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Mayhew: Congress

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Mayhew. 1974. Congress: The electoral connection.

In Brief

If it is assumed that Members of Congress (MCs) are single-minded seekers of reelection, then we would predict that MCs would devote substantial resources to three basic activities: Advertising (making yourself seen, e.g. franking, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, speeches, interviews), credit claiming (particularistic policies, pork, casework, etc), and position taking (using role call votes and speeches to stake out a popular position more than to change policy).

Mayhew does not actually claim that MCs are motivated exclusively by reelection; his goal is only to deduce the behaviors that we would expect if this assumption were true--behaviors, incidentally, which conform closely to reality.

Place in the Literature

This is an early rational choice analysis of Congressional elections. Mayhew places himself in the burgeoning "economic" school (as opposed to the earlier sociological school). For some of the possible implications of the reelection incentive, see Fenno (1978). For a review of where research on Congressional elections has gone in the years since Mayhew's book, see Jacobson (2004).

Main Argument

Reelection as the exclusive goal:

  • Others, such as Fenno, detail more than one goal, but reelection must be achieved if any of the other goals are to be achieved.
  • Studies of the US Congress must focus on individuals rather than groups of individuals, such as parties.
  • Members believe that they are constantly in danger of losing (either in the primary or in the general election) and that they are in a position to improve their chances.
  • Members engage in three activities: advertising, credit-claiming, and position-taking.

Effects of reelection as the exclusive goal:

  • Two themes: a) The organization of Congress meets the needs of its members remarkably well, and b) the satisfaction of electoral needs requires remarkably little zero-sum conflict among members.
  • There are three structural units: congressional offices, committees, and parties. The committees (highly specialized) are set up to aid credit-claiming. Parties are not cohesive because members need to avoid taking the "wrong" positions.
  • Policy functions: 1) expressing public opinion, 2) handling constituent requests, 3) legislating and oversight. In legislation and oversight, unless there are particularistic benefits, members get credit for position-taking, not for passage or implementation. Since the payoff is for positions, members don't care much about good legislation. Results include delay, particularism, servicing of the organized, symbolism, and blunt, simple acts that everyone can understand.
  • How does Congress stay afloat? Control committees and party leaders act to make sure that individual interests don't destroy the entire enterprise. They are paid off with internal benefits (as opposed to electoral benefits).

Comments and Criticism

  • Mayhew assumes that parties will never be cohesive unless members might someday want party leaders to enforce a unified line. But see later work on Congressional party governance (Cox and McCubbins 1993 and 2005; Aldrich 1995; etc.).
  • In discussing control committees and party leadership, Mayhew drifts away from the focus on the individual and instead talks in terms of "Congress" or "parties."