Representation USA


Congressional elections

The frequency of elections means voters' voices are heard every two years, offering high levels of representation. Congressional elections use the first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP) in which members of both the House and the Senate are elected in single-member constituencies. These are whole states for the Senate (one Senator is usually elected in a state at any one time) and districts for the House. Congressional elections are also subject to primaries, much like presidential elections. A primary contest will only occur within a party when more than one candidate wants to represent the party for that seat.

Meet the 116th Congress. The 116th Congress made history with the number of women and African-American and Hispanic members sworn into office.

A record 127 women will serve in Congress, with 106 Democrats and 21 Republicans — roughly 24 percent of all the seats. Twenty-five women will serve in the Senate, with 17 Democrats and eight Republicans.

How well does Congress fulfill its  representative function?

Separate elections for president and Congress

The separation of powers arguably provides the most significant contribution to high levels of Congressional representation. Unlike parliamentary systems, it allows voters 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 to respond to the wishes and interests of  the electorate

The lack of executive influence over members of Congress ensures accountability to the public, not the president. One of the most moderate Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine, represents a moderate constituency and often votes against her own party. 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 views and policies of the politician, not simply for a broad party platform.

Two elected chambers — complementary representation

As both chambers are elected, voters have two choices rather than one, with the benefit of alternative or complementary representation. By providing both delegates (Congressmen on two-year terms) and trustees (Senators on six-year terms), Congress can maximise representative levels in a way that alternative systems with two chambers, both elected every four years, cannot. Owing to the different term lengths, Congressmen and Senators normally react to legislation differently. By staying in power longer, the Senate arguably makes decisions based on rationality by considering long-term effects; the two-year term forces Congressmen to issue policies rapidly and emotionally, to respond to public opinion. Taking different types of representation into account, Congress is an effective representative body. 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.

Frequent elections and short house terms

Congressional elections take place every two years, causing Congress to be a highly representative body — 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. If all Senators were elected in, say, 2012, the majority in the Senate would not have been open to change until 2018. As the House is elected every two years, Republican Congressmen have to keep responding to public opinion; otherwise, they can easily be removed at the next election. The high level of sensitivity to public opinion directly pushes Congressmen to be highly representative of constituency views, and a strong level of accountability means that public opinion is reflected in the House.

Congress is not representative

FPTP and gerrymanderingThe first-past-the-post voting system and gerrymandering heavily undermines 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. The determination of parties and politicians to maximise their power has led to a major distortion of public opinion, in which power in Congress does not reflect the wishes of the people.

Social representation

Even if Congress is elected frequently and separately from the presidential election, the composition of Congress still does not reflect the makeup of society, particularly in terms of race and gender. Congress does not look like America.

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 115th Congress starting in 2017 is the most racially diverse ever. Liberals, on the other hand, point to the under-representation of minority groups, especially in the Senate. In 2017 non-whites made up 38 percent of the population but 19 percent of Congress. This figure is only 10 percent in the Senate. In 2017 the number of women in the House fell slightly but increased in the Senate. White people may not fully understand the wishes and interests of other racial groups so they might not be able to directly respond to their constituents. 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.

Numerous factors have been proposed to explain the lack of representation of certain demographics in key positions. Many individuals in Congress begin their careers in state legislatures, where women and African Americans are also not adequately represented. This can result in a limited pool of potential candidates for congressional roles. African-Americans and Hispanics have more substantial representation in the House of Representatives compared to the Senate, partially due to the presence of 'majority-minority districts,' where most voters in the district belong to the same minority group (e.g. African-American). This situation does not apply to Senate positions because each senator represents the entire state. Congress has historically been predominantly male, with a culture and traditions that have been slow to adapt to the requirements of women, creating an unwelcoming environment for female members. For instance, the Senate's swimming facilities were exclusively for males until 2009, permitting male senators to swim naked if they chose. Since senators must be physically present to cast votes, it is challenging for new parents to take parental leave or care for infants while the Senate is in session. Progress is being made gradually; in 2018, Tammy Duckworth became the first senator to give birth while in office, prompting the Senate to modify its regulations to permit young children in the chamber.

Influence of pressure groups

Congress is influenced by pressure groups in a manner that arguably distorts the wishes of the public. In some cases, politicians respond to the interests of unelected pressure groups, which then gain disproportionate representation in Congress. The significance of money means that richer pressure groups dominate, gaining over-representation of their wishes and interests at the expense of others. Elite theory suggests that Congress is not at all democratic because it responds only to the wishes of a small group in society.

Influence and corruption

Who should they represent?

The tension between local and national politics is essentially a struggle between interpretations of representation. 

Traditionally, representatives have seen their role as that of a delegate and a trustee, or as someone attempting to balance the two. A representative who sees him- or herself as a delegate believes he or she is empowered merely to enact the wishes of constituents.  This is the delegate model of representation.

In contrast, a representative who understands their role to be that of a trustee believes he or she is entrusted by the constituents with the power to use good judgment to make decisions on the constituents’ behalf. In the words of the eighteenth-century British philosopher Edmund Burke, who championed the trustee model of representation

Understandably, few if any representatives adhere strictly to one model or the other. Instead, most find themselves attempting to balance the important principles embedded in each. Political scientists call this the politico model of representation. In it, members of Congress act as either trustee or delegate based on rational political calculations about who is best served, the constituency or the nation.

In some cases, representation can seem to have very little to do with the substantive issues representatives in Congress tend to debate. Instead, proper representation for some is rooted in the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual identity of the representatives themselves. This form of representation is called descriptive representation. or resemblance model

Ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological identity aside, it is a representative’s actions in Congress that ultimately reflect his or her understanding of representation. Congress members’ most important function as lawmakers is writing, supporting, and passing bills. And as representatives of their constituents, they are charged with addressing those constituents’ interests. Historically, this job has included what some have affectionately called “bringing home the bacon” but what many (usually those outside the district in question) call pork-barrel politics

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. 

Opinion polls suggest that Congress is seen as very poor at representing the interests of the American people- criticism tend to focus on the influence of money and  powerful lobbyists and a belief that Congress fails to get much done- However opinion polls and high levels of incumbency show that Americans have a more positive opinion of their individual representative's effectiveness at representation. So a a whole Congress is unpopular but individually popular-'They're all a bunch of crooks- apart from our guy' 

Approval of Congress is at an all time low.