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How Does the Incentive for Reelection Shape the Behavior of Members of Congress and How Can It Lead Them to Be Both Individually Responsive but Collectively Irresponsible?

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Those in power don’t always do what we want them to do; this is the central challenge of governance. Democratic elections try to solve this problem by forcing our representatives to take actions today in anticipation of reelection tomorrow—that is, by creating electoral accountability. America’s founders placed great emphasis on electoral accountability

As Madison described it in Federalist 57, regular elections assure that America’s legislators “will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised…unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.”

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The Congress of the United States of America is an incredibly powerful entity. It writes the federal laws of the nation, controls appropriations to government agencies, and regulates interstate commerce, among many other powers. The Founders designed Congress to be the branch of the government closest to the people and the power of the five hundred and thirty-five members of Congress is given solely from the people they represent. They created Congress as an entity held accountable by the people through elections. Because their constituents can remove them from office in the next election, members of Congress have an incentive to keep their constituents pleased with their performance. But, are congressmen concerned solely with elections, or are they concerned with policy goals as well? Political scientists have offered many theories on what exactly fuels the actions of the members of Congress. This essay will examine and compare three theories regarding the incentives of Congress members and how these incentives determine the actions members of Congress make, as well as present tests that would prove or disprove these theories. One of the leading theories on Congressional incentives is Morris Fiorina’s theory. Fiorina believes that Congressmen are driven by the incentive of reelections. He assumes that the majority of Congressmen act self-interest, and that many Congressmen are driven to seek reelection by the power, prestige, and excitement that the job of Representative or Senator brings them. He mentions that some Congressmen may have policy-oriented goals, but for them to take part in the policy-making process, they must remain in office.To test this theory, a political scientist must assess the time and resources used by Congressmen for certain activities (while working, of course), and find that the Congressmen emphasized reelection through their time and resources. If a Congressman were primarily concerned with reelection, he or she would spend most of their time and resources focusing on reelection- providing constituent service, passing pork barrel legislation, making noticeable speeches or voting to make their positions clear.

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Municipal corruption assumes a variety of forms. Frauds in procurement processes, diversion of funds, and over-invoicing for goods and services are among the most common ways local politicians find to appropriate resources (Duggan, Mark, and Steven D. Levitt. 2002). Other common irregularities include incomplete public works (paid for but unfinished); the use of fake receipts (“notas frias”) and phantom firms (a firm that only exists on paper). A common corruption scheme used to deviate public resources in the municipalities of Eldorado dos Caraj´es and Porto Seguro, for example, include the creation of phantom firms, simulation of procurement processes and payments made in the form of kickbacks to government officials. In other contracts, although existing firms did win the bid, none of them were even aware that they had participated in the bidding process

The local administration used these firm’s names in fake receipts to appropriate resources for public goods that were never provided. Another irregular practice, common in several municipalities, is a non-competitive procurement process (Ferejohn, J. 1986).

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On the whole, the specific mechanisms by which elections influence how legislators allocate their effort is an important question that goes beyond the evidence we have presented in this paper. It is possible that there are a sufficient number of attentive voters even in state legislative elections that incumbents must undertake visible activities these voters prefer

It is also possible— and, based on anecdotal evidence, likely—that parties and interest groups play large roles in shaping incumbent behavior in anticipation of electoral consequences. Whatever the mechanisms, our investigation reveals a striking ability for elections to influence the behavior of legislators.

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Duggan, Mark, and Steven D. Levitt. 2002. “Winning Isnt Everything: Corruption in Sumo Wrestling.” American Economic Review 92 (5): 1594 605.

Engerman, Stanley L., and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. 2005. “Digging the Dirt at Public Expense: Governance in the Building of the Erie Canal and Other Public Works.” In Corruption and Reform: Lessons from Americas History. Forthcoming, edited by Edward L. Glaeser and Claudia Goldin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ferejohn, J. 1986. “Incumbent Performance and Electoral Control.” Public Choice 50:5–25

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