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

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

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

Why Congressional Incumbents

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

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

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).


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

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
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

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

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

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

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
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

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

Congress Represent Constituents’

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

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

Ethics and

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
discovered that one of every nine female staffers reports
having been a victim of sexual harassment by a member of

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

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

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.