Congress: How do we choose our representatives?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how fundamental characteristics of the House and Senate shape their elections
  • Discuss campaign funding and the effects of incumbency
  • Analyze the way congressional elections can sometimes become nationalized

The House and Senate operate very differently, partly because their members differ in the length of their terms, as well as in their age and other characteristics.

Who can be elected to Congress?

The U.S. Constitution specifies eligibility requirements to serve in the House or Senate. A House member must be a U.S. citizen of at least seven years’ standing and at least twenty-five years old. Senators must have nine years’ standing as citizens and be at least thirty years old when sworn in. Representatives serve two-year terms, whereas senators serve six-year terms. Per the Supreme Court decision in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton (1995), there are currently no term limits for either senators or representatives despite many state led efforts to impose them in the mid-1990s.[1]

House members are elected by the voters in their specific congressional districts. There are currently 435 congressional districts in the United States and thus 435 House members. Each state has a number of House districts roughly proportional to its share of the total U.S. population, with states guaranteed at least one House member. Two senators are elected by each state.

The structural and other differences between the House and Senate influence the two chambers functions. The House of Representatives has developed a stronger and more structured leadership than the Senate. Because its members serve short two-year terms they must regularly answer to the demands of their constituency when they run for election or reelection. Even House members of the same party in the same state can disagree on issues because of the different interests of their specific districts. Thus, the House can be highly partisan.

In contrast, members of the Senate are furthest removed from the demands and scrutiny of their constituents. Because of their longer six-year terms, they will see every member of the House face his or her constituents multiple times before they themselves seek reelection. Originally, when a state’s two U.S. senators were appointed by the state legislature, the Senate chamber’s distance from the electorate was even greater. Unlike House members who can seek the narrower interests of their district, senators must maintain a broader appeal across their entire state. In addition, the Senate rules allow individuals to delay or stop legislation they oppose. The heat of popular and sometimes fleeting demands from constituents often glows red hot in the House. The Senate has the flexibility to allow these passions to cool. Dozens of major initiatives are passed by the House with a willing president only to be defeated in the Senate.

How are campaigns funded?

Modern political campaigns in the United States are expensive, and they have been growing more so. For example, in 1986, the costs of running a successful House and Senate campaign were $776,687 and $6,625,932, respectively, in 2014 dollars. By 2014, those values had shot to $1,466,533 and $9,655,660.[2]

Raising this amount of money requires significant time and effort. Indeed, a presentation for incoming Democratic representatives suggested a daily Washington schedule of five hours reaching out to donors and only three or four hours for actual congressional work. As this advice reveals, raising money for reelection constitutes a large proportion of the work a congressperson does. Has the amount of money in politics truly become a corrupting influence? However, overall the largest share of direct campaign contributions in congressional elections comes from individual donors, who are less influential than the political action committees (PACs) that contribute the remainder and demand their time.[3]

The complex problem of funding campaigns has a long history in the United States. For nearly the first hundred years of the republic, there were no federal campaign finance laws. Then, between the late nineteenth century and the start of World War I, Congress pushed through a flurry of reforms intended to bring order to the world of campaign finance. These laws made it illegal for politicians to solicit contributions from civil service workers, made corporate contributions illegal, and required candidates to report their fundraising. As politicians and donors soon discovered, however, these laws were full of loopholes and were easily bypassed by those who knew the ins and outs of the system.[4]

Another handful of reform attempts followed in the wake of World War II followed by a lull that ended in the early 1970s with the Federal Election Campaign Act. Among other things, it created the Federal Election Commission (FEC), required candidates to disclose where their money was coming from and where they were spending it, limited individual contributions, and provided for public financing of presidential campaigns.

2002 brought another important reform when Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) successfully sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). The McCain-Feingold Act limited the use of “soft money,” which is raised for purposes like party-building efforts, get-out-the-vote efforts, and issue-advocacy ads. Unlike “hard money” contributed directly to a candidate, which is heavily regulated and limited, soft money had almost no oversight. It had never been a problem before the mid-1990s, when a number of very imaginative political operatives developed creative ways to spend this money. After that, soft-money donations skyrocketed. But the McCain-Feingold bill brought some scrutiny and control to this type of fundraising.

McCain-Feingold placed limits on total contributions to political parties, prohibited coordination between candidates and PAC campaigns, and required candidates to include personal endorsements on their political ads. Until 2010, it also limited advertisements run by unions and corporations thirty days before a primary and sixty days before a general election.[5]

The FEC’s enforcement of the law invited numerous court cases challenging it. The most controversial decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 2010, whose ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission led to the removal of spending limits on corporations. Justices in the majority argued that the BCRA violated a corporation’s free-speech rights.[6]

The Citizens United case began as a lawsuit against the FEC filed by Citizens United, a nonprofit organization that wanted to advertise a documentary critical of former senator and Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton on the eve of the 2008 Democratic primaries. Advertising or showing the film during this time window was prohibited by the McCain-Feingold Act. But the Court found that this type of restriction violated the organization’s First Amendment right to free speech. As critics of the decision predicted at the time, the Court thus opened the floodgates to private soft money flowing into campaigns again.

In the wake of the Citizens United decision, a new type of advocacy group emerged, the super PAC. A traditional PAC is an organization designed to raise hard money to elect or defeat candidates. Such PACs tended to be run by businesses and other groups, like the Teamsters Union and the National Rifle Association, to support their special interests. They are highly regulated on the amount of money they can take in and spend. Super PACs are not bound by these regulations. While they cannot give money directly to a candidate or a candidate’s party, they can raise and spend unlimited funds, and they can spend independently of a campaign or party. In the 2012 election cycle, for example, super PACs spent just over $600 million dollars and raised about $200 million more.[7]

At the same time, several limits on campaign contributions have been upheld by the courts and remain in place. Individuals may contribute up to $2700 per candidate per election. Individuals may also give $5000 to PACs and $33,400 to a national party committee. PACs that contribute to more than one candidate are permitted to contribute $5000 per candidate per election, and up to $15,000 to a national party. PACs created to give money to only one candidate are limited to only $2700 per candidate, however.[8]

The amounts are adjusted every two years, based on inflation. These limits are intended to create a more equal playing field for the candidates, so that candidates must raise their campaign funds from a broad pool of contributors.

The Federal Election Commission has strict federal election guidelines on who can contribute, to whom, and how much.

Contribution Limits for 2015–2016 Federal Elections
DONORS RECIPIENTS
Candidate Committee PAC1 (SSF and Nonconnected) State/District/Local Party Committee National Party Committee Additional National Party Committee Accounts2
Individual $2,700* per election $5,000 per year $10,000 per year (combined) $33,400* $100,200* per account, per year
Candidate Committee $2,000 per election $5,000 per year Unlimited Transfers Unlimited Transfers
PAC-Multicandidate $5,000 per election $5,000 per year $5,000 per year (combined) $15,000 per year $45,000 per account, per year
PAC-Nonmulticandidate $2,700 per election $5,000 per year $10,000 per year (combined) $33,400* $100,200* per account, per year
State/District/Local Party Committee $5,000 per election $5,000 per year Unlimited Transfers
National Party Committee $5,000 per election3 $5,000 per year

* Indexed for inflation in odd-numbered years.

1 “PAC” here refers to a committee that makes contributions to other federal political committees. Independent-expenditure-only political committees (sometimes called “super PACs”) may accept unlimited contributions, including from corporations and labor organizations.

2 The limits in this column apply to a national party committee’s accounts for: (i) the presidential nominating convention; (ii) election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings; and (iii) national party headquarters buildings. A party’s national committee, Senate campaign committee and House campaign committee are each considered separate national party committees with separate limits. Only a national party committee, not the parties’ national congressional campaign committees, may have an account for the presidential nominating convention.

3 Additionally, a national party committee and its Senatorial campaign committee may contribute up to $46,800 combined per campaign to each Senate candidate.

Source: Federal Election Commission. “Contribution Limits for 2015–2016 Federal Elections.” June 25, 2015.

link to learningThe Center for Responsive Politics reports donation amounts that are required by law to be disclosed to the Federal Elections Commission. One finding is that, counter to conventional wisdom, the vast majority of direct campaign contributions come from individual donors, not from PACs and political parties.

What are the effects of incumbency?

Not surprisingly, the complexities of campaign financing regulations and loopholes is more easily navigated by the ‘experienced” incumbents in Congress than by newcomers. Incumbents are elected officials who currently hold an office. The amount of money they raise against their challengers demonstrates their advantage. In 2014, for example, the average Senate incumbent raised $12,144,933, whereas the average inexperienced challenger raised only $1,223,566.[9]

This is one of the many reasons incumbents win a large majority of congressional races each electoral cycle. Incumbents attract more money because people want to give to a winner. In the House, the percentage of incumbents winning reelection has stayed between 85 and 100 percent for the last half century. The Senate sees slightly more variation given the statewide nature of the race, but it is still a very high majority of incumbents who win reelection. As these rates show, even in the worst political environments incumbents are very difficult to defeat.

A chart titled U.S. House and Senate Reelection Rates, 1964–2014

The historical difficulty of unseating an incumbent in the House or Senate is often referred to as the incumbent advantage or the incumbency effect. The financing advantage is a significant part of this effect, but it is not the only contributor. Incumbents enjoy a much higher level of name recognition. All things being equal, voters are far more likely to select the name they recall seeing on television than the name they hardly know. And donors are more likely to want to give to a proven winner.

The way the party system itself privileges incumbents is even more important. Many congressional districts across the country are “safe seats” in uncompetitive districts, meaning candidates from a particular party are statistically likely to consistently win the seat. Therefore the functional decision in these elections occurs during the primary, not in the general election. Political parties in general prefer to support incumbents because incumbents are considered better candidates, and their record of success supports this conclusion. That said, while the political parties themselves largely control and regulate the primaries, popular individual candidates and challengers sometimes prevail. In recent years as conservative incumbents have been “primaried” by challengers more conservative than they.

Incumbents wield another advantage over their challengers through the state power they have at their disposal.[10] Sitting congresspersons are responsible for constituent casework. Constituents routinely reach out to their congressperson for powerful support to solve complex problems, such as applying for and tracking federal benefits or resolving immigration and citizenship challenges.[11]

Incumbent members of Congress have paid staff, influence, and access to specialized information that can help their constituents in ways other persons cannot. And congresspersons are not shy about their constituent support. Often, they publicize their casework on their websites or create television advertisements that boast of their helpfulness. Election history demonstrates that this publicity is very effective in garnering voter support.

Local and National Elections

The concept of collective representation describes the relationship between Congress and the United States as a whole. That is, it considers whether the institution itself represents the American people, not just whether a particular member of Congress represents his or her district. Predictably, it is far more difficult for Congress to maintain a level of collective representation than it is for individual members of Congress to represent their own constituents. Not only is Congress a mixture of different ideologies, interests, and party affiliations, but the collective constituency of the United States is even more diverse. However, matching the diversity of opinions and interests in the United States with those in Congress would not necessarily work. Indeed, such an attempt could hinder Congress’ collective representation. Its rules and procedures require Congress to employ flexibility, bargaining, and concessions. Yet it is this flexibility and concessions, often interpreted as corruption, that drive the high public disapproval ratings of Congress.

The importance of publicizing constituent casework during campaigns supports the popular saying, “All politics is local.” This phrase, attributed to former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA), asserts that the most important motivations directing voters are rooted in local concerns. In general, this is true. People naturally feel more driven by the things that affect them daily. Examples are the quality of the roads, availability of good jobs, and cost and quality of public education. Good senators and representatives understand this and seek to influence these issues for their contituents. This is an age-old strategy for success in office and elections.

Political scientists have taken note of some voting patterns that may challenge this common assumption, however. In 1960, political scientist Angus Campbell proposed the surge-and-decline theory to explain these patterns.[12]

Campbell noticed that since the Civil War, with the exception of 1934, the president’s party has consistently lost seats in Congress during the midterm elections. He proposed that the reason was a surge in political stimulation during presidential elections, which contributes to greater turnout and brings in voters who ordinarily abstain. These voters, Campbell argued, tend to favor the party holding the presidency. In contrast, midterm elections witness the opposite effect. They are less stimulating and have lower turnout because less-active voters stay home. Campbell asserts this shift helps the party not currently occupying the presidency.

In the decades since Campbell’s influential theory was published, a number of studies have challenged his conclusions. Nevertheless, the pattern of midterm elections benefiting the president’s opposition has persisted.[13] Only in exceptional years has this pattern been broken: first in 1998 during President Bill Clinton’s second term and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when exit polls indicated most voters opposed the idea of impeaching the president, and then again in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing declaration of a “war on terror.”

The evidence does suggest that national concerns, rather than local ones, can function as powerful motivators at the polls. Consider, for example, the role of the Iraq War in bringing about a Democratic rout of the Republicans in the House in 2006 and in the Senate in 2008. Unlike previous wars in Europe and Vietnam, the war in Iraq was fought by a very small percentage of the population.[14] The vast majority of citizens were not soldiers, few had relatives fighting in the war, and most did not know anyone who directly suffered from the prolonged conflict. Voters in large numbers were motivated by the political and economic disaster of the war to vote for politicians they believed would end it.

An image of a group of people, several of whom are holding flags and signs. One of the signs reads

Wars typically have the power to nationalize local elections. What makes the Iraq War different is that the overwhelming majority of voters had little to no intimate connection with the conflict and were motivated to vote for those who would end it. (credit: “Lipton sale”/Wikimedia Commons)

Congressional elections may be increasingly driven by national issues. Just two decades ago, straight-ticket, party-line voting was still rare across most of the country.[15] In much of the South, which began to vote overwhelmingly Republican in presidential elections during the 1960s and 1970s, Democrats were still commonly elected to the House and Senate. The candidates themselves and the important local issues, apart from party affiliation, were important drivers in congressional elections. This began to change in the 1980s and 1990s, as Democratic representatives across the region declined. The South is not alone; areas in the Northeast and the Northwest have grown increasingly Democratic. Indeed, the 2014 midterm election was the most nationalized election in many decades. Voters who favor a particular party in a presidential election are now much more likely to also support that same party in House and Senate elections than was the case just a few decades ago.

Questions to Consider

  1. What does Campbell’s surge-and-decline theory suggest about the outcome of midterm elections?
  2. Explain the factors that make it difficult to replace incumbents.

Terms to Remember

collective representation–describes the relationship between Congress and the United States as a whole; whether the institution itself represents the American people, not just whether a particular member of Congress represents his or her district.

incumbents–current office holder

surge-and-decline theory–a theory proposing that the surge of stimulation occurring during presidential elections subsides during midterm elections, accounting for the differences we observe in turnouts and results


  1. U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995).
  2. "The Cost of Winning a House and Senate Seat, 1986–2014," http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/vital/VitalStats_t1.pdf (May 15, 2016).
  3. http://www.opensecrets.org/overview/wherefrom.php (May 15, 2016).
  4. https://www.opensecrets.org/races/summary.php?id=OH08&cycle=2014 (May 15, 2016).
  5. "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002," http://www.fec.gov/pages/bcra/bcra_update.shtml (May 15, 2016); Greg Scott and Gary Mullen, "Thirty Year Report," September 2005, http://www.fec.gov/info/publications/30year.pdf (May 15, 2016).
  6. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  7. "2012 Outside Spending, by Super PAC," https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/summ.php?cycle=2012&chrt=V&type=S (May 15, 2016).
  8. "Contribution Limits for the 2015-2016 Federal Elections," http://www.fec.gov/info/contriblimitschart1516.pdf (May 15, 2016).
  9. "Incumbent Advantage," http://www.opensecrets.org/overview/incumbs.php?cycle=2014 (May 15, 2016).
  10. David R. Mayhew. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  11. R. Eric Petersen, "Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources," 24 November 2014, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33209.pdf (May 1, 2016).
  12. Angus Campbell. 1960. "Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change." The Public Opinion Quarterly 24, No. 3: 397–418.
  13. "Midterm congressional elections explained: Why the president’s party typically loses," 1 October 2014, http://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/voting-patterns-midterm-congressional-elections-why-presidents-party-typically-loses (May 1, 2016).
  14. "A Profile of the Modern Military," 5 October 2011, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/10/05/chapter-6-a-profile-of-the-modern-military/ (May 1, 2016).
  15. Dhrumil Mehta and Harry Enten, "The 2014 Senate Elections Were the Most Nationalized In Decades," 2 December 2014, http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/the-2014-senate-elections-were-the-most-nationalized-in-decades/ (May 1, 2016); Gregory Giroux, "Straight-Ticket Voting Rises As Parties Polarize," Bloomberg, 29 November 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2014-11-29/straightticket-voting-rises-as-parties-polarize (May 1, 2016).