How Congressmen Decide

Political Parties

Political parties serve to coordinate, assist and provide resources for members of congress and political candidates.

Learning Objectives

Describe the history of political parties and their role in Congress

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Political parties are one of the most enduring political institutions in the US, and with recent increases in the partisan nature of congress political parties are playing a increased role in US democracy.
  • There is little mention of political parties in the US constitution, or any other founding documents, and many of the country’s founder opposed political parties expecting them to be divisive.
  • In congress political parties serve to coordinate, assistant and provide resources for members of congress and political candidates.
  • Since the 1990s there has been a stronger control by congressional party leaders on individual members including higher rates of party voting. Members of congress now routinely vote with their party at rates as high as 60 or 70 percent.
  • The increase in party power also means that bipartisan collaboration between members of congress is less likely.

Key Terms

  • bipartisan: relating to, or supported by two groups, especially by two political parties
  • caucus: A meeting, especially a preliminary meeting, of persons belonging to a party, to nominate candidates for public office, or to select delegates to a nominating convention, or to confer regarding measures of party policy; a political primary meeting.
  • party voting: The type of voting that describes when voters cast their vote based on their self-identification with a particular political party.

Political Parties

Political parties are one of the most enduring political institutions in the US, and with recent increases in the partisan nature of congress political parties are playing a increased role in US democracy.

Political parties are one of the main coordinating bodies in Congress. With hundreds of individual members the party’s caucus or conference helps to bring together like-minded politicians and constituents, coordinate election efforts, set legislative priorities, and determine who will receive important committee appointments.

History of Political Parties

The Democrat and Republican parties have dominated the political landscape in the US for quite some time now. However, this has not always been the case, and the current political parties have also changed significantly over this time.

There is little mention of political parties in the US constitution, or any other founding documents. Many of the country’s founder opposed political parties, expecting them to be divisive. However, by the 1790s two parties the Federalists and Republicans had been established. These parties were separated by preferences for either a strong or weak central government.

Each of today’s major parties have made various changes throughout their existence, even as their name may have remained the same. For example it was a Republican-led congress that initiated the Civil War amendments that officially outlawed slavery in the US and gave citizenship and voting rights to formerly enslaved people and their ancestors. However, by the 1960s in was Democratic politicians who moved forward Civil Rights legislation. Today we are seeing another shift in the Republican Party with the increased influence of the Tea Party social movement within the leadership of the party.

Political Parties in Congress

In Congress political parties serve to coordinate, assistant and provide resources for members of congress and political candidates. Parties control primary elections which are the main means through which candidates can get on ballots. They also control committee appointments, and since the 1990s there has been a stronger control by congressional party leaders on individual members including higher rates of party voting. Members of congress now routinely vote with their party at rates as high as 60 or 70 percent. In addition to increasing the power of party leadership it means that bipartisan collaboration between members of congress is less likely.

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Nancy Pelosi: Nancy Pelosi is the leader of the House Democrats and the first women to be Speaker of the House.

This rise in party power also means that the experiences of members of the majority versus minority party will be quite different. Majority party members will have many positive powers to pass legislation to support their own ideology and constituencies. However, minority party members will have to rely on negative powers such as blocking legislation in committees, or using filibuster techniques.

Coalitions

To deal with a situation in which no clear majorities appear through general elections, parties either form coalition cabinets, supported by a parliamentary majority, or minority cabinets which may consist of one or more parties. Cabinets based on a coalition with majority in a parliament, ideally, are more stable and long-lived than minority cabinets. While the former are prone to internal struggles, they have less reason to fear votes of non-confidence. Majority governments based on a single party are typically even more stable, as long as their majority can be maintained.

Coalition cabinets are common in countries in which a parliament is proportionally representative, with several organized political parties represented. It usually does not appear in countries in which the cabinet is chosen by the executive rather than by a lower house, such as in the United States (however, coalition cabinets are common in Brazil). In semi-presidential systems such as France, where the president formally appoints a prime minister but the government itself must still maintain the confidence of parliament, coalition governments occur quite regularly. In the United States, political parties are best described as coalitions.

Constituency

Each member of Congress has a responsibility to their constituents because they decide if a congressional member will be re-elected.

Learning Objectives

Identify the rules and duties of members of Congress while they are in office, and the factors that shape how they vote on bills

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Each member of the U.S. Congress is elected by voters in their home district. These voters are members of Congress’ constituency.
  • Each member has a special responsibility to their constituents because these are the only voters who get to decide if a congressional member will be re-elected.
  • Districts are reevaluated after each 10 year census and redrawn as needed to adjust to population changes. However, this is not a completely neutral process. The practice of gerrymandering has been used to insure that one party or the other will have an easier time winning elections.
  • All members of Congress maintain constituency offices which are home bases where staff can keep in touch with local concerns, activists, and interests.
  • Members of Congress also attempt to maintain support with constituency members by using their influence in Congress to gain support for local projects such as new, lucrative construction projects.

Key Terms

  • pork barrel: The appropriation of government spending for localized projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district
  • gerrymandering: The practice of redrawing electoral districts to gain an electoral advantage for a political party.

Constituency

Each member of the U.S. Congress is elected by voters in their home district. These voters are a part of congress’ constituency. Each congressional member has a special responsibility to their constituents because these are the only voters who get to decide if a member will be re-elected.

Models of Representation: The Delegate vs. Trustee Model

Representatives can act in two models of representation: as delegates or trustees. The delegate model of representation is a model of a representative democracy. In this model, constituents elect their representatives as delegates for their constituency. These delegates act only as a mouthpiece for the wishes of their constituency, and have no autonomy from the constituency. This model does not provide representatives the luxury of acting in their own conscience. Essentially, the representative acts as the voice of those who are (literally) not present.

On the other hand, the trustee model of representation is a model for how we should understand the role of representatives, and is frequently contrasted with the delegate model of representation. Constituents elect their representatives as ‘trustees’ (or ‘entrust’ them) for their constituency. These ‘trustees’ have sufficient autonomy to deliberate and act in favor of the greater common good and national interest, even if it means going against the short-term interests of their own constituencies. The model provides a solution to the problem of uninformed constituents who lack the necessary knowledge on issues to take an educated position. By contrast in the delegate model, the representative is expected to act strictly in according to a mandate from the represented.

House of Representatives Districts

Members of the House of Representatives are elected to represent districts that range in size from the 905,316 people representing the entire state of Montana to 495,304 which represents the entire state of Wyoming. Most states have multiple representatives.

Districts are generally reevaluated after each 10 year census. The districts are redrawn as needed to adjust to population changes. However, this is not a completely neutral process. The practice of gerrymandering has been used to insure that one or the other party will have an easier time winning elections by creating districts that hold a majority of voters likely to vote for one party or the other. Looking at the maps of congressional districts it is obvious that some districts are far from uniform. The more complicated shapes on the map might be a result of gerrymandering.

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U.S. Congress House Districts: This map shows the boundaries for the U.S. Congress housing districts.

Senate Seats

U.S. Senators simply represent their states. There are two senators per state. Therefore, the constituency in smaller states such as Wyoming might be able to gain disproportionate influence.

Local Concerns

All members of congress maintain constituency offices, which are home bases where staff can keep in touch with local concerns, activists, and interests. Members of Congress will pay a great deal of attention to their constituency’s concerns. Congressional members will often attempt to maintain support with constituency members through practices such as pork barrel politics. This practice is when members will use their influence in Congress to gain support for local projects such as new lucrative construction projects.

Interest Groups, Lobbyists, and PACs

Interest groups attempt to influence Members of Congress in a variety of ways, such as lobbying and financing campaigns using PACs.

Learning Objectives

Describe how outside groups work to shape policy at the federal level through the use of interest groups, lobbyists, and PACs.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Interest group represent people or organizations with common concerns and interests. These groups work to gain or retain benefits for their members, through advocacy, public campaigns, and even lobbying governments to make changes in public policy.
  • Interest groups may take on a variety of strategies including public education, encouraging public participation, and providing education and special information for civil servants and politicians.
  • Interest groups are also involved in actives such as lobbying to directly persuade decision makers in Congress along with members of the executive branch.
  • PACs are organized groups that work on election campaigns both for specific parties and ballot initiatives. These groups pool donations to redistribute to candidates, parties and other PACs.
  • Super PACs can also spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for or against a candidate or issue, but may not donate to, or coordinate with, a particular campaign.

Key Terms

  • lobbyist: A person remunerated to persuade (to lobby) politicians to vote in a certain way or otherwise use their office to effect a desired result.

Interest Groups, Lobbyists, and PACs

Interest groups represent people or organizations with common concerns and interests. These groups work to gain or retain benefits for their members through advocacy, public campaigns, and lobbying governments to make changes in public policy. There are a wide variety of interest groups representing a variety of constituencies including business, labor, consumers, other governments, and various single issue groups.

Interest groups may take on a variety of strategies including public education, encouraging public participation, and providing education and special information for civil servants and politicians. However, interest groups are also involved in activities such as lobbying and forming PACs, which has led to concerns that some groups and even individuals might have disproportionate influence on Congress.

Lobbyists

There are over twelve thousand registered lobbyists in Washington, but only a handful of those have the influence and connections needed to consistently influence policy. Lobbyists work for a wide variety of groups, ranging from individual companies and non-profit organizations, to other governments and large coordinated councils representing whole industries, labor movements, or consumers. Lobbyists work to directly persuade decision makers in Congress along with members of the executive branch.

The impact of lobbyists is unclear, but many believe they can influence public policy. One example is the strength and influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), who are advocates for gun rights. They also oppose gun regulations and legislation that infringe on the privacy of gun owners in the United States, who has one of the most lenient gun regulations in the Global North.

Political Action Committees (PACs)

PACs are organized groups that work on election campaigns often on behalf of specific parties and ballot initiatives. These groups pool donations to redistribute to candidates, parties, and other PACs. Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations limit the amount of money PACs can donate to any one campaign or party, and there are limits to the amount of money they can receive from any one donor.

PACs can be connected to existing organizations such as business, labor or trade organizations or non-connected, usually rallying around a single issue or ideology.

While PACs have existed since the 1940s, the 2010 SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission decision of the Supreme Court created a new form of PAC. They are officially known as independent expenditure-only committees, but better known as Super PACs. These groups can raise money without limits in from individuals, organizations, and large donors such as corporations or labor unions. Super PACs can also spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for or against a candidate or issue, but may not donate to, or coordinate with, a particular campaign.

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Stephen Colbert: Political satirist Stephen Colbert has started his own Super PAC to draw attention to these organizations.

The SpeechNow.org case built on the decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case earlier in 2010, which held that the First Amendment right to free speech meant that legislatures could not limit independent political spending by corporations and unions.

The 2012 election cycle is the first presidential election to be held under the new rules. Before the campaigns even ended, the Super PACs had outspent the top ten PACs from 2008 by at least tenfold. A large majority of Super PAC donations also come from wealthy individual donors. By October 2012, the top 100 individual Super PAC donors donated 80% of all Super PAC funds, yet made up fewer than 4% of all donors.

Information and Watchdogs

Critics of Super PACs are concerned that these groups can, in effect, “buy” elections. If elected, the candidates may then feel a special obligation to these wealthy donors and organizations. Several groups now exist to track the connections between Members of Congress, lobbyists, and campaign financing. Some of these groups include the Center for Responsive Politics and the OpenCongress.org website.

Switching Parties

Though uncommon, a member of Congress switch parties for either ideological or pragmatic reasons.

Learning Objectives

List several well-known cases of senators switching parties

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Political parties provide various benefits to Members of Congress and so it is fairly uncommon for a Member of Congress to cross over parties.
  • Some Members might cross over due to ideological differences with their party, or more pragmatic reasons such as power gain or reelection in the Senate.
  • Various politicians who have crossed parties have found both success and failure.

Key Terms

  • primary: A primary election; a preliminary election to select a political candidate of a political party.

Crossing Over of Parties

Political Parties provide various benefits to Members of Congress, including some election support, support in Congress, and positions on various committee. Political parties also serve as ideological homes for Members, and voters are often more attached to a party than to any given candidate. For these reasons, it is fairly uncommon for a Member of Congress to cross over parties, but it is not unheard of.

A member might switch parties, or “cross the floor,” for a number of reasons. Some members might switch due to ideological differences with their party. This was the case with Senator Strom Thurmond who, in 1964, switched from the Democratic to Republican party in opposition to the Civil Rights Bills. Others switch for more pragmatic reasons, such as to gain more power in Congress or to gain reelection. Richard Shelby, a relatively conservative Democrat Senator switched to the Republican Party in 1994 after they gained a majority in the Senate, and went on receive high profile committee appointments.

Crossing over can cause difficulties. For example, when Ben Nighthorse Campbell crossed to the Republican party after being elected as a Democratic Senator, much of his Congressional staff quit. Others who have crossed over have found success: Senator Joe Lieberman served as a Democrat and even ran as the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee in 2000, but after losing the Democratic primary in his home state of Connecticut, ran and was elected as an Independent. He eventually supported the 2008 Republican presidential ticket.

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Joe Lieberman and John McCain: Senator Lieberman was a Democrat, then crossed over as an Independent, then endorsed a Republican presidential candidate.