Interpretations and Debates

How Representative is the US Congress ?

Interpretations and Debate

Follow this link to examine -Is Congress the broken Branch?

Party unity scores since 1972

Parties in Congress have changed



Hastert Rule 

American politics has changed- or at least that's what most commentators' think. They point to increased polarisation of parties, as Democrat and Republican parties have moved further apart in terms of values and policies. This mean there is more partisanship, in which each party is becoming more internally disciplined, in opposition to the other party.


The move to partisanship began in the 1970s.  However during Obama's presidency it was being described as hyper-partisanship, with some politicians seeming to oppose any policy supported by Obama. For example,  routine delays of Obama's appointments, the application of the Hastert Rule and refusal to compromise on gun control, immigration reform or even begin considering Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court. . In Congress, the average unity in the 113th Congress (2012-14) was 92 percent - for the Democrats and 90 percent for Republicans - a record for sustained party discipline unmatched in the House in the history of our party unity studies', according to the Congressional Quarterly. Voting between parties has become more divergent than at any other period since the Second World War. In addition, the political middle has disappeared, with declines in moderate conservatives and Blue Dog Democrats, who represent a crossover between the two parties.

The vertical scale measures party unity, expressed as a percentage. If a member of Congress votes with the majority in her party, say, 9 times out of 10, she will have a score of 90 per cent. The higher the dot on the graph, the stronger the party unity.

The left-right scale measures ideology. The further left the dot is, the more liberal/left-wing the voting pattern of that member of Congress. The graph clearly shows increased partisanship with much higher levels of party unity. It also shows polarisation — the two parties are moving further apart.

The vertical scale measures party unity, expressed as a percentage. If a member of Congress votes with the majority in her party, say, 9 times out of 10, she will have a score of 90 per cent. The higher the dot on the graph, the stronger the party unity.

The left-right scale measures ideology. The further left the dot is, the more liberal/left-wing the voting pattern of that member of Congress. The graph clearly shows increased partisanship with much higher levels of party unity. It also shows polarisation — the two parties are moving further apart.

In the Senate Vote on Trump's Tax cuts notice how the vote divides on party lines.

Case study the removal of Kevin McCarthy 

Despite the factors working against them, (those factors which make party control difficult) from the 1980s onwards the party leaders became more powerful, in the House particularly. Confronted by the ideological administration of Ronald Reagan, Democratic members were willing to strengthen their party leaders, and the House Speaker Tip O'Neill in particular had the role of formulating a Democratic alternative to Reagan's programme.

This process of accumulation of power by the party leaderships advanced further through the Speakership of Newt Gingrich from 1995 to 1998. Gingrich, through the national manifesto of the Contract with America, attempted to reclaim the role as national agenda-setter for Congress, and the Republican leadership in particular, from the president. Such was the momentum behind Speaker Gingrich and the House Republicans that President Clinton was famously forced to declare in March 1995 that the constitution gives me relevance'; his position was only revived by the Oklahoma City bombing the following month, which enabled him to command the national stage in the role of spokesman for the nation.

Gingrich was succeeded as Speaker after the unexpected Republican losses in the 1998 midterms by Dennis Hastert, who was succeeded himself by Nancy Pelosi in January 2007 on the Democratic takeover of Congress. John Boehner became Speaker in January 2011 after the Republicans regained control of the House. All three have to a greater or lesser extent maintained the Gingrich model of tight party control. The methods they have employed have included

However, the arrival of the Tea Party in Congress led to the resignation of Boehner who was criticised for making a budget deal with Obama  -and the creation in 2015 of the Freedom Caucus (conservative libertarian group in the House) led to the Paul Ryan withdrawing the American Health Care Bill - so this suggests party polarisation has made the House at least a  more difficult place for leaders to manage.

Earmarks continue to provide the most benefit to those with spots on prime congressional committees.  In FY 2023, the 89 members of the House and Senate appropriations committees, making up only 17 percent of Congress, were responsible for 41.4 percent of the earmarks and 29.9 percent of the money.  As the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) explained regarding those making the case for earmarks, “The problem with all their arguments is:  the more powerful you are, the more likely it is you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.”

The Senate is usually more resistant to centralised partisan leadership for a number of reasons. First, because senators have to represent the views of an entire state, they are usually more centrist. There is no equivalent to the Speaker who can make a play for a national audience, and the much smaller numbers in the Senate means there is less need for rules of procedure and enforcement by a centralised authority. Smaller numbers also mean senators are more open to informal negotiation and compromise. However, the Senate has not been immune to the polarising forces at work since the 1980s and, according to Norman Ornstein, the impeachment trial of President Clinton in 1999 marked a decisive shift: 'Senators now saw themselves as members of their respective political parties first and representatives of their constituencies second.'

But is-'All Politics Local'?

Although party unity is now at levels unimaginable 35 years ago, the first consideration for any member of Congress is still how their vote will be seen by the electorate at home. This is called a culture of Parochialism. If their electoral needs are better served by a vote against their party, party loyalty becomes an expendable commodity. Three of the four Democratic senators who voted against expanding gun background checks in April 2013 were up for re­-election in 2014 in Republican-leaning states. The fourth, Heidi Heitkamp, who had been elected as senator for North Dakota only 5 months previously, told the press that the calls to her office calling for her to vote against outnumbered those of the bill's supporters by at least 7-1.

Bipartisanship still exists

Democrat and Republican Senators worked together after the 2012 election in the 'Gang of 8' to pass immigration reform (which was blocked by the House). Democrats and Republicans have eventually arrived at compromise measures allowing budgets to be passed, for example the final agreement on the Covid relief bill 2020. In some cases there has been significant cross-party agreement. In 2016 there was a convincing vote to overturn Obama's Saudi Arabia legislation veto in 2016. This upheld Congress's original law to allow families of the victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi Arabian government. In addition, the existence of caucuses, within or between parties, reveals that a party is not fully united. In 2020 Democrats and Republican voted to over turn Trump's final veto of the defiance bill.  See Biden Case study :Bipartisanship 


Increased partisanship has significantly reduced Congress's ability to pass legislation in recent years. The last two congressional sessions were the two least productive in its history, passing 208 (112th Congress) and 212 (113th Congress) substantive laws (ones that had an impact on an aspect of US society, as opposed to ceremonial laws such as post-office renaming's or commemorative-coin authorizations) in each of these two-year periods, although more laws were passed in 2015 than in each of the two years before that. 

There is a view that this in in line with the original intentions of the founding fathers since it limits government power and restricts the scope of Congress- which tends to leave power in the states.

However, it could also be a sign of weak and ineffective government- which in time of crisis such as a pandemic may damage the ability of government to respond. . Gridlock between parties in the executive and legislature, over the budget and health care, led to budget shutdown of 2013 and federal government shutdown of 2018–2019 occurred from midnight EST on December 22, 2018, until January 25, 2019 (35 days). It was the longest U.S. government shutdown in history 

How have changes in Congress changed the presidency?

The Imperilled Presidency 

The Impossible Presidency 

Partisanship has had a major impact on presidential power.  Presidents who do not have thierr party in control of Congress are very limited to an extent which was not true 30 years ago. This characterised presidential congressional relations between Obama and the Republican-led Congress (2011-16) and Bush and the Democrat-led Congress (2007-08), and reduced presidential power significantly. On the other hand, if there is unified government with one party holding the presidency, House and Senate, partisanship may lead to a major increase in the power of the presidency. 

A president with unified government can escape oversight and congressional politicians may overlook oversight and fail to provide significant checks on the executive. Congress was accused of `forgetting' to provide oversight of the Bush administration when the president held a Republican majority between 2003 and 2008, despite controversies over the Iraq War, The Patriot Act and the creation of Guantanamo detention camp. 

Congress has changed but is it broken?

It is clear that Congress has evolved . The 16th Amendment (1913) gave Congress the power to levy federal income tax, this hugely changed the power balance between the states and the federal government . Federalism  The 17th Amendment (1913) increased the legitimacy of the Senate by directly electing senators. This changed its power relative to the House.

Other long term changes

·    The rise of the presidency as a world leader. The president is now referred to as leader of the free world or most powerful individual on earth. As warfare changed and after WW2 the Cold War kept the USA in a permanent state of military readiness and military action became faster, more complex and more deadly, the president needed executive resources of intelligence  which allowed him to dominate military action and lead foreign policy. Dual Presidency Theory  This increased after 9/11. Congress has attempted to reestablish exert authority with the War Powers Act of 1973 but this has largely not been effective.

·   Increased party discipline in Congress. The nationalisation of Congressional elections(Are midterm elections a referendum on the president?   has centralised greater power in the hands of the House speaker. (Contract with America)  Recent Speakers have become significant allies or rivals to the president . When government is divided this has allowed the speaker to act as a significant rival to the president, suggesting an increase in the collective power of Congress.

·    Partisanship  and polarisation more opposition and obstruction for presidents. Has  this strengthened the power of Congress?  In a negative sense yes- but it has also led to a significant decline in public trust. The decline in bipartisanship has also led to loss of party control as minority factions become less subject to leadership control. For example the Freedom Caucus and their criticism of speaker John Boehner or the Republican congress members who voted to object to the electoral college votes against the direction of Mitch McConnell.

How representative is Congress?

Separate elections for president and Congress

Congress has been described as the greatest representative chamber in the world and it certainly has levels of electoral representation. Unlike parliamentary systems, it gives  voters the opportunity to have separate votes for the executive and the legislature. This maximises voter choice and allows the electorate to select a member of Congress according to their ability, individual qualities or responsiveness to local issues. 

The absence of a greasy pole of executive patronage which resulting in the UK House of Commons being criticised as a rubber stamp, means that congress can claim to represent the people and not the wishes of the president. The prevalence of split-ticket voting —in which a voter selects two (or more) different parties in the same election — suggests that Americans value this opportunity to vote according to the specific characteristics and views of the local politician, not simply for a broad party platform. The concept of name recognition where electors vote for the candidate they know rather than party is well established in the USA.

Congress has — complementary representation

By providing both delegates (Congressmen on two-year terms) and trustees (Senators on six-year terms),(Models  of Representation)

Different term lengths means that Congressmen and Senators may react to legislation differently. By staying in power longer, the Senate arguably makes decisions based on rationality and are less influence by popular opinion and are able to consider long-term effects, while the two-year term means Congressmen are more responsive to local opinion and constituency representation. This can be seen in the response to the demand for a flag protection amendment, in which the House regularly voted to support this populist measure whereas it failed to reach the required votes to change the Constitution in the Senate.

The election cycle was designed to make Congress  a highly representative body every two years the whole house and a third of the senate-mean that changes in public attitudes can be quickly reflected through the composition of the Congress. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the unpopular Democrats lost control of the Senate, allowing Republicans to take control.  In 2018 the House returned to the Democrats. If all Senators were elected in at once the senate majority would endure for 6 years.  so the argument is that Congress is a highly representative institution, uniquely open to shifts in popular opinion.

However, the increasing number of safe districts where representatives feel immune to shifts in opinion even in their district and the increasing nationalisation of politics may have undermined the old view that in the USA 'All politics is local' Parochialism The first-past-the-post voting system and gerrymandering heavily undermine the representative nature of Congress, to the point where some might argue that it has unacceptably low levels  of responsiveness to the wishes and interests of the public. For example most Americans favour some gun control but congress block any attempts.

Congress does not 'look like America'

Particularly in terms of race and gender.  While there is a debate about the extent to which this matters. Conservatives emphasise the idea that white people can represent Hispanics and vice versa, and that minority representation has grown rapidly. The 117th Congress starting in 2021 is the most racially diverse ever

Liberals, on the other hand, point to the under-representation of minority groups, especially in the Senate. In 2021 the overwhelming majority of U.S. Congressmen, Congresswomen and Senators is white. Warnock will be one of only three Black senators and one of only eleven minority senators in the new Congress. The liberal argument suggests that, without intentional bias, there is still an overrepresentation of white, male, wealthy interests, limiting the US's claim to be a pluralist, representative democracy.

'The best congress money can buy' ??

Elite theory suggests that Congress is not at all democratic because it responds only to the wishes of a small group in society.