Congress as an institution that encourages parochialism on the part of its members

 14. březen 2010  Mgr. Martina Nováková   komentáře

First of all I would like to mention some basic information about U.S. Congress itself. Congress is a legislative body of United States of America, which consists of House of Representatives and Senate. Members of House are elected every 2 years. Senators are elected for 6 years. Every 2 years 1/3 of the Senate is up for re-election.

Congress as an institution that encourages parochialism on the part of its membersCongress as an institution that encourages parochialism on the part of its members

First of all I would like to mention some basic information about U.S. Congress itself. Congress is a legislative body of United States of America, which consists of House of Representatives and Senate. Members of House are elected every 2 years. Senators are elected for 6 years. Every 2 years 1/3 of the Senate is up for re-election. It is important to note that “each member of Congress is individually elected by a geographically defined constituency” (Lee 2005: 282). Critics often decry the Congress’s parochialism. It means that all members of Congress “guard their local constituencies’ interests“ (Lee 2005: 282) and sometimes neglect national interests. The main point is that interests of constituency are for them in the first place. They feel obligation to protect local constituencies’ interests.

Chambers of Congress have the same position in the legislative process, but they differ in the base of representation. The House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the bicameral U.S. Congress, has 435 members apportioned among the states according to population.[1] Although each state has at least one representative and seven single-district states exist, “House districts are nothing more than electoral entities” (Lee 2005: 287). In summary, it means that from each state comes a different number of members. Thus, the most populous states have most representatives in this chamber.

 It is in contrast to Senate, the upper chamber of the United States Congress. In this chamber each state is equally represented by two senators, regardless of population. Virtually, Senate protects interests of particular U.S. states and thanks to larger constituencies (constituency coincides with U.S. state) is perceived as more prestigious body than the House. But one should take care here, because it is not the only reason. There are some other factors why Senators are seen in better light than members of House. First, Senators are elected for six years. It means they have more space to prepare and promote their long-term objectives (Dvořáková 2003: 175). Secondly, people always know who their Senator is, in contrast to Members of House.[2] For people living in particular state Senator represents protector and defender of their state interest. Thirdly, opposed to Members of House Senators have been considered a less partisan what is in some cases more convenient for interests of constituencies. Finally, “Senate constituencies are often the direct recipients of federal funds but House constituencies are not” (Lee 2005: 287). Senators are able to claim credit for getting large grants for states. For this reason they take a strong interest in the distribution of federal funds. Members of House use different policy tools in order to provide benefits to their constituents and claim credit for it. For example, they are able to claim credit for narrow programs to which House members’ electoral interests are more closely tied (Lee 20005: 287).

Finally it is necessary to say that members of both chambers (House of Representative and Senate) feel obligation to represent interests of their constituency although they do it by different policy tools.  All members of Congress are elected from single-member districts. The U.S. electoral system, connected with presidential system, leads to maximization of attention to constituency interests (i.e. parochialism).

Also the congressional campaigning contributes to parochialism. Candidates for Congress prepare and fund their campaigns largely “on the basis of their own efforts as individuals” (Lee 2005: 284). During the campaign they try to make personal contact with potential voters, send direct email, advertise in newspapers, broadcast TV spots etc. (Jacobson 2005: 132-3). They do their own campaigns, which are time to time based on local issues. The result is the Congress and government of individualists “with their own distinctive constituencies, competing with each other for visibility, stature and influence” (Wayne 2005: 105).

One of the most important things that significantly affects the course of campaign is the funding. Nowadays, candidates to Congress have tried to raise money by four different ways to run for Congress. First, individuals can contribute. Secondly, special interest groups (so called Political action committees) could endow the campaigns of candidates. Thirdly, the political parties could contribute to the political campaign and more precisely, the members of Congress could support their colleagues. Finally, also self-financing of candidate may be possible.[3] The question of funding for campaigns evokes a little bit of controversy. Because of the growing importance of money the main problem consists in the potential of corruption. Federal campaigns needed to be regulated. For this reason Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1971. The major amendments were made three years later in 1974 after the Watergate affair. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) monitoring contributions and spending on federal campaigns was established. But in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo lawsuit the Supreme Court “declared limits on campaign spending to be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment” (Jacobson 2005: 118) and part of the FECA limiting the expenditures of the candidates and independent expenditures in favour of candidate were cancelled (Safarik, Bartáková 2006: 11-12). The important is that the Supreme Court confirmed the limits on the size of contributions. It has led candidates to raise money “from a larger variety of sources and thus to devote more time to fund-raising” (Jacobson 2005: 118). As was mentioned above, the candidates have raised money from individuals, political action committees, party committees and sometimes they have contributed themselves. Typically, candidates receive contributions mainly from their constituencies. Hence, in the case of success in the election they would feel commitment to the constituency. In this perspective the congressional campaigning contributes to parochialism.

There have appeared some suspicions that PACs have tried to pursue their goals through the funding for certain candidates.[4] Same suspicions have been concerning the private donors. The critique of self-financing has also appeared (see Jacobson 2005: 118-120). Everything has its pros and cons. The lobbying has a strong position in American political culture and has law limits for its existence. In my opinion, it depends on a candidate itself whether he/she allows to be influenced by contributors. Moreover, every candidate has variety of sources to get campaign money. Definitely it is not possible to satisfy requirements of all contributors. On the other hand it is evident that candidates really need contributions for their campaigns. Sometimes they have to take into account interests of their donors, and sometimes these interests should be contrary to interests of the constituency. A similar situation could happen with the support of political parties to candidates. Party involvement in campaigns “promotes collective responsibility but diminishes members’ individual responsiveness to their constituents” (Jacobson 2005: 129).

In conclusion, it is necessary to note that elected persons have an individual responsiveness to their constituencies. Constituents trust members of Congress and remember how their congressmen deal with important topics. If congressmen want to be re-elected than they need to protect interests of their constituents, what can be later usefully utilized in their campaigns.

Now, the question how members of Congress engage in decision-making and policy-making contribute to parochialism will be answered. First of all, it is important to mention that intraparty dissent is tolerated, individual members can promote interests of their constituencies. Second important thing is that congressmen are sensitive to effects of federal policies on their constituencies and they take a strong interest in federal policy outcomes. One of the examples is the attempt of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Pat Wood, who proposed a new regulatory regime for high-power transmission lines in 2003. This proposal had benefits for the whole U.S. But some states, especially in the Southeast, were aware of the local disadvantage of the proposal, and members of Congress from these states opposed the new regime (Lee 2005: 286). Similar difficulties have occurred in many other policy areas (e.g. agricultural subsidies, environmental protection etc.).

Members of Congress are often influenced by the interest groups in the process of decision-making and policy-making. Congressmen are interested in opinion of special interest groups. According to Lee (2005: 293) the reason is obviously the respond to parochial pressures. First, as was mentioned above, organized interests are an important source of campaign financing. Secondly, interest groups represent a valuable source of information on a public policy issue. Usually they offer expert analysis, and for members of Congress they are really useful.[5] Thirdly, time to time interest groups could be used as a service bureau of a certain congressman (Lee 2005: 293-294). Sometimes happens that Congress deals with an issue in that a certain interest group is interested, and it is possible to frame this issue as a constituency matter. We talk about so called “iron triangles” in the sense that self-serving networks comprised of organized interests, members of relevant congressional committees and agency bureaucrats capture public policy (Lee 2005: 296). A good example is the national water development policy (see Lee 2005: 296-297).

Time to time “iron triangles” occur in American policy-making, but they are not as usual. Moreover, it is not true that organized interests have commonly inadequate leverage over members of Congress. As was mentioned before, there are a lot of interest groups, and their influence is diluted. Furthermore, constituency interests are for congressmen at the first place, because the congressmen loyalty to constituent interests is a part of the U.S. representational system (Lee 2005: 309). According to Lee (2005: 303) parochialism is a mistake built into the structure of Congress itself. A system of competing organized interests exists here, and members of Congress have to choose who they will support. Their choice is guided by ideological and partisan commitments, and it is influenced by their own understanding of public interests. Obviously, congressmen cannot stand apart from parochial demands (Lee 2005: 303). If members of Congress want to get some topic on agenda the most effective is the building of coalition. In coalition the members of Congress are stronger.[6]

At the end, I would like to mention that parochialism “affects policies that have no inherent connection to geographic politics whatsoever” (Lee 2005: 307). Decisions about the national policy are made for reasons that are not relevant to national interests. This is because American system divides “loyalty for all members of Congress, who are asked to serve simultaneously as national lawmakers and as advocates for local interests” (Lee 2005: 310).

The answer to the question whether this is what the Framers intended, we have to conclude that in basic essence, is yes. Of course, the Framers could not anticipate all consequences of the Constitutional Convention. But the main idea is still alive. The United States is a federal state where the legislative, executive and judge powers are divided.[7] Because of the separate powers and existence of bicameral Congress check and balances have still worked.

The model of American federalism is given as an example of a successful state structure. American political system has become a theme of discussion for political scientists and politicians from the entire world. Many other states have tried to transfer this model, but unsuccessfully. In my opinion, it is not possible to transfer this model to other states because of different historical experiences, cultural and political environments. The political system of U.S. is definitely unique, and one could say it works correctly. Although lot of things have changed since the adoption of the Constitution, and questions like lobbying and campaign financing evoke shadows of doubt, the change of congressional representation is in this time not possible. Parochialism is built into the structure of American political system and the question if it is good or not for American democracy cannot be clearly answered. U.S. is a large state, larger than every European countries, and interests of particular American states have to be taken into account to ensure their “well-being”, which certainly differs between U.S. states. Hence, in my opinion the democracy can be strengthen through the principle of parochialism, and I cannot imagine a “strong hand“ holding the whole country united under uniform laws.

References

  1. Dvořáková, V. (2003). Spojené státy Americké. In: Dvořáková, V. a kol. (2003). Komparace politických systémů I. Praha: VŠE.
  2. Jacobson, G. C. (2005). Modern Campaigns and Representation. In: Quirk, P.; Binder, S., eds. (2005). The legislative branch. London: Oxford University Press.
  3. Lee, F. E. (2005). Interests, Constituencies, and Policy Making. In: Quirk, P.; Binder, S., eds. (2005). The legislative branch. London: Oxford University Press.
  4. Long, C. (2009). American President and Congress, 21st October 2009.
  5. Long, C. (2009). American President and Congress, 28th October 2009.
  6. Long, C. (2009). American President and Congress, 11th November 2009.
  7. Safarik, J. (2007). Financování volebních kampaní v USA. Praha: Parlamentní institut.
  8. Wayne, S. J. (2005). Presidential Elections and American Democracy. In: Quirk, P.; Binder, S., eds. (2005). The legislative branch. London: Oxford University Press.

 Obrázek ikony byl převzat z: http://www.france24.com/en/files/imagecache/france24_ct_player_thumbnail/story/congress-m.jpg


[1] Carolyn Long, notes from the lecture of American President and Congress, 28th October 2009.

[2] On the other hand, house members usually have much more contacts than Senate members.

[3] Carolyn Long, notes from the lecture of American President and Congress, 28th October 2009.

[4] Political action committees provide on average 40 % of the campaign funds for members of House of Representatives and 25 % for members of Senate (Lee 2005: 293).

[5] Carolyn Long, notes from the lecture of American President and Congress, 11th November 2009.

[6] Carolyn Long, notes from the lecture of American President and Congress, 11th November 2009.

[7] Carolyn Long, notes from the lecture of American President and Congress, 21st October 2009.

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Nováková, Martina. Congress as an institution that encourages parochialism on the part of its members [online]. E-polis.cz, 14. březen 2010. [cit. 2017-11-25]. Dostupné z WWW: <http://www.e-polis.cz/clanek/congress-as-an-institution-that-encourages-parochialism-on-the-part-of-its-members.html>. ISSN 1801-1438.

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