, Fenno’s theory gives fluidity to these incentives. He allows for the incentives of Congress to change as the career of the Congressman lengthens. Congress would be incredibly different if Congressmen adhered to either Dodd’s or Fiorina’s theories. Fiorina’s Congress would be a place where Congressmen spent little time, only appearing in Washington to pass pork barrel legislation in the district. Dodd’s Congress could be tumultuous, as fewer Congressmen would be reelected, and newer Representatives would hold positions of power. Instead, Fenno’s Congress seems to be the best model for our own Congress, and this model leads to good governance, as the legislators make important policy decisions while still showing concern to the views of their constituencies.