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date: 21 June 2021


Abstract and Keywords

The U.S. Congress is the most influential legislature in the world. This remains true despite the weakening of the legislative in comparison to the executives both in the U.S. and other countries. In Article I of the U.S. Constitution, Congress is stated as the centre of the American government. It has chief responsibility for lawmaking and is the most representative branch of the national government. Over time, Congress has not turned out to be the dominant centre of government, however it continues to stand as an autonomous and highly consequential institution in American politics. Composed of representatives and senators whose political power is separate from the executive and political parties, Congress is a site of independent legislative entrepreneurship, investigation of public concerns, deliberation on policy and administration, and decisive action. Because of the centrality of Congress in the U.S. government, several studies on it have emerged since the late nineteenth century. This volume examines the extensive and diverse literature on Congress, identifying areas of accomplishment and determining promising directions for future work. This book examines the different aspects of congressional politics. Beyond illustrating the current state of the literature on Congress, the book offers critical analysis of how each area of inquiry has progressed or failed to progress over time. The text identifies the major questions posed by each line of research and assess the answers that have been offered. The goal is to set the agenda for research on Congress in the next decade.

Keywords: U.S. Congress, Constitution, Congress, American government, lawmaking, politics, government, literature on congress, congressional politics

No legislature in the world has a greater influence over its nation's public affairs than the U.S. Congress. This remains true, despite a weakening of legislatures relative to executives both in the U.S. and around the world. Article I of the Constitution places Congress at the center of American government, giving it chief responsibility for lawmaking and designing it as the most representative branch of the national government. Over time, the Congress may not have turned out to be the increasingly dominant “impetuous vortex” that James Madison described in Federalist 48, but it continues to stand as an autonomous and highly consequential institution in American politics. Made up of representatives and senators whose political fortunes are to a considerable extent separate from both presidents and political parties, Congress is a site of independent legislative entrepreneurship, confrontation with presidents, investigation of public concerns, deliberation on policy and administration, and from time to time, decisive action.

The Congress's centrality in the U.S. system of government has placed research on Congress at the heart of scholarship on American politics. Since the emergence of political science as an academic discipline in the late nineteenth century, generations of American government scholars working in a wide range of methodological traditions have sought to understand Congress, both as a lawmaking body and as a representative institution.

The purpose of this volume is to take stock of this impressive, extensive, and diverse literature, identifying areas of accomplishment and promising directions for future work. We have commissioned thirty‐seven chapters by leading scholars in the field. Each chapter critically engages the scholarship on a particular aspect of congressional politics. Beyond simply bringing readers up to speed on the current (p. 4) state of the literature, the chapters offer critical analysis of how each area of inquiry has progressed—or failed to progress—in recent decades. The chapters identify the major questions posed by each line of research and assess the answers that have been offered. The goal is not simply to tell us where we have been as a field, but to set an agenda for research on Congress for the next decade.

“Congress” means “coming together.” In that sense, this volume offers a congress of its own. Like legislative assemblies, it capitalizes on division of labor and diversity of voice. It brings together accomplished scholars writing in areas of expertise able to provide authoritative treatment of key concerns. But it also benefits from multiplicity of perspective, representing scholars working within different methodological traditions. The book also seeks to achieve a balance between the enduring and the timely. In addition to broad‐ranging chapters on basic questions, it also offers chapters focused on narrower topics of special contemporary importance, including partisan polarization; supermajority procedures in the U.S. Senate; and congressional war powers.


Chapters two to six of this volume examine different approaches to the study of Congress. While most scholars employ a combination of approaches, we believe that it is crucial to assess the distinctive contributions, strengths, and weaknesses of each of the major methodological traditions. Arguably the two most prominent approaches have been behavioral studies and formal models. Indeed, one could well argue that congressional scholarship has been a key site for both the behavioral “revolution” and the rise of rational choice. The chapters by Bruce I. Oppenheimer (“Behavioral Approaches to the Study of Congress”) and by Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman (“Formal Approaches to the Study of Congress”) consider behavioral and formal analyses of Congress, with particular attention both to what has been learned from studies in these traditions and to how such studies can be advanced going forward. Both formal and behavioral studies frequently rely upon measures of legislators' preferences. The chapter by Nolan McCarty assesses the vast literature on estimating these preferences. McCarty's chapter identifies the key assumptions made in constructing measures of member ideal points and assesses the uses (and abuses) of these measures in scholarly work. While behavioral and formal approaches have been especially prominent in recent decades, interviews and direct observation have also figured prominently as approaches to the study of Congress. Ross K. Baker's chapter surveys the many challenges involved in observational research, while also testifying to its unique value and continued utility. While observational approaches have become less common in recent years, there has been a revival of historical work on Congress since the 1980s. Ira Katznelson's chapter traces the promise inherent in this historical (p. 5) turn and what he sees as missed opportunities—thus far—in linking the study of congressional history to broader themes in American political development.

The “electoral connection” rests at the foundation of Congress's place in the American political system. We commissioned four chapters that consider aspects of congressional elections. Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts review the literature on House and Senate elections, covering such issues as incumbency advantage, candidate emergence, and partisan tides in election outcomes. While the literature on congressional campaigns has been slower to develop than that on election outcomes and incumbency, Tracy Sulkin's chapter demonstrates that considerable progress has been made in recent years on such topics as how candidates choose positions and issues in campaigns, the type and quality of information provided to voters, and the relationship between campaigning and governing. We also include chapters examining what is known about the processes and effects of two key aspects of the electoral system: Michael P. McDonald offers a careful look at basic and cutting‐edge issues in congressional redistricting, and Robin Kolodny navigates the difficult waters of campaign finance.

A departure in this volume from past efforts to take stock of the Congress literature is an extended examination of “representation and responsiveness.” More specifically, we commissioned a series of chapters designed to tap into the diverse meanings of representation. These include descriptive representation: Michele L. Swers and Stella M. Rouse examine the extent to which Congress “looks like America” and what this means for congressional politics and policymaking. A chapter on bicameral representation examines the effects of representing two different types of constituencies in two different chambers. Stephen Ansolabehere and Philip Edward Jones take stock of dyadic representation: they examine the strong connections—ties forged in both policy agreement and personal relationships—that link individual lawmakers to their constituencies. We include a chapter on allocative representation, because constituents consider their members' ability to bring home a fair share of government largesse an important aspect of representation, albeit one perennially decried by presidents and the nation's editorial pages. Diana Evans synthesizes the extensive literature on pork barrel politics in Congress, examining what scholars have learned about who gets what, why, and with what effects on legislative coalitions and electoral outcomes. David W. Brady focuses on collective representation, the aggregate responsiveness of Congress to national public opinion. Finally, John D. Griffin traces the factors that drive the public's evaluations of Congress, highlighting the extent to which public dissatisfaction with Congress stems from sources beyond discontent with the policies it enacts.

A crucial question is how the 535 members of Congress organize themselves and their institution once they arrive in Washington. Part V brings together six chapters on congressional institutions and procedures. Political parties and committees have long been the two cornerstones of congressional organization; the chapters by Randall W. Strahan and C. Lawrence Evans review the extensive bodies of work that have shaped our understanding of these core features. We also include more specialized chapters on important features of legislative organization. Gregory J. Wawro takes on (p. 6) one of the most publicly salient—and politically important—recent developments: the increased frequency of obstruction in the Senate and the development of what has been called the “supermajority Senate,” in which sixty votes are required to approve most major policy initiatives. Gary W. Cox and Mathew D. McCubbins provide a synthetic account of a core problem faced by any legislature: how to allocate plenary time, given the shortage of time relative to proposals that could potentially command support. They place the U.S. Congress in a comparative perspective, while underscoring important House–Senate differences. A recurrent theme in legislative studies has been efforts to reform the way Congress operates. E. Scott Adler's chapter reviews the scholarship on congressional reform drives and calls for scholars to apply their empirical and theoretical insights to the complex business of evaluating and recommending legislative reforms. Part V on congressional organization concludes with John B. Gilmour's chapter on the budget process, a subject that has been a particular focus of reformers over the years—and one that has come to occupy an increasing share of Congress's attention.

The main reason to care about congressional organization is that it shapes the way Congress makes policy, and, at least potentially, policy outcomes themselves. Six chapters focus on important facets of politics and policymaking. The dramatic increase in party polarization since the 1980s has marked a major transformation in congressional politics, with consequences reverberating throughout the political system. Brian F. Schaffner reviews the growing literature on the return of high levels of party polarization to Capitol Hill. Paul J. Quirk and William Bendix examine the processes, quality, and effectiveness of congressional deliberation. Sean Theri‐ ault, Patrick Hickey, and Abby Blass turn to how members make their most public decisions as they cast roll‐call votes. Beth L. Leech synthesizes the literature on lobbying, highlighting how research regularly calls into question conventional wisdom on lobbyists' influence. John D. Wilkerson and Barry Pump focus on legislative entrepreneurship and coalition‐building. A major question underlying each of these chapters is how the various features of the policymaking process impact Congress's ability to fulfill its lawmaking responsibilities. Sarah Binder's chapter, which concludes this part, tackles the “macro” question of explaining legislative productivity and gridlock.

Dramatic changes in congressional politics and policymaking in recent decades have coincided with renewed attention to the development of congressional institutions. We commissioned chapters on the development of three basic institutions: elections, party leadership, and the committee system. Wendy J. Schiller sheds light on how the politics and processes of congressional elections evolved over time and lays down an ambitious research agenda for extending scholarship in this area. Jeffery A. Jenkins sets in historical context the relatively powerful, institutionalized party leadership of the contemporary era, tracing what is known and still needs to be uncovered about its evolution over time. One of the central questions in historical work on Congress has been how the House came to adopt a system of majority rule that greatly limits the minority's ability to obstruct business, while the Senate grants very substantial protections to the minority. Douglas Dion's chapter analyzes the key (p. 7) issues involved in understanding how the House and the Senate have balanced—or failed to balance—majority rule against minority rights.

A major promise of historical scholarship on Congress is to relate the legislative branch's evolving structure and processes to broad themes in American political development, such as the transformation in the role of the national government and the building of national administrative capacity. Richard Bensel's chapter on “Sectionalism and Congressional Development” illuminates regional conflict— specifically, an enduring divergence between a wealthy, capital‐rich, technologically advanced “core” and a largely rural “periphery”—as a key driver of institutional development in Congress. He makes the important point that, when sectional conflicts cut across the parties, autonomous congressional institutions, such as standing committees, become more powerful; but when sectional conflicts overlap with partisan divisions, party conflict in Congress escalates and committees are weakened.

One of the clear implications to emerge from the literature on congressional development is that one cannot take for granted that Congress will maintain its place in the constitutional system. We include three chapters that focus on Congress's relationship with the other branches. B. Dan Wood's chapter on “Congress and the Executive Branch: Delegation and Presidential Dominance” and Linda L. Fowler's chapter on “Congressional War Powers” each point to the many challenges faced by the legislative branch as it confronts an executive branch that enjoys numerous advantages in battles for influence. By contrast, the chapter by Michael A. Bailey, Forrest Maltzman, and Charles R. Shipan highlights the complex, interdependent relationship between the legislative and judicial branches. Even as judicial policymaking has expanded, Congress has many tools to respond to and to shape the federal bench, which belies any simple claim that power has migrated from Congress to the courts.

The volume concludes with reflections from two distinguished scholars who have played leading roles in shaping the Congress literature—and in the study of American politics more generally. Morris P. Fiorina's chapter traces the rise of rational choice‐ based approaches to the study of Congress in the 1970s and 1980s, highlighting the ease with which this intellectual transition occurred. In contrast to some scholarly communities that became embroiled in pitched battles between competing theoretical approaches, Fiorina argues that basic rational choice concepts gained rapid acceptance in the study of Congress, in part due to the willingness of the field's leading scholars to draw upon new methodological tools.

This methodological openness is personified by Richard F. Fenno, perhaps the most influential Congress scholar of the twentieth century. While Fenno's early work was heavily influenced by sociological concepts such as “role,” “norm,” and “socialization,” his classic Congressmen in Committees (1973) was a turning point in the incorporation of rational choice concepts, embracing as it did an analysis that takes its starting point from the individual member's goals. Fenno's subsequent work was exemplary of what can be learned through interview‐based and observational approaches that may seem, on the surface, distant from rational choice modeling. Nevertheless, Fenno continued to draw upon rational choice's signature focus on the incentives and aspirations of individuals. Fiorina also highlights the continuing (p. 8) vibrancy of debates within the rational choice tradition. Rather than giving rise to a homogenization of perspective, rational choice‐oriented scholars continue to engage in lively disputes on such questions as the nature of party power in Congress and the function of committees. In short, Fiorina's chapter underscores the progress that congressional scholarship has made, a theme that also emerges from many of the chapters in this volume. New theoretical approaches and empirical tools have enabled each new generation of congressional scholars to build upon and move beyond the insights offered by earlier generations.

David R. Mayhew's chapter suggests that there is considerable continuity in the ways in which Congress scholars have approached this institution, even as their theoretical lenses have changed. In particular, from Woodrow Wilson's Congressional Government (1885) to leading works in rational choice of the past decade, scholars make claims that involve both “highlighting” and what Mayhew calls “localism.” That is, scholars highlight particular aspects of legislative politics, putting them in sharp relief by pushing aside other important features, which complicate the picture being drawn. Theoretical accounts also exhibit temporal localism, in that they tend to fit current conditions but falter when applied to other periods. Mayhew's chapter contends that political scientists have succeeded in capturing basic truths about congressional politics, but each of these truths is more time‐bound than is generally acknowledged. Mayhew depicts a field of study that has advanced, but in fits and starts, and with a persistent blind spot when it comes to grappling theoretically with change. Mayhew also raises the possibility that theoretical traditions can get bogged down—a state in which “highlighting builds on highlighting”—rather than engaging with new realities. Instead, fresh research may be needed to speak to the contemporary Congress, especially to current public concerns about an institution perceived as consisting of “mediocre slackers given to nastiness, pork‐barreling, corruption, extremism, broken processes, [and] lapdog behavior toward presidents of their own party” (Mayhew, p. 890).

The Fiorina and Mayhew chapters encapsulate crucial perspectives, which we urge readers to keep in mind as they reflect on the contributions collected in this volume. The two chapters concur that the Congress field has benefited from theoretical and empirical innovation. The next generation of scholars will build upon a far more extensive knowledge base and theoretical infrastructure than was available in the past, while confronting the many unanswered questions and undertaking the promising research agendas laid out in the substantive chapters in this volume. The two chapters, however, do give rise to somewhat different assessments of the field's current trajectory. While Fiorina conveys considerable optimism about the current state of the field, Mayhew suggests that “a new behavioral revolution steeped in on‐site experience” might be in order, given what he sees as a disconnect between current Congress scholarship and the contemporary realities of Capitol Hill (p. 890). The chapters in this volume should allow readers to measure the progress that has been made and to assess whether current theoretical and empirical approaches have indeed fallen into a “rut” that requires more dramatic rethinking and new theoretical departures.