An Effective Congress and Effective Members: What Does it Take?
Barbara Sinclair (1940-2016) wrote the following article for PS Online published by the American Political Science Association in September 1996. At the time, she was the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics, University of California, Los Angeles.
What are the skills needed to serve effectively in Congress and how do politicians acquire them? Learning to be a member of Congress is unlike learning to be a plumber or a brain surgeon; there is no prescribed course of study and no certification process. The criteria by which we judge whether a brain surgeon or a plumber is good at his or her job are relatively clear and uncontroversial; there is less consensus about what constitutes doing a good job as a member of Congress. Thus, the question that begins this essay cannot be answered simply and directly.
The question can be approached by examining the job of Congress, how Congress has organized itself to do its job and then considering the skills members need to function effectively in that environment. First, however, we must decide what we mean by effectiveness. Members can be considered to function effectively when their behavior furthers their individual objectives. Alternatively, effectiveness can be defined relative to the objectives of the institution, and members can be considered to function effectively when their behavior furthers the Congress's capacity to do its job well. These two different ways of defining effectiveness lead to another important question: are the skills needed to get to, remain in, and get ahead in Congress the same ones needed to make Congress institutionally effective?
Although nuance, emphasis and terminology differ there is considerable agreement that representation and lawmaking constitute the basic components of the job of Congress (see, for example, Davidson and Oleszek 1994). We expect Congress to represent. We expect members to bring into the legislative process the views, needs and interests of their constituents; we expect the Congress as an institution to provide a forum where the interests and demands of all segments of society are expressed. But, while we want Congress to be a forum where the full range of views is expressed, we also want Congress to make decisions to pass laws.
Obviously, not just any laws will do. In characterizing what sort of laws Congress is expected to pass, two criteria are frequently mentioned and often conflated. Congress should pass laws that reflect the will of the people; that is, Congress should be responsive to popular majorities. Congress should pass laws that deal promptly and effectively with pressing national problems. These two criteria, which can be labeled responsiveness and responsibility, are distinct. Only in a perfect world would what the majority wants always accord with what policy experts deem most likely to be effective. When a conflict exists, which should take priority? The uncertainty inherent in the best experts' policy predictions, as well as the cost in legitimacy of Congress regularly thwarting popular majorities, make choosing responsibility questionable as a general rule. Furthermore and critically, uncertainty about the link between a specific policy choice and the societal outcome means that, in most major policy areas, legitimate differences of opinion as to what constitutes good public policy can and do exist. Yet, in many issue areas, the general public has little in-depth knowledge, and surely we do want to bring the best contemporary knowledge to bear on public policy. Both responsiveness and responsibility are values we would like Congress to further in its lawmaking, yet at times they may come into conflict and no general rule of priority exists.
Even were the criteria for appropriate lawmaking unproblematical, a tension nevertheless exists between lawmaking and representation. The requisites of representation and those of lawmaking are different. A decentralized, open, permeable body in which individual members have considerable resources and autonomy of action is better suited to articulating the broad variety of opinions and interests in our society. A more centralized, hierarchical body is more capable of expeditious decision making. Representation takes time, especially when there are a great variety of viewpoints. Lawmaking requires closure, an end to debate and implicitly or explicitly, a choice among competing alternatives. Thus the job we expect Congress to perform entails a delicate balancing act: give a hearing to the full range of views in our society and then reasonably expeditiously forge from these diverse preferences a congressional majority for legislation that is effective in ameliorating the problem at which it is aimed and responsive to majority sentiments, but at the same time is not abhorrent to any significant minority.
This complex job and the tensions inherent in it, as well as the relatively small size of the congressional membership in relationship to workload and the nominal equality of the members of Congress under the Constitution, have shaped congressional organization. Relative openness, a division of labor, and a distribution of influence in which the differences between the top and bottom of the hierarchy are relatively small by the standards of modern organizations have characterized Congress during most of this century. Labor is divided among committees where most of the substantive work on legislation is done. Member preferences are given considerable weight in the making of committee assignments and, by and large, once a member has been assigned to a committee he or she is entitled to remain; thus members have the incentive and the opportunity to specialize and gain expertise. Party leaders act as coordinators scheduling legislation for the floor and building coalitions to pass it. When the parties are relatively ideologically homogeneous, congressional party leaders may also act as policy leaders, as, for example, Newt Gingrich did in the 104th Congress.
Over the course of the Congress' history, the relative influence of committees and their chairs, the party leadership and the rank and file membership have varied. In the 1950s, for example, committees were autonomous and their chairs powerful; neither the majority party leaders who presided over parties that were badly split ideologically nor the rank and file that lacked resources, especially staff, had much clout. In the late 1960s and 1970s, both House and Senate underwent major changes in which influence was spread much more broadly (Dodd and Oppenheimer 1977, 1993; Smith 1989; Davidson 1992). The Senate became a highly individualistic chamber in which senators regularly exploit the powers that chamber rules grant individual members (Matthews 1960; Sinclair 1989).
During its reform period, the House had granted the majority party leadership new powers. As the costs of high participation by rank and file members became evident, majority party members demanded that their leaders use those powers to help them legislate and to protect them from minority party mischief. Furthermore, during the 1980s, both parties became more ideologically homogeneous (Rohde 1991). Thus in the House, the party leadership became stronger and more central to the legislative process but, because members still wanted to participate actively in the process, it led through a strategy of inclusion (Sinclair 1983, 1995). Yet, while the distribution of influence has varied over time, neither house has ever so centralized influence as to preclude the need for bargaining. American political parties have never been sufficiently ideologically homogeneous and organizationally strong to support command and control leadership. Decision making in Congress has always required negotiation, bargaining and compromise.
What, then, are the skills and characteristics that members need for the Congress to function well and for members to get ahead within the institution? Considering representation first, what is required for members to represent their constituents effectively? According to the mirror model of representation (also called descriptive representation), a representative should mirror in salient demographic characteristics and views his or her constituents. However, House districts (not to mention states) are almost always much to complex and heterogeneous to make descriptive representation even logically possible. What members need to be successful representatives and for reelection is to build connections and trust with their constituents (Fenno 1978). Key characteristics that mirror those of constituents may be important to that end; thus, given the major role that race has played in our society and politics, African-American candidates will have an easier time establishing connection and trust in heavily African-American districts than white candidates; their race signals to constituents that they are likely to understand the concerns of the African-American community.
Ideally, representation is based on direct two-way communication between representative and represented in which they educate each other. House members' strategies for forging and maintaining the connection with and trust of their constituents is heavily based on direct communication. Skills and characteristics such as being articulate, a good speaker, being charming, being a nice person, having a retentive memory, being a go-getter, and being physically attractive, may aid members in their efforts but much more essential is the willingness and the stamina to put in the enormous amount of time it takes to communicate with constituents.
Most members of the House go home at least twice a month and some even more frequently (Hibbing 1991). The purpose of these trips is to stay in touch, and in that pursuit, members make appearances at a variety of functions and talk to many different sorts of groups. Thus weekend schedules that include speeches at a high school graduation, a political party function, a Rotary Club lunch and an American Health Association local chapter awards banquet are typical of a district visit. Nor do members rely solely on constituents to initiate personal contact. They respond to invitations but many also organize functions to which they invite constituents. Across the 535 members of Congress, the variety is enormous workshops for actual or aspiring business people on how to apply for SBA loans, issue forums on topics such as "The Family in a Changing World," a global town meeting to discuss energy technologies, and perhaps unique, Senator and former basketball star Bill Bradley's annual Student Athlete Seminar, the purpose of which is to help high school student athletes understand the types of pressures and problems they will face in college and adult life. These functions are aimed at specialized groups within the constituency. Most members, in addition, hold widely publicized open houses or town hall meetings to which all constituents are invited. Members of Congress, thus, expend an enormous amount of effort keeping in touch with their constituents (Fenno 1978). To be sure, promoting the member is a major purpose of these efforts, but so too is eliciting the information about constituents' views, needs and desires that is essential for effective representation.
Representation involves education as well; members need to educate their constituents about the issues and the policy making process enough to enable them to make sound choices. Members, Richard Fenno found, were willing and often eager to explain their own Washington activities, including their votes. Furthermore, these members were not explanatory chameleons. Fenno writes, "House members give the same explanations for their Washington activity before people who disagree with them as they give before people who agree with them before nonsupporters as well as supporters, committed as well as uncommitted, and from one end to the other in the most segmented of districts...[T]he lack of demagoguery and the patient doggedness with which most members explained their votes or their voting record before unsympathetic reelection constituents surprised me" (1978, 157-8). In face-to-face encounters but also in written communications responding to constituent mail, members' explanations frequently do meet at least the minimal standards of educating constituents on the issue in question. That is, the explanation provides some sense of the complexity of the problem and a rationale for the member's stance.
The political system provides incentives for members of Congress to engage in this kind of explaining (Fenno 1978, 151). Members believe doing so builds trust and constituent trust is the bedrock on which their reelection depends. Trust earns members some leeway to pursue good public policy as they see it in Washington. Members of Congress do not, however, take any responsibility for explaining Congress or the broader political system to their constituents. To the contrary, Congress-bashing was standard operating procedure in the district for all the members with whom Fenno traveled in the 1970s. Far from helping their constituents understand the complexities of democratic decision making, members take the easy way out and reinforce rather than counter their constituents' prejudices. "Members of Congress run for Congress by running against Congress" Fenno concluded (1978, 168). Members, thus, prepared fertile soil for the virulent Congress-bashing of the 1980s and 1990s.
What are the skills members need for Congress to legislate effectively and are they the same skills that allow a member to get ahead within Congress? Congress has a large and complex workload; members must be willing to work hard and to develop expertise in some segment of it. Because members must make decisions even in areas in which they do not and cannot have expertise, being a quick study helps. Because decision making is a collective enterprise among relatively equal members who represent districts with different interests and have differing policy preferences, bargaining skills and the ability to work with others are essential (see Sinclair forthcoming). To function well, Congress needs members who understand the need for and have the skill to compromise; who are willing to be team players; who can fight for what they believe in without demonizing their opponents, thus making it possible to work with them on a different issue tomorrow. Institutional effectiveness calls for members with a relatively long time horizon who see policy making as an ongoing process in which there are no final winners and should be no total losers.
Are these the skills and characteristics that allow a member to get ahead within Congress? By and large, the answer is yes (see Price 1992). The contemporary Congress rewards smart, energetic, hard working members with political bargaining skills. Members' influence is much less dependent on seniority and more dependent on their own efforts than in the past. To be sure, committee and subcommittee chairmanships are still usually -- though certainly not always -- awarded on the basis of seniority. However, just how much influence derives from such positions depends on the chair\'s skill-- and on political circumstances. To respond to their members' demands for opportunities to participate actively in the legislative process and their own need to funnel that participation into channels that further party efforts, House party leaders have enlarged their whip systems, created task forces and working groups of all sorts, expanded the leadership circle and activated their caucuses. By so doing they have provided opportunities for the activist members who have the desire, stamina, and ability to take on many tasks and do them well to make a name for themselves quickly. Dick Gephardt's work on task forces charged with passing major legislation marked him as a comer in his first term.
Because so much of such activity now occurs within the parties in the House, being a team player has actually become more important to getting ahead. In the Senate this is less so. The parties do offer many of the same sorts of opportunities to participate as the House parties do; but each senator has great autonomy to decide the issues and forums in which to participate. Leaders lack the control they have in the House.
Has the decline in the autonomy and influence of committees decreased the incentives for members' to specialize and gain expertise, which is so important to Congress functioning well? In the House, the incentives while weakened a bit are still strong. Becoming a committee specialist is not the only route to influence, but it is still a major one. Senators by and large specialize less than they used to; however, notable specialists still exist and effective senators must develop some expertise-- senators must know what they are talking about to be taken seriously. To some extent, senators can substitute staff expertise for personal expertise, and in both chambers the increase in staff has made it possible for members to involve themselves effectively in more issues than used to be possible.
The broader distribution of influence along with the change in the media environment, it is sometimes claimed, has increased the incentives for grandstanding and lone-ranger behavior (Smith 1988). The member who makes an outrageous statement on the chamber floor is more likely to get media coverage than the average member, though not as likely as party or committee leaders (Hess 1986; Cook 1989). Thus, Jim Trafficant and Bob Dornan, the first a Democrat and the second a Republican, both known for colorful and often intemperate speeches, make the evening news more frequently than other rank-and-file members. Neither, however, exercises much influence within his party or the chamber nor has their notoriety translated into influence beyond the chamber. Media skills, especially the ability to convey one's message in an arresting and pithy way, are highly valued in the contemporary Congress. In the House both parties have message groups that attempt to influence news coverage to the party's advantage; both try to have their most persuasive members make their case on the floor and in press conferences. The members involved in formulating and disseminating the party's message are the same smart, energetic activists discussed above and they are working as part of a team. The growing control of the party leadership and the constraints on new programs in the current political environment has actually lessened opportunities for the sort of policy entrepreneurship that was common in the House of the 1970s (Loomis 1988).
The Senate provides its members with enormous opportunities for lone-ranger behavior and most senators engage in such behavior at least occasionally. As individuals and in groups, small and large, senators regularly make use of their extended debate prerogative and of their right to offer any and as many amendments as they wish to almost any bill on the floor. Filibusters, overt and covert, and amending marathons have become so prevalent that senators no longer pay much of a price in unpopularity for such behavior; thus it no longer requires a particularly thick skin.
Senators have greater access to the media than House members do and that access can be used to play to outside constituencies. But in the Senate as in the House, most media attention goes to "players," those who make a difference in the policy process. It is easier in the Senate than in the House for a member without a party leadership post or a relevant committee assignment to establish himself as a player on an issue. Doing so does, however, require more than media skills; it entails a considerable commitment of time, effort and resources. Engineering significant policy change often requires an outside as well as an inside strategy; if broad public pressure or an intense constituency for policy change can be created or activated, efforts to further such legislation within the Congress are facilitated. Senators' greater media access makes such an outside strategy more feasible for them than for the typical House member; and, of course, the senator with media skills has the advantage. Outside strategies may not yield immediate legislative results; senators may, in fact, be engaged in grandstanding and self promotion. They may have misjudged the receptiveness of the political environment to their policy proposal or they may be knowingly preparing the ground for policy change in the future by publicizing a problem and building support for a possible solution. Although they may not pay off in legislation in the near term, such agenda setting activities nevertheless contribute to the legislative process broadly defined.
Individual Objectives and Institutional Functioning: What's the Fit?
The job we expect Congress to do is a complex one; it involves many components and some tough tradeoffs. As a result, there are many niches for people with different skills, characteristics and strengths to contribute meaningfully. The committee specialist who develops real substantive expertise is critical to Congress maintaining its power in the political system. The generalist coordinator/negotiator --usually a party leader--is just as necessary to make the institution work. Junior and mid-level activists serve a variety of important functions, usually as aides to the party leaders in party maintenance, coalition building and public relations. The issue or coalition leader, more often but not always a senator, who speaks for a group or point of view performs a significant representational function and may also contribute importantly to responsive lawmaking. The agenda setter, the visionary, even the ideologue have their place as well: they bring new ideas into the system; they give often small but intense constituencies a voice; and they remind their more flexible colleagues that at some point compromise does become selling out.
For Congress to function well, however, committee specialists, coordinator/negotiators and activists must predominate; these are the people who make the legislative process function. What they have in common is their commitment to and adeptness at decision making via bargaining and compromise and their realization that the policy making process is on-going, that one never wins it all. When ideologues disinclined to compromise make up too large a proportion of the membership, the process may well break down. The new Republican House majority in the 104th Congress was unusually heavily weighted to ideologues; the 73 member freshmen class elected in 1994 included a large number of ideologues and it joined a big Republican sophomore class with similar inclinations. These members made possible the passage in the House of a significant body of nonincremental legislation in record time; they also made impossible a comprehensive budget deal with the White House and wrecked their party's reputation with the public.
If bargaining skills and the ability to work with others in a mixed cooperative/adversarial context are key to getting ahead in Congress and to Congress functioning effectively, where are those skills learned? Though a decreasing number of members are lawyers, it is a profession that fosters those skills. To a large extent, such skills are learned by doing. Most members were active in community groups of various sorts before they ran for office; many held political office, often state legislative office, before running for Congress. Members without much previous political experience usually have the opportunity to learn when they get to the Congress; while new members are not expected to serve an apprenticeship as they once were, usually new House members can and do take some time to acclimatize. The Republican freshmen of 1994, in contrast, believed they had been sent to Washington to break with business as usual and to accomplish something quickly; the large size of the class and the extraordinary character of the Republican victory made its members believe they could change both how the institution functioned and policy over night.
Are the skills needed to get to, remain in and get ahead in Congress the same ones needed to make Congress as an institution function effectively? On balance, the skills that further a member's rise to influence within Congress are those that enable Congress to function effectively: intelligence, hard work, and skill at and willingness to bargain and compromise. Of course, there are exceptions; Newt Gingrich, certainly intelligent and hard working but not known as inclined towards compromise, rose to leadership within a House Republican party demoralized by its seemingly permanent minority status and willing to try anything to reverse its fortunes (Connelly and Pitney 1994). In the Senate, intelligence, hard work and bargaining skills also make a senator more effective at exploiting the rules to extract concessions and even to block action. Space limitations precluded much consideration of the skills and characteristics that contribute to a member\'s initial electoral victory. Much of the district tending in which members engage to keep their seats contributes to effective representation. However, members' unwillingness to go beyond explaining their own Washington behavior to educating their constituents about how the institution and the policy process function makes it harder for the institution to do its job; if the public does not trust the institution, does not understand the crucial role that bargaining and compromise play, it becomes much more difficult for members to make the hard choices. Members, to some extent inadvertently, are inviting their constituents to judge them by criteria -- independence and inflexibility -- that, if present in large numbers, makes Congress's functioning problematical.
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