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This chapter explains the nature of congressional election and organization. In describing the factors affecting electoral politics, it focuses primarily on the issue of incumbency, its drawbacks and advantages. The discussion includes and assessment of the influence of these electoral campaigns on members of Congress. The chapter then examines the organization of the institution, and the nature and sources of congressional leadership. These are the chapter's main points:

  • Congressional elections tend to have a strong local orientation and to favor incumbents. Congressional office provides incumbents with substantial resources (free publicity, staff, and legislative influence) that give them (particularly House members) a major advantage in election campaigns. However, incumbency also has some liabilities, which contribute to turnover in congressional membership.
  • Although party leaders in Congress provide collective leadership, the work of Congress is done mainly through its committees and subcommittees, each of which has its leader (a chairperson) and its policy jurisdiction. The committee system of Congress allows a broad sharing of power and leadership, which serves the power and reelection needs of Congress's members but fragments the institution.
  • Congress lacks the direction and organization required for the development of comprehensive national policies, but it is well organized to handle policies of relatively narrow scope. At times, Congress takes the lead on broad national issues, but ordinarily it does not do so.
  • Congress's policy making role is based on three major functions:  lawmaking, representation, and oversight

Members of Congress, once elected, are likely to be reelected. Members of Congress have large staffs and can pursue a "service strategy" of responding to the needs of individual constituents. They also can secure pork barrel projects for their state or district and thus demonstrate their concern for constituents. House members gain a greater advantage from these activities than do senators, whose larger constituencies make it harder for them to build close personal relations with voters and whose office is more likely to attract a strong challenger. Incumbency does have some disadvantages. Members of Congress must take positions on controversial issues, might blunder into a political scandal or indiscretion, or face strong challengers; any of these conditions can reduce their reelection chances. By and large, however, the advantages of incumbency far outweigh the disadvantages, particularly for House members. Incumbents' advantages extend into their reelection campaigns.

Congress is a highly fragmented institution. It has no single leader; the House and Senate have separate leaders, neither of whom can presume to speak for the other chamber. The principal party leaders of Congress are the Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. These party leaders derive their influence less from their formal authority than from having been entrusted by other members of their party with the task of formulating policy positions and coordinating party strategy. Individual party members can choose to follow or ignore their leader's requests.

The committee system is a network of thirty-five committees and over 250 subcommittees, each with its separate chairperson. Each chair has influence on the policy decisions of the committee or subcommittee through the scheduling of bills and control of staff. Although the seniority principle is not absolute, the chair of a committee or subcommittee is usually the member from the majority party who has the longest continuous service. Party loyalty is not normally a criterion in the selection of chairs. As a result, committee and subcommittee leaders might or might not have the same national policy objectives as the party leaders.

It is in the committees that most of the work of Congress is conducted. Each standing committee of the House and Senate has jurisdiction over congressional policy in a particular area (such as agriculture or foreign relations), as does each its subcommittees. In most cases, the full House and Senate accept committee recommendations about passage of bills, although amendments to bills are quite common and committees are careful to take other members of Congress into account when making legislative decisions. Congress is a legislative system in which influence is widely dispersed, an arrangement that suits the power and reelection needs of its individual members.

In recent decades, the individualistic nature of Congress has been intensified by staffing changes. Larger committee and subcommittee staffs now make it easier for members of Congress to pursue their separate power and reelection goals. Congressional agencies strengthen the ability of Congress to act as a collective body by lessening the institution's dependence on the executive branch for information relevant to legislative issues, but they also make it easier for members of Congress to function independently.

Congress is more adept at handling legislation dealing with problems of narrow interest. Legislation of this sort is decided mainly in congressional committees, where interested legislators, bureaucrats, and groups concentrate their efforts on issues of mutual concern. Narrowly focused bills emerging from committees usually win the support of the full House or Senate. Committee recommendations are always subject to checks on the floor, and larger policy groups—issue networks, iron triangles, and caucuses—have increasingly intruded on the committee process. Nevertheless, most narrow policy issues are settled primarily by subgroups of self-interested legislators rather than by the full Congress, although the success of these subgroups in the long run can depend on their responsiveness to broader interests.

A second function of Congress is the representation of various interests. Members of Congress are highly sensitive to the state or district on which they depend for reelection. As result, interest groups that are important to a member’s state or district are strongly represented in Congress. Members of Congress do respond to overriding national interests, but for most of them, local concerns generally come first. National and local representation often work through party representation, particularly on issues that have traditionally divided the Democratic and Republican parties and their constituencies.

Congress’s third function is oversight, the supervision and investigation of the way the bureaucracy is implementing legislatively mandated programs. Oversight is usually less rewarding than lawmaking or representation and receives correspondingly less attention form members of Congress.

Critics on both sides argue whether pluralism is a good or bad thing in Congress.

Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:

Explain why congressional incumbents have had such great electoral success and why they sometime lose.
Discuss the relationship between incumbency success and democratic responsiveness.
Identify the major leadership positions in Congress and the sources of their leadership powers.
Discuss the role of the committee system within Congress.
Identify the major parts of the legislative bureaucracy and assess the impact of those agencies on the performance of Congress.
Define each of Congress's three major policymaking functions: legislation, representation, and oversight. Analyze to what degree these roles overlap or compete.
Briefly describe how the increasing preoccupation of representatives with local concerns has affected their ability to carry out each of the above functions.
Comment on the effect of partisanship on congressional effectiveness. Summarize recent trends in the rise and fall of partisan and other influences on voting patterns.

The American DemocracyOnline Learning Center

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