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What Are the Varying Goals That Shape the Behavior of Members of Congress?

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A number of factors affect the behavior of members of Congress, including election processes, partisanship, and divided government. Most members of Congress seek to be reelected by their constituents, which can affect their voting behavior and the issues they devote time to while in office

Partisan divisions within Congress may result in legislative gridlock, or lead to increased negotiation and compromise. Likewise, divided government between the legislative and executive branches can give rise to partisan standoffs, such as congressional refusal to approve presidential appointments or to vote for presidential initiatives. Congressional redistricting to favor one party over another, or gerrymandering, is motivated by partisanship and can also further entrench it.

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The duties carried out by a Member of Congress are understood to include representation, legislation, and constituent service and education, as well as political and electoral activities. The expectations and duties of a Member of Congress are extensive, encompassing several roles that could be full-time jobs by themselves. Despite the acceptance of these roles and other activities as facets of the Member's job, there is no formal set of requirements or official explanation of what roles might be played as Members carry out the duties of their offices. In the absence of formal authorities, many of the responsibilities that Members of Congress have assumed over the years have evolved from the expectations of Members and their constituents. Upon election to Congress, Members typically develop approaches to their jobs that serve a wide range of roles and responsibilities. Given the dynamic nature of the congressional experience, priorities placed on various Member roles tend to shift in response to changes in seniority, committee assignment, policy focus, district or state priorities, institutional leadership, and electoral pressures. In response, the roles and specific duties a Member carries out are often highlighted or de-emphasized accordingly. Although elements of all the roles described can be found among the duties performed by any Senator or Representative, the degree to which each is carried out differs among Members

Each Member may also emphasize different duties during different stages of his or her career. With no written requirements, each Member is free to define his or her own job and set his or her own priorities.

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The disconnect between the common public perception of running a deficit and its legitimate policy goals is frequently exploited for political advantage. For example, while running for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama slammed the deficit spending of the George W. Bush presidency, saying it was “unpatriotic.” This sentiment echoed complaints Democrats had been issuing for years as a weapon against President Bush’s policies. Following the election of President Obama and the Democratic takeover of the Senate, the concern over deficit spending shifted parties, with Republicans championing a spendthrift policy as a way of resisting Democratic policies (Edmund Burke, 2016). Some representatives follow the delegate model of representation, acting on the expressed wishes of their constituents, whereas others take a trustee model approach, acting on what they believe is in their constituents’ best interests. However, most representatives combine the two approaches and apply each as political circumstances demand. The standard method by which representatives have shown their fidelity to their constituents, namely “bringing home the bacon” of favorable budget allocations, has come to be interpreted as a form of corruption, or pork-barrel politics

Representation can also be considered in other ways. Descriptive representation is the level at which Congress reflects the nation’s constituents in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. Collective representation is the extent to which the institutional body of Congress represents the population as a whole (Jennifer E. Manning, 2016). Despite the incumbency advantage and high opinion many hold of their own legislators, Congress rarely earns an approval rating above 40 percent, and for a number of years the rating has been well below 20 percent.

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In brief, voters may think of their own Representatives or Senators as good people fighting the corruption and selfish greed of the others. Incumbent candidates often encourage this thinking like by claiming to have "saved" the district from disaster through their good works. It helps them win elections. Despite all the complaints about divided government, Americans seem to prefer it based on their voting patterns. Since 1981, the same party has controlled the presidency, the House, and the Senate for only two years. Divided government prevents any one party from moving too quickly with their legislative agenda. Perhaps this cautious approach to new legislation is exactly what Americans want.

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Steven S. Smith. 1999. The American Congress. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Edmund Burke, "Speech to the Electors of Bristol," 3 November 1774, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch23s7.html (May 1, 2016).

"Claire McCaskill, Emily’s List Celebrate Women’s Wins in 2012," 14 November 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/11/claire-mccaskill-emilys-list-celebrate-womens-wins-in-2012/ (May 1, 2016).

Jennifer E. Manning, "Membership of the 114th Congress: A Profile," 1 December 2015, http://www.senate.gov/CRSReports/crs-publish.cfm?pid=%260BL*RLC2 (May 15, 2016); "The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Conference," http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/HAIC/Historical-Essays/Strength-Numbers/Caucus-Conference/ (May 15, 2016).

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