By David R. Mayhew
Mayhew builds his argument on the assumption that Congressmen motivated solely by the quest for reelection. He argues that there are three types of activities that Congressmen can engage in to aid in their electoral efforts: advertising, credit-claiming, and position-taking. When Congressional policy-making is motivated by these factors, it creates predictable policy effects, including delay, particularism, servicing of the organized, symbolism, lack of interest in transfer programs, and a focus on blunt, simple laws. Though the electoral quests or Congress threaten to cause it to lose its power, institutional maintenance is achieved through the three control committees in the House (Rules, Appropriations, Ways and Means). These committees, which provide prestige to their members, arrange the agenda, guard the treasury, and put a damper on particularism.
In this book, Mayhew assumes that Congressmen are single-minded seekers of reelection. He believes that this assumption is valid because it (1) fits political reality well, (2) puts the spotlight on men rather than on parties or pressure groups, (3) politics are best studied as a struggle among men to gain and maintain power, and (4) the reelection quest establishes an accountability relationship with an electorate, and any serious thinking about democratic theory has to give a central place to the question of accountability. Mayhew is interested looking at the effects of this motivation in the functions of legislating, overseeing the executive, expressing public opinion, and servicing constituents. Though he focuses primarily on the U.S. Congress, he says that a representative assembly (legislature) is defined by Loewenberg to include two things: (1) “their members are formally equal to each other in status, distinguishing parliaments from hierarchically ordered organizations,” and (2) the authority of their members depends on their claim to representing the rest of the community, in some sense of that protean concept, representation.”
Part 1: The Electoral Incentive
The aim of part one is to show what activities are electorally useful to Congressmen. His argument hinges on the assumption that U.S. Congressmen are interested in getting reelected, so he begins by answering a few questions that this may raise.
(1) Is it true that the U.S. Congress is a place where members wish to stay once they get there? Yes, turnover figures show that over the past century increasing proportions of members in any given Congress are holdovers from previous congresses. Congress is largely an assembly of professional politicians aiming to have political careers.
(2) Even if congressmen seek reelection, does it make sense to attribute that goal to them to the exclusion of all other goals? Yes, though there may be other goals, reelection underlies everything else if we expect relationship between politicians and public is one of accountability.
(3) Even if congressmen are single-mindedly interested in reelection, are they in a position as individuals to do anything about it? Yes, in the United States, politicians rather than parties are the prime movers in electoral politics. He contrasts this situation with that for British M.P.s. In the UK:
(1) British parties and nominating systems are geared to produce candidates who will vote the party line if they reach parliament,
(2) British M.P.’s lack resources to set up shop as politicians separate from party, and
(3) With executive entrenched in parliament, only posts worth holding are doled out by party leaders – party loyalty is rewarded.
(1) The way in which congressional candidates win party nominations is not one that fosters party cohesion in Congress – direct primaries, not party caucus or convention,
(2) The typical American congressmen has to mobilize his own resources initially to win a nomination and then to win election, and
(3)Congress does not have to sustain a cabinet, so party-loyalty has less reward.
It may seem that the minority subset of Congressmen who serve in marginal districts or states (those evenly balanced between the parties) would engage in more distinctive electoral activities. It is true that some people may vote on national partisan swings (not on the performance of the individual), but Congressmen are not in a place to affect these votes. Instead, it’s rational for congressmen to ignore national trends. They tend to take on “district-oriented” and “delegate” roles in Congress. They introduce more floor amendments and are generally more active. These Congressmen believe that they can affect their own percentages in primary and general elections, and they try to do so.
Though we focused on marginal Congressmen, non-marginal congressmen also try to affect their percentages in elections. This is in part because Congressional seats are not as safe as they seem – the typical congressman has had at least occasionally won a narrow victory. Further, in the U.S. House elections only about a third of the variance is due to national swings; about half is unexplained (and hence possible to control by Congressmen). Even a “safe” Congressmen’s position depends on him continuing to act the way he has been.
Mayhew provides a brief conceptual treatment of the relation between congressmen and their electorates. A Congressmen must be devoted to his “expected incumbent differential,” defined as any difference perceived by a relevant political actor between what an incumbent congressmen is likely to do if returned to office and what any possible challenger (in primary or general election) would be likely to do. A “relevant political actor” is anyone who has a resource that might be used in the election in question – e.g. voters, donors, possible endorsers, volunteers, etc. Congressmen must be sure the resource balance favors himself rather than someone else, and should be aware of what groups might have sway in both primary and general elections.
Congressmen are not attempting to maximize their vote percentage in elections. Though they would prefer to win “comfortably” than by a narrow plurality, it’s not worth expending the energy and funds to try to win all of the popular vote. The goal is to remain in office, not to win the entire popular vote. Because Congressmen act in an environment of high uncertainty (they can’t know for sure how innovative behavior will affect their vote gains), the assumption of minimax behavior is a better fit.
Congressmen constantly engage in activities related to election, including three basic kinds of activities: advertising, credit claiming, and position taking.
Advertising is defined as any effort to disseminate one’s name among constituents in such a fashion as to create a favorable image but in messages having little or no issue content. It is similar to a brand name (and name recognition), and can even benefit other politicians from the same family. Congressmen advertise through activities such as making frequent visits to the constituency, nonpolitical speeches to home audiences, and sending letters of congratulations and condolence. There is evidence that many Congressmen do this - 121 out to 158 House members questions said they regularly sent newsletters to their constituents ( in mid-1960s).
Credit-claiming is defined here as acting so as to generate belief in a relevant political actor (or actors) that one is personally responsible for causing the government, or some unit thereof, to do something that the actor (or actors) considers desirable. The idea is that an actor who believes a member can make pleasing things happen will want to keep him in office. The main way for a Congressmen to do this is to traffic in “particularized benefits” which have two properties: (1) each benefit is given out to a specific individual, group, or geographic constituency, the recipient unit being of a scale that allows a single congressmen to be recognized as the claimant for the benefits, and (2) each benefit is given out in apparently ad hoc fashion (unlike Social security checks) with a congressmen having a hand in the allocation. Particularized benefits can come from work on “casework” such as providing essay materials for HS students, emergency leaves for soldiers, or finding mission checks for pensioners. It also includes new legislation such as construction projects. The benefits don’t need to be geographic, they may go to political actors outside home constituencies. It’s also important to note that Congressmen can’t claim credit for bigger things, since the claim is not credible, and the information costs are high in understanding one person’s role in a large movement; though this may change if the congressman has a clear role, such as being the head of a relevant committee.
Position taking is defined here as the public enunciation of a judgmental statement on anything likely to be of interest to political actors. Often, position taking can take the form of a roll call vote. This can be considered about ends (war should end immediately) or means (‘the way to end the war is to take it to the UN). In this type of action, the Congressmen is a speaker rather than a doer. Position taking is effective, because people often don’t understand (or can’t monitor) the significance of actions taken in support of bills, so it is easier to judge based on statements only. Some groups monitor roll-call votes and give Congressmen scores on particular issues, showing a pattern of position-taking. Position taking can also be done through floor addresses, speeches at home, TV, newsletters, press releases, interviews, articles, etc. It is also possible for a Congressman to give different messages to different groups – e.g. giving an anti-war speech to college students, but a patriotic speech about past wars and the need to prevent future wars to veterans. The best position-taking strategy is usually to be conservative continue to repeat past positions. However, Congressmen may sometimes gamble on new ideas (policy entrepreneurship), which is how Sen. Warren Magnuson became consumer advocate, and how Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism. By watching each others’ positions, Congressmen can understand what positions are likely to lead to success or failure at the polls.
For most congressmen most of the time all three activities are essential, but there are some different trends that can be identified. Senators, possibly due to their access to the media, put more emphasis on position-taking than House members. House members tend to be more reliant on particularized benefits. Congressmen from areas with political machines tend to do less position-taking and advertising, and more distributing of benefits. Members with ambitions for higher office (house to senate, senate to president) focus on advertising and position taking.
Part 2: Processes and Policies
The aim of part two is to show what happens when members who need to engage in these activities assemble for collective action. He argues that Congress is good at meeting the electoral needs of its members; it would be hard to design something more suited to electoral needs. Also, he notes that satisfaction of electoral needs requires remarkably little zero-sum conflict among members (one member’s gain is not another’s loss).
Mayhew first examines the structural units of Congress (offices, committees, parties) and the ways in which these are arranged to meet electoral needs.
Capitol Hill Offices: There are 535 Capitol hill offices, with relatively large staff salaries. These offices serve as both campaign management firms (by doing election work) and political machines (by doing casework). These office resources are given to all members regardless of party, seniority, or other qualification, providing a distinct advantage to incumbent Congressmen.
Committees: There are 21 standing committees in the house and 17 in Senate, and there are 132 subcommittees in the House and 143 in the Senate. The committees provide opportunities for position taking and credit-claiming. Membership on a committee provides opportunities for position-taking speeches. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example, is often seen as giving a license to members to make speeches on foreign policy. “Cause committees” can be used to help identify a member with a particular cause, such as education or labor.
Members of committees allow credit-claiming by helping them to provide particularized benefits. This occurs in the House Public Works, House Interior, and Ways and Means committees. In these cases majority and minority members work together, allowing every member his right to a share of benefits. Mayhew argues that “in giving out particularized benefits when costs are diffuse (falling on taxpayer or consumer) and where to reward one congressman is not obviously to deprive others, members follow a policy of universalism.”
Committees also allow division of labor, which aids congressmen. Interest groups are more interested in members of committees, and are likely to provide more support to these individuals. It also gives Congressmen more of an opportunity to make things happen through visible action. In this way specialization helps to provide credit-claiming more easily.
Parties: In the United States, parties not very important to Congressmen’s electoral efforts, and parties are not very strong. Congressmen tend to “vote their constituencies” rather than voting along party lines. Mayhew argues that though wide heresy could be a problem, in general a member can build a career within either congressional party regardless of his issue positions, which is why there is no need for independents or third parties. Parties can be important when partisan electoral swings change the position-taking actions of members. Parties can also be important in getting committee chairmanships. Mayhew argues that the interesting division not between Democrats and Republicans, but between politicians in and out of office.
It is important to also explore the “functions” Congress fulfills or is thought to fulfill.
Expressing public opinion: Congress is effective at voicing opinions held by significant number of votes in constituencies, and with a wide range of constituencies, it’s likely that any given sentiment will find an official voice somewhere. Congressmen criticize executive conduct without the constraint of party loyalty.
Handling constituent requests: Congressmen often deal with grievances against officialdom, allowing them credit-claiming ability. There is likely some class bias in servicing requests – more well off people are more likely to contact their Congressmen. However, there are millions of letters annually in each class category.
Legislating and Overseeing Administration: As individual responsibility for what congress passes or what the government does becomes less readily attributable, the incentive for Congressmen to try to legislate and oversee decreases. The extent that congressmen attempt to mobilize the vote, work on content, or oversee implementation depends on the credit-claiming and position-taking opportunities provided.
Some believe that Congress will produce minimum winning coalitions when passing bills, allowing them to share the benefits among the least number possible. However, evidence shows this is not the reality – only about 30% of winning coalitions win with 50-59% of the vote. Another peak is at 90-100%. Mayhew explains that this makes sense. If there are particularized benefits, Congressmen must win (or no dam is built), but given the universal standards for these bills, it is relatively easy to win. If there are no particularized benefits, there is no reason to expect a minimum winning coalition – there are no benefits to split among members.
Congressional policy-making that is motivated by position-taking and credit-claiming produce specific and predictable policy effects. (1) Delay occurs as Congress lags behind public opinion in enacting major legislation. (2) Particularism occurs as members have a strong tendency to wrap policies in packages that are salable as particularized benefits. (3) Servicing of the organized occurs since groups with electoral resources (veterans, NRA, etc.) monitor action, leading to clientelism at the committee level. (4) Symbolism occurs because members aim to express an attitude by don’t prescribe policy effects. This also occurs when Congress prescribes effects, but doesn’t legislate or oversee sufficiently to achieve them. This occurs since electoral payments are for positions rather than effects. This can also lead to “charitable enactments” where Congressmen pass legislation to help the poor (for example) to gain the support of the wealthy. The actual effectiveness of these enactments is not important, since those served (the poor) are not the ones why Congress expect electoral payment from. (5) Transfer programs (cash payments to individuals) are not interesting to congressmen, since they can’t take credit for who receives each check (since its prescribed by law). Though, they may enact these types of programs for strong interest groups if there is unorganized opposition. (6) Blunt, simple laws are favored since Congressmen are judged on positions and not effects. They prefer to set limits and make clear regulations rather than relying on more complex theories such as Keynesian economics. This is important so that citizens can appraise the actions of Congressmembers; they can see the means-ends relationship.
Mayhew includes an examination of the structural arrangements in Congress that serve the end of institutional maintenance. If everyone is pursuing electoral goals only, it seems that Congress would collapse. Particularism and clientelism lead to misallocations of funds. There is insufficient concern for overall economic benefits, since no one Congressmen can be held responsible for them. Finally, Congressmen could systematically increasing spending rather than taxes, since spending is popular while taxing is not.
Institutional maintenance can be thought of as a collective goods problem (as proposed by Mancur Olson), in which they require selective incentives to participate. This theory fits, because if members hope to spend their careers in Congress, they have a stake in maintaining its prestige and control over resources. However, if each member pursues only electoral goals, the prestige and power of the institution will be lost. Therefore, selective incentives can help to induce efforts to keep the institution in good repair.
Mayhew argues that the selective incentives provided are prestige and power among peers within Congress, which is allocated for engaging in institutionally protective activities. Party leaders, for example, are devoted to ideological causes and focus on keep business moving. Primarily, however, institutional maintenance comes from the three control committees in the house (Rules, Appropriations, Ways and Means).
Each committee helps individual congressmen in their electoral quests and helps Congress as an institution go beyond electoral quest. The Rules Committee serves members by expediting or holding up bills, but also serves as a check on particularism by arranging the House agenda. The Appropriations Committee serves members by providing funding for pet projects, but also acts as guardian of the federal Treasury – its members see symbolism as waste and try to cut budget estimates. The House Ways and Means committee serves members by processing special tax provisions, but also puts a damper on particularism in tax and tariff matters. It uses the closed rule for tax and tariff bills to shield from interest group demands. These institutional maintenance methods are blunt and negative, but they are necessary for Congress to maintain its power.
Mayhew includes a brief discussion of the place of assemblies in governance in the United States and elsewhere. He argues that it is not possible for an individualistic assembly to govern all by itself. France provided an example showing that a parliament can turn to particularism and clientelism. However, he also notes studies that show that there is no direct relation between voter disapproval of congressional performance and voter inclination to deprive incumbents of their seats (we love our Congressmen, but we do not love our Congress).
Finally, Mayhew ends with a consideration of “reform” effects provoked by dissatisfaction with congressional performance. American reform aims to deal with symbolism and delay by imparting instrumental rationality to government undertakings. It deals with particularism by attempting to apply universalistic distributive standards. There are four “reform recourses” to which Americans have turned or thought about turning to. (1) Strengthen the presidential office in the interest of democratic accountability. This is thought to work because presidents can be held directly accountable for broad policy effects and are less likely to traffic in particularized benefit. However, there are dangers in putting too much power with one man. (2) Strengthen political parties either in Congress specifically or in the system generally. This is also based on the logic of accountability. (3)Exposure of political activities. This aims to bring down information costs to help voters keep track of what incumbents are doing. Publicity can be provided by people like Ralph Nader. This activity is not as important if voters can more clearly judge governments by their effects; Britain does not have a sustained equivalent tradition of exposure. (4) Regulate the deployment of resources in Congressional election campaigns (campaign finance reform). In reality most efforts of this type of reform have been haphazardly drafted and unenforced.
Mayhew notes that candidates running for Congress have been relying increasingly on position taking, and it’s not clear whether these position-takers can make an institution work. He believes Indexes of roll call votes are important in monitoring congress, but we should add indexes for the “particularism-universalism” dimension and the “intentions-effects” dimension.