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Who Gets to Congress?


Members of the House and Senate are predominantly middle-aged, white, Protestant, male lawyers. If people with these characteristics all held similar opinions, Congress would be radically unrepresentative on policy matters, but they do not. Of late, the number of blacks and women in the House has been slowly increasing. More important is the proportions of representatives serving several terms and occupying safe rather than marginal districts.

In 1869 the average representative had served only one term in Congress; by the 1950s over half the representatives had served four or more terms. In the nineteenth century the federal government was not very important, Washington was not a pleasant place in which to live, and being a member of Congress did not pay well. Because the job is more attractive today, one would expect more serious challenges; by 1970, however, over three-fourths of running incumbents won with 60 percent or more of the vote. A degree of competition re-emerged in House elections during the 1990s. This development has been attributed to re-districting changes and to voters' anti-incumbency attitudes. Still, the vast majority of House incumbents seeking reelection are successful. Senators are somewhat less secure; in fewer than half of their races does the winner get 60 percent or more of the vote.

Why this is the case is a subject of controversy among scholars. One theory stresses that voters are voting their party identification less and less and may therefore be voting for the candidate whose name they recognize. Incumbents have extensive means of getting their names known. Also, incumbents can use their powers to get (or may simply take credit for) federal grants, projects, and protection for local interest groups.

Representatives are more likely to be not merely white, male, and senior in terms of years of service, but also Democrats. This is because more voters consider themselves Democrats than Republicans (though this is changing) and because the advantages of incumbency (whatever they are) began to take effect after the Democrats gained control of Congress. In only seven Congresses since the New Deal have the Democrats failed to control both houses (1947-1948, 1953-1954, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1995-1996, and 1997-1998). Whether the Republicans will sustain their control of Congress is uncertain. The 1998 election is a midterm election, and so one would ordinarily expect the president's party to lose seats, further helping the Republicans. However, Speaker Gingrich's 1997 ethics charges and his controversial leadership may have alienated voters. If 1998 is unpredictable, though, 2000 is impossible to forecast.

Why Congressional Incumbents Win

Congressional incumbents do have certain advantages over their challengers. In Marjorie Randon Hershey's Running for Office (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1984, pp. 103-107, 166), these advantages are explored in some depth. First, the experience of winning elections gives an incumbent a set of developed "strategies that seemed to work at least once, in the sense of having ended in victory. They may not know exactly why; indeed, they may have won in spite of the choices they made. But they do know that the whole package of strategies apparently brought voter approval" (p. 104). In short, in future electoral contests, "tradition" serves as an important guide for the incumbent. Alas, for the challenger, that reservoir of experience is simply not there.

Second, incumbents "also have the great advantage of more time to learn, since they receive campaign-related stimuli between elections as well as during campaigns" (p. 104). In other words, incumbents are constantly contacting their constituents and powerful groups, whereas the challenger has only limited contact prior to the campaign. (Casework also builds good relationships for the incumbent.) Hershey summarizes these advantages as follows: [incumbency] is a resource for learning-for gaining information, for developing more finely tuned expectations about the links between actions and their consequences. Thus it is not only the lack of money or name recognition that puts so many challengers at a disadvantage in campaigns; it is their relative inexperience with the difficult learning situation that campaigns provide. Without an already successful strategy, and with fewer opportunities to learn from experience and assess the usefulness of possible models, challengers start out with a learning deficit compared with most incumbents. It is a deficit from which most challengers never recover. (p. 105)

Does this mean that the challenger's quest is hopeless? Far from it. Incumbent members of Congress can be defeated. Hershey asserts that incumbency can lead to stagnation; existing strategies may become so fixed that the incumbent fails to adapt in time to a changing political environment. In short, "incumbents can become victims of victory" (p. 105). An innovative challenger who senses shifts in the district's mood, population, and policy preferences before the ossified incumbent does can emerge victorious.

Regarding the patterns of incumbency and victory in the House versus the Senate, Hershey specifies that senators "have been more electorally vulnerable than House members. . ." (P. 166). The reason rests with the greater media exposure given to Senate races. just as U.S. senators gain a great deal of media attention, "so do their challengers-and that gives challengers a boost in gaining name recognition among voters." By contrast, reporters "frequently treat House challengers like surprise packages at rummage sales: potentially interesting, but not worth the effort or the cost to investigate" (p. 166).

Congressional Organization

Congress is not a single organization but a vast collection of organizations.

1 . Party organization. In the Senate, real leadership is in the hands of a majority leader, chosen from among the majority party, and a minority leader, chosen from the other party. The whip takes a nose count of how votes are lining up on controversial issues, keeps the party leader informed, and rounds up members for important votes. The Democratic Steering Committee and the Republican Committee on Committees assign senators to standing committees. Such assignments are extremely important to a senator's career prospects.

The party structure is essentially the same in the House as in the Senate, with two important exceptions. The leadership in general has more power in the House, because the House is a very large body that must restrict debate and schedule its business with great care. In the House, the position of Speaker carries considerable power. The Speaker may decide whom to recognize in debate, whether a motion is relevant and germane, and (within certain guidelines) to which committees new bills are assigned. The Speaker also influences which bills are brought up for a vote, appoints members of special and select committees, and nominates majority-party members of the Rules Committee.

The effect of this party machinery can be seen in the party vote in Congress. Party is a very important determinant of a member's vote-more important than any other single thing. However, party voting in Congress does not approach the levels that prevail in a parliamentary system. As parties in Congress have weakened over the last century, party voting has generally been declining, although it has resurged under Speaker Newt Gingrich. And much party voting is probably actually ideological voting: Republicans in both houses are predominantly conservative and Democrats liberal.

2. Caucuses. These associations of congressional members advocate an ideology or act on behalf of constituency concerns. As of January 1996, there were 129 caucuses in the Congress. They are of six types. Two types of caucuses are ideologically or interest based: (a) intraparty caucuses have members which share a common ideology (e.g., the Democratic Study Group); and (b) personal interest caucuses form around a shared interest in a particular issue (e.g., Congressional Family Caucus). The four remaining types of caucuses are constituency based: (c) national constituency concerns (e.g., Congressional Black Caucus), (d) regional constituency concerns (e.g., Western Caucus), (e) state or district constituency concerns (e.g., Rural Caucus), and (f) industrial constituency concerns (e.g., Steel Caucus).

3. Committees. Here is where the real work of Congress is done and where most of the power is found. Standing committees are the most important, because they are (with a few exceptions) the only ones that can propose legislation by reporting a bill out to the full House or Senate. Select committees last for only a few Congresses and have a specific purpose. Joint committees are those on which both senators and representatives serve. A conference committee, which tries to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the same legislation, is a special kind of joint committee.

Traditionally, committees have been dominated by their chairs, who (throughout most of this century) were chosen by seniority. In the early 1970s a series of reforms, voted by the Democratic Caucus, decentralized and democratized committee operations. The election of committee chairs by secret ballot allowed the seniority system to be breached, meetings were opened to the public, and the prerogatives of subcommittees and individual members were enhanced at the expense of committee chairs. Many of these reforms have been reversed by the 104th and 105th Congresses.

Different committees attract different kinds of Congress members. Some, such as the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attract policy-oriented members; others, such as the House Post Office and Civil Service Committees, provide means of servicing a constituency and bolstering reelection prospects.

4. Staff. Congress has produced the most rapidly growing bureaucracy in Washington. In 1935 the typical representative had two aides; by 1979 the average had increased to sixteen but has held fairly steady since then, with the average standing at fifteen in 1996. Some staff members (increasingly located in district offices) service requests from constituents. Other staff members do legislative work, helping the Congress members keep abreast of a vast workload. The vast increase in staff has reduced contact among members of Congress, making the institution less collegial, more individualistic, and less of a deliberative body.

5. Staff agencies. These provide specialized knowledge and expertise and are an important congressional counter to the resources the president can muster as chief of the executive branch. Examples include the CRS, GAO, and CBO.

Crucial to the process of how a bill becomes a law is the number of points at which it may be blocked. A majority coalition must be assembled slowly and painstakingly.

1. Introduction. In the House, a bill is introduced by dropping it into the hopper or handing it to a clerk; in the Senate, by announcing the bill's introduction on the floor. Bills may be public (pertaining to affairs generally) or private (pertaining to a particular individual). It is often said that legislation is initiated by the president and enacted by Congress. Actually Congress often initiates legislation; the consumer and environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s are good examples.

2. Study by committee. The bill is referred to a committee by either the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer of the Senate. There are rules that govern which bills go to which committees, but sometimes a choice is possible and the bill can be sent to a receptive (or unreceptive) committee. Most bills die in committee. Important bills are generally referred to a subcommittee for hearings. Then the subcommittee (and/or committee) will mark up the bill-make revisions and additions. If a majority of the committee votes to report out the bill, it goes to the full House or Senate. Otherwise the bill dies, unless a discharge petition (a maneuver that is rarely successful) brings it to the full House. In the Senate any bill can be proposed on the floor as an amendment to another measure, so discharge petitions are not needed.

At this point the bill goes on a calendar, a fact that still does not guarantee consideration. In the Senate the majority leader, in consultation with the minority leader, schedules bills for consideration. In the House, the Rules Committee reviews major bills and may block action or send them to the floor under a closed rule, which limits debate and forbids amendments, or under a less favorable open rule, which permits amendments from the floor.

3. Floor debate. In the House, major bills are discussed by the Committee of the Whole under rather tight restrictions. The committee sponsoring the bill guides the debate, amendments (if they are allowed at all) must be germane, and the time allowed for debate is limited. The sponsoring committee usually gets its version passed by the House. Four voting procedures in the House are the voice, division, teller, and roll-call votes.

In the Senate, there is no limit on debate (except for cloture). Nongermane amendments may be offered, producing a Christmas tree bill (with goodies for lots of groups) or forcing the Senate to deal with an important policy issue in connection with a trivial bill. In general, the guidelines for Senate debate are negotiated by the majority leader and listed in a unanimous consent agreement.

4. Conference committee. If a bill passes the House and Senate in different forms, the differences must be reconciled before the bill can become law. If the differences are minor, one house may simply accede to the changes made by the other. If differences are major, a conference committee must iron them out. In most cases, conference votes tend to favor, slightly, the Senate version of the bill.

5. The president's signature. If both houses accept the conference report, the bill goes to the president for signature or veto. If the president vetoes the bill, the veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of those present in each of the two houses.

Congress Represent Constituents' Opinions?

There are at least three theories on why members of Congress vote the way they do:

1. Representational. This view holds that members want to get reelected and therefore vote to please their constituents. It seems to be true when the issue is highly visible and the constituency is fairly united in its stance, as was the case on civil-rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s.

2. Organizational. This view holds that members of Congress respond to cues provided by their fellow members. Party is the single most important of these cues, but ideological and intra-party caucuses, such as the Democratic Study Group, may also be important. Members also tend to go along with their party's representatives on the sponsoring committee and with their state delegations.

3. Attitudinal. Members of Congress, like other political elites, are more ideological in their thinking than the public at large. Democratic members tend to be strongly liberal, and Republicans conservative. Moreover, because there are so many conflicting pressures, members are left free to vote their ideologies.

Ethics and Congress

The system of checks and balances is designed to fragment political power and thus prevent any single branch from becoming tyrannical. The problem is that this system also provides multiple points of access to influence government officials and in the process enhances the potential for corruption. Congress has been especially prone to instances of corruption and the abuse of power in recent years. This fact has contributed to the public's low opinion of Congress, with only 17 percent approving of its performance in 1992. The series of scandals can be lumped into three categories: financial, sexual, and political.

The financial improprieties of members of Congress generally involve use of their political office to obtain some monetary benefit they would ordinarily not receive. Representative Tony Coehlo, for example, took a loan from a political fund-raiser and resigned over the apparent conflict of interest; Senator David Durenburger was "denounced" by the Senate for requiring groups to purchase numerous copies of his book as payment for speaking. In 1989, the powerful Speaker of the House, Jim Wright of Texas, was compelled to resign; and in 1997, Newt Gingrich became the first Speaker in House history to be reprimanded.

The sexual escapades of members of Congress have resulted in much media coverage. The problems have ranged from Representative Barney Frank's homosexual relationship with a male prostitute to Representative Donald Luken's 1989 conviction for a sexual encounter with a sixteen-year-old female. Recently attention has focused on sexual harassment on Capitol Hill; Senator Robert Packwood was forced to resign in 1995, after the Ethics Committee recommended that he be expelled for having sexually harassed several women and for refusing to be completely cooperative with the ethics investigation. The incidence of such harassment is probably more widespread than this isolated case. A 1993 poll by the Washington Post discovered that one of every nine female staffers reports having been a victim of sexual harassment by a member of Congress.

The political abuse of power is usually difficult to prove. The Keating Five illustrates the complexity of this issue. Charles Keating, head of Lincoln Savings and Loan (S&L), contributed an estimated $1.3 million to the campaigns of five senators. These senators in turn intervened on Keating's behalf during a government investigation into the mismanagement of his S&L, an intervention that delayed government action and eventually cost taxpayers $2 billion to bail out the institution when it failed. The senators responded that they were acting only to represent a constituent, a key function of their job. Only one senator, Alan Cranston (who was about to retire), received a formal censure for his activities in this episode. In other words the line between "politics as usual" and the "abuse of political power" is sometimes blurred.

Both houses have enacted codes of ethics which suffer from the same defect they assume that corruption is mainly a monetary concern. But money is only one way in which an official can be improperly influenced. Even the monetary controls imposed by the codes are problematic because they inherently favor wealthy members of Congress who have no need to supplement their incomes. It is quite clear that political corruption in Congress has no easy resolution.

The Vote to Reprimand Speaker Newt Gingrich

Throughout the 104th Congress, House Democrats claimed that the new Speaker, Newt Gingrich (R, Georgia), had previously engaged in questionable activities. On December 6, 1995, the House Ethics Committee announced the results of its investigations of those charges. The committee found Gingrich guilty of violating House rules in publicizing his college course and a GOPAC seminar in his floor speeches, and in allowing one of his political consultants to interview candidates for congressional staff positions. The committee dismissed two other charges: It concluded that free cable broadcasting of the college course did not have to be reported as a financial donation from the cable company, and it only criticized the acceptance of a book advance from HarperCollins, saying that the action had created the impression of ,exploiting one's office for personal gain." (The deal had originally involved a $4.5 million advance, which Gingrich returned after a week of intense controversy in December 1994. Instead, he agreed to write one book and edit another, for a $1 advance and a share of sales royalties. HarperCollins was owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose media interests stood to be affected by pending legislation.) The committee then announced that it had decided to employ independent counsel to investigate whether fund-raising for the college course, which had been conducted through GOPAC and taxexempt foundations, had violated federal tax law. An investigator was duly appointed by the Department of justice.

Almost immediately after this ruling, House Democrats filed a new set of ethics complaints. Basing their allegations on a Federal Election Commission investigation of GOPAC, Gingrich's leadership PAC, these charges alleged numerous improprieties in fund-raising and finances. Charges continued to be filed throughout 1996. In March 1996, the committee scolded Gingrich for violating House rules in allowing a telecommunications executive to volunteer in the Speaker's office but recommended no punishment.

The special investigator submitted his report (over 100 pages long) to the Ethics Committee in August. On September 26, the Ethics Committee surprised observers by announcing that it was expanding its investigation to consider whether Gingrich gave ,accurate, reliable and complete information" concerning his college course. At the same time, the committee gave the special counsel greater authority to investigate Gingrich's finances, expanding the list of organizations and activities to be reviewed.

On December 21, with publicity and concern over the investigations having grown, the Speaker signed a formal admission that he had violated House rules. In an additional statement, Gingrich acknowledged that he had forwarded "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable statements" to the committee, but insisted that his actions had not been intentionally misleading. At the same time, a twenty-two page "Statement of Alleged Violations" was issued by the committee.

Following these admissions, House Republicans rallied behind the Speaker. Several pressed for a conclusion to the investigations before the January 7, 1997, vote for the Speaker. On December 31, however, the Ethics Committee announced that its disciplinary hearing would begin on January 8,1997.

Gingrich was returned to the Speaker's office on January 7. Ten days later, the special counsel's report was made public. Many House Republicans, whose leaders had insisted that the report would be comparatively mild, felt betrayed. On January 21, the House voted in favor of the disciplinary actions recommended by the Ethics Committee. Newt Gingrich became the first Speaker to be reprimanded by the House of Representatives.

The vote to reprimand was 395-28, with five members voting present. Additionally, the Speaker was fined $300,000 to reimburse costs associated with correcting his misleading information. Among Republicans, 196 voted in favor of the reprimand, 26 voted against; among Democrats, 198 voted in favor, 2 voted against. The Independent member voted for the reprimand. Even after this vote, there were pending investigations of the financial arrangements for the college course and for several televised town meetings. Gingrich was also awaiting investigations of his financial management of GOPAC and of several tax-exempt foundations.

As almost every political commentator observed, no one knew whether the Speaker would be able to recover his credibility and leadership strength following the reprimand. At the very least, the time consumed by the ethics investigation was time not devoted to setting the legislative agenda. And Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R, Mississippi) was well positioned to become the legislative leader of the Republican party.

A short time later, in the midst of the Clinton Lewinsky scandal, Gingrich was calling for the impeachment of the President. In barrage after barrage he assailed the character of the President. Then Larry Flynt's "Hustler Magazine" offered money for those with information about the extramarital affairs of the Republican members of Congress. Evidence was obtained that Gingrich had also had an extramarital affair and he stepped down from the speakership and announced he would not run for reelection. After the Republican caucus chose Bob Livingston as speaker it was found out that he too had an affair. Finally the Republicans settled on Dennis Hastert as Speaker of the House.

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