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