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II. The Theoretical Background
III. Congress as Public Enemy Number One?
IV. Policy Implications
A. The Question of Divided Government
B. Agenda Setting
C. Congress and the Courts
D. Congress and the Bureaucracy
E. Congress and Interest Groups
V. Future Directions
Study of the U.S. Congress is one of the largest areas in the American politics literature. As the so-called first branch of our three major political institutions, Congress enjoys the power of the purse in that it controls the budget and the appropriation of monies to federal agencies and to the states. Congress is also responsible for passing the laws, or policies, that govern the lives of all citizens of the United States and can even amend the Constitution, which it has done 27 times in the nation’s history. As such, the U.S. Congress merits scholarship in its own right.
Yet, as any student of political science knows, Congress does not operate in a vacuum. The Founders sought to balance the federal government by giving shared responsibility to all three branches. In addition to the obvious power of the veto, the president also acts in much more subtle ways to try to gain influence over the policies and budget priorities of Congress. The federal agencies, to which the budget is appropriated, also under the president’s purview, then have power over the implementation of legislative policies, which are often ambiguously worded. The courts, with the power of judicial review, frequently deem the acts of Congress unconstitutional, thus overruling the actions of elected officials. Additionally, members of Congress are under pressure from their political parties and their electorates, who push them to enact policies that best accord with their respective wishes. One studying the legislature must necessarily acknowledge these pressures faced by members of Congress and ask how the pressures affect the behavior of the institution and its 535 individual members.
This research paper looks at the research on these complex and dynamic relationships. Beginning with a brief look at the formative literature, the paper turns to the research on the effect of public opinion on Congress and vice versa. This is followed by a look at the dominant areas of discourse on the separation-of-powers literature. Finally, the research paper looks at some potential future directions of congressional scholarship and summarizes the discussion.
II. The Theoretical Background
The empirical study of Congress arguably started with David Mayhew’s (1974) Congress: The Electoral Connection and Richard Fenno’s (1973) Congressmen in Committees. Much of what they wrote in this important decade has come to frame the field of congressional research. Focusing on the pressures facing legislators, much of their debate centers on the relative influence of constituents, interest groups, the president, and political parties as determinants of the policy decisions members of Congress make. From there, the field has grown to encompass increasingly complex studies of these dynamic interrelationships. This section looks at these questions as the theoretical base of legislative research.
David Mayhew’s (1974) book is one of the most enduring works written about Congress and has become the impetus for much subsequent research. He builds on the influential rational choice theory of Anthony Downs (1957), which argues that humans, being rational, will naturally seek alternatives that further their goals. Members of Congress, being human, must then seek the best policy positions that meet their most immediate and tangible goal: reelection. This explains why congresspersons often seek so-called pork barrel spending that benefits their individual constituencies; it enables them to return to their districts and claim credit for creating jobs and prosperity. All other functions, such as creating policy that serves the broader interest and contributing to the maintenance of the chamber, are secondary to the reelection goal. Serving on important committees and gaining rank within them, for instance, is integral to the process of bolstering their images among the electorate.
This line of analysis is, however, not without its critics. In the 1970s, Richard Fenno (1973, 1978) wrote a series of books highlighting the complex motivations of legislators. Contrary to Mayhew, Fenno argues that members of Congress have other motivations as well, such as gaining power and prominence through high-ranking committee positions and enacting good and lasting public policies that extend in many ways beyond simple reelection goals. In his book, Fenno (1973) follows the activities of several congresspersons and observes that members of Congress in general pass through two phases in their careers: the expansionist and the protectionist. During the first phase, the new member seeks to expand the base of voter support within the district and seldom undertakes risky policy positions. However, once the congressperson has secured the trust of the constituents, there exists a level of confidence that enables him or her to pursue more broadly based policies. The congressperson must still be wary of potential threats, hence protectionism, and must spend a large amount of time in the district engaging in constituent service and cementing ties to the communities, yet he or she still enjoys a greater latitude in engaging the larger needs of the chamber. As one would expect, senators, who face reelection only every 6 years rather than 2 and have larger, more heterogeneous districts, exercise a far less personal touch in their districts.
Both Fenno (1973, 1978) and Miller and Stokes (1963) highlight another important distinction in legislative studies: the difference between a delegate and a trustee relationship between the member and constituents. Under the instructed delegate theory, members are seen as faithful executors of the policy preferences of the voters. A trustee, however, will believe that by electing him or her, the voters entrusted the congressperson with the ability to make decisions both in the interest of the district and in the broader national interest. Much of this distinction must, of course, hinge on how well the congressperson knows the will of the constituency and, as Fenno (1973) points out, how secure the member feels about future reelection prospects. Although most scholars now acknowledge that both relationships are at work in varying amounts among individual congresspersons, it is still a matter of debate as to which theory is more prominent.
Miller and Stokes’s (1963) work also develops a dominant theme in the study of the legislature: the concept of a responsible two-party system. In an influential article, they write about the so-called normative consequences of having a legislature that is more responsive to the demands of its individual constituencies than it is to the demands of national policy in a responsible party system. Certainly, it appears that the Founders did intend for the House of Representatives to be the purveyors of constituent will by making them accountable for their decisions every 2 years at election time. Such legislators will tend to act like 435 individual agents, and it is not clear that party voting will be very important to them. Yet Miller and Stokes argue that Congress does in fact conform to modified party voting with members voting along party lines, except in cases where there is clearly articulated electoral preference—a line that they cross only at their own hazard. They find that party control and electoral accountability are both at work and that the relative influence of each varies by issue area, with legislators being most responsive to constituent demands in the area of civil rights policy.
A similar debate exists as to the role of parties and coalitions in Congress. Reacting to the work of Theodore Lowi (1979), who contends that the rising influence of interest groups who provide valuable campaign funds and the growing power of the executive branch have diminished the role of political parties in Congress, Cox and McCubbins (2007) argue that parties still exert substantial control. If it is the case that the congressional committees are at the beck and call only of executive agencies that dictate policy from above and the organized interests who seek to fulfill their financial goals, as Lowi insists, then no collective action would be achievable in Congress. Similarly, while Cox and McCubbins agree with Mayhew that members of Congress are principally concerned with reelection, they criticize the notion that parties are too internally divided by reelection-seeking individuals to be effective. Instead, they argue that parties in Congress, by using procedural rules and holding members accountable, act as coalitions to organize the membership and make collective action possible. Congresspersons react to their partisan reputation not only in their dealings within the institutional setting but also as a means of organizing issues for their voters who, after all, choose them in partisan elections.
An additional question in the literature is as follows: How responsive are members of Congress to their constituents’ will, and how accurately are they able to discern that will? It appears the best way to accomplish this is to spend a great deal of time in their districts, listening to the concerns of their constituents and attending events in the communities. This grassroots activity has earned members of Congress, particularly in the House, the reputation of being the Tuesday to Thursday Club, trying to achieve as much as possible in the middle of the week in Washington so they can rush back to their districts to do the real work that will enhance their electoral prospects. Perhaps a better nickname, according to Davidson and Oleszek (2000), is the “two Congresses.” There is, they tell us, the textbook Congress of bills and laws, rigidly bound by rules, norms, and procedures. However, there is a second Congress of 535 individuals who realize that their fortunes ride on the perceptions of their voters. This creates a situation in which members must maintain a precarious balance between their two roles.
Avery concise and clear explanation of the influence of these forces all competing for influence over the policy decisions of Congress can be found in Jacobson (2001). In this book, he details the crux of the electoral dilemma facing congresspersons—namely that they face the increasing influence of national and party demands but still must maintain an image among the voters in the district as being one of them. Importantly, Jacobson asks the following questions: To whom are the members of Congress most accountable, and whose interest do they most reliably serve? Offering an answer to these questions necessarily entails an understanding of the role of public opinion. The following section addresses this line of inquiry.
III. Congress as Public Enemy Number One?
A subsequent development in the line of research started by Mayhew (1974) and Fenno (1973) resulted in the study of public perceptions of Congress as a whole. Although the aforementioned literature looks at the motivations of Congress’s members, several scholars have chosen to look through the opposite lens and ask how the actions of Congress translate into levels of approval or disapproval among the broader public. In particular, why does Congress have such a low level of support, typically ranging between 10% and 20%, while constituencies tend to overwhelmingly approve of their individual congressperson on the order of 70% or better? As Mayhew and Fenno indicate, members also enjoy a significant incumbency advantage and, with the exception of certain realigning elections, are returned to office close to 90% of the time. This occurs despite a host of scandals and overall levels of dissatisfaction that have plagued Congress in recent years. This section next addresses this growing area of research.
There are a number of reasons for the public dissatisfaction that has branded Congress as public enemy number one in American politics. Research indicates that Congress is typically perceived as being too characterized by bickering and political infighting to get the nation’s business done. This could help explain why Congress has the lowest level of public approval when compared with the president and the Supreme Court. Congress is also thought to be the most out of step ideologically with the American public. These contentions are backed up by polls conducted by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (1995) in their book. Surprisingly, they find that most Americans clearly perceive that Congress is the most powerful of the three branches, with an institutional authority that outstrips even that of the more visible office of the president. In this atmosphere, it is reasonable to assume that when Americans are dissatisfied with the pace of governmental response to a pressing national problem, it will be Congress that absorbs much of the blame. Certainly, presidents are able to capitalize on this perception and frequently blame Congress for the bad fortunes of the nation.
Further, Congress is the branch most believed to be a part of the Washington system. Many Americans see politics as increasingly responsive to the wishes of special interests, greed, and corruption. Certainly, since Congress lacks the term limit of the president, many members enjoy long tenures in their respective houses. Consequently, they are likely to be seen as professional politicians firmly ensconced in the nasty world of Washington dealings. A series of high-profile corruption charges including taking money, personal vacations, and bribes from lobbying groups led to several attempts to reform congressional ethics in the 1990s. Despite these reforms, many Americans are likely to view members of Congress as being more driven by personal gain and the perks of office than by a genuine desire to act in the public interest.
Tellingly, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (1995) find that most Americans see Congress as a distinct part of the two political systems that inhabit American politics. Although the people interviewed in their study tended to view the legitimacy of the presidency as an institution separately from the current president, Congress does not enjoy this level of public discernment. Rather, the legitimacy of Congress is intimately tied to the actions of its current members, a case in which the actions of a few members can poison the well of public satisfaction with the institution as a whole. This tendency is exacerbated, they tell us, by the fact that few Americans are politically engaged, which leads to lower levels of sophistication. Studies have shown (Born, 1990) that persons with lower levels of political knowledge and sophistication have a more difficult time disentangling the actions of individual members and the performance of Congress as a whole.
All of this takes place amid an atmosphere of apathy and general dissatisfaction with American politics. And since Americans generally pay little attention to politics, more of them are likely to hold ambiguous political attitudes. As Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (1995) point out, the American public in general is very critical of pork barrel politics as a vehicle for wasteful spending and excessive government programs. Yet when their own congressperson brings jobs and money to the district, he or she is perceived very favorably in the district. What is more, although much of the American electorate feels disenchanted by what it sees as an increasingly polarized political system that is either too far to the left or right, it often acts in ways that perpetuate extremes and hyperbole in the political rhetoric. The result is a public that is generally displeased with the policy options being presented by either party (Fiorina, 1992) and thus disengaged from the political process.
Despite the perennial calls to throw them all out at the next election, this seldom happens. Despite scandals and perceived inefficiency and waste, members of Congress continue to enjoy a significant incumbency advantage. So scholars naturally wish to know what conditions are necessary to turn enough of the electorate against an incumbent and toward a newcomer. Kinder and Kiewiet (1979) placed this question prominently into the scholarly debate in their inquiry into the role of economic conditions in congressional elections. Kinder and Kiewiet find, perhaps surprisingly, that the voters they studied responded less to individual economic grievances and focused more on the prospects for overall national economic growth. The study, however, has perhaps raised more questions than it answered and has spawned significant debate. These are among the questions: How do we account for those voters who participate irregularly—what brings them to the polls— and what is the linkage that ties individual evaluations to broader political perceptions? And, more important, what is the tipping point at which an election becomes critical and results in a large electoral realignment?
Certainly, large shifts in public opinion can affect significant electoral realignments such as were seen in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The combined effect of two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a global recession cost Republicans and resulted in large Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. But absent extreme conditions, it remains unclear if voters in congressional elections vote with their pocketbooks—that is, strictly on retrospective perceptions of how Congress is affecting their personal financial well-being—or vote sociotropically (as Kinder and Kiewiet, 1979, claim), with an eye to overall economic conditions and general welfare. Or do large groups of the electorate focus primarily on social issues they care about, like the environment or abortion, and evaluate their congressperson mostly on these evaluative bases? And further, are these evaluations of Congress substantively different from those of other elected officials, most notably the president? These are large questions for future research and dovetail with the even wider literature on voting behavior.
Although all of these phenomena unquestionably characterize the uneasy relationship between Congress and public opinion, how do they affect the performance of Congress in terms of its role in forming public policy? This research paper has hinted at consequences of shared power among the institutions that make up the national system, but in fully evaluating Congress, it is necessary to flesh out these interrelations. The next section looks at some of these areas of shared responsibility.
IV. Policy Implications
The aforementioned literature bespeaks the fact that Congress is a very complex amalgam of individuals with often disparate goals. Members of Congress must balance the needs of their constituents and the prospect of facing an impending reelection campaign against the needs and goals of the government at large. Additionally, Congress must share the responsibility for shaping public policy with the president, who often calls on Congress to enact certain types of legislation that accord with his policy goals, and with the courts and bureaucracies that are tasked with implementing those policies. In terms of policy implications, some of the more important questions are as follows: How much does divided government matter in the shaping of policy? How large is the president’s role? To what extent do courts and executive agencies determine the eventual output of the policy-making process in implementing law? The following section highlights the literature on each of these important issues.
A. The Question of Divided Government
The previous section discussed governmental gridlock, and it is still a matter of debate in congressional literature as to the degree to which the president and Congress being controlled by opposing parties stymies legislation. Edwards, Barrett, and Peake (1997) nicely summarize much of this research. They take the arguments offered by Mayhew (1991) and Kernell (1991) as the two predominant sides of the debate. Mayhew argues that gridlock is not a serious problem since the same amount of legislation is passed when Congress and the executive are of different parties as when they are unified under one party. Kernell, on the contrary, finds that divided government leads to inevitable conflict, which slows down the passage of important legislation. Clearly, this is a question that is far from settled.
What Edwards et al. (1997) find, however, is interesting and supportive of the position argued by Kernell (1991). They categorize bills according to importance and find that passage of important legislation is more likely to be slowed down substantially under conditions of divided government. Further, presidents are more likely to oppose more bills than when their party controls Congress. Mayhew’s (1991) finding that the volume of bills passed is the same in either case indicates that the workload for Congress is the same but that less significant legislation is being passed. Although these findings are important in their own right, Edwards et al. insist there is still more work to be done. For example, little research has been done on the dilution of bills as a result of interbranch bargaining during times of divided government. According to this hypothesis, interaction between Congress and the president may result in watered-down versions of key legislation that will be less likely to provoke a presidential veto. The extent to which this occurs is still very much a matter for debate.
B. Agenda Setting
Closely related to the effect of divided government is the process of presidential bargaining with Congress, which is known as agenda setting. This is one of the more widely explored areas of congressional politics and encompasses a broad literature. Yet despite all that has been written, questions remain as to how much sway the executive branch holds over the legislative. All indications are that it is a very complicated relationship and varies between presidential administrations, dependent on the president’s bargaining skills, ideological congruence between the Congress and the president, and how skillfully the president can enlist public sentiment through the media and public speeches.
Although, as noted, Congress controls the purse strings and must approve all spending, it is the president’s responsibility to recommend an annual budget. This gives the president the ability to try to bargain with Congress over what he or she believes to be the important spending priorities in the upcoming annual fiscal budget. Similarly, each year in January, the president is responsible for delivering the State of the Union address on the floor of Congress. These are notable instances in which the president has a large and very tangible opportunity to influence the domestic agenda or at least put himself into a bargaining position with Congress. The process does not stop there; the president will also use major speeches and public appearances throughout the year to keep pressure on Congress by continually calling attention to these issues. Conversely, for potential bills that the president does not favor, he or she will use speeches as an attempt to drum up negative public sentiment and will, at times, even threaten a veto.
How successful these tactics are varies between presidents and issues. When the president stakes out an issue position and attempts to enlist public support to influence Congress, the consequences of failure can be high and must be weighed against the potential for success. If a president takes a position on a popular legislative initiative and fails, he risks being seen as weak and ineffectual. However, if the president does not take a position on an important issue, he may perhaps also be seen as weak— a so-called lame duck who abrogates too much power to Capitol Hill. Important research on this executive– legislative give-and-take is to be found the works of Light (1999), Bond and Fleisher (1990), and Eshbaugh-Soha (2005). Their analyses of this complicated process reveal that much of the president’s success comes from the way the yearly agenda is packaged and how able the president is to choose issues that have high probabilities of success in Congress. Also, as mentioned previously, the president is more likely to win when his party controls Congress and he has party factions favorable to his policy positions in ranking committee positions. What is more, as Eshbaugh- Soha points out, the type of policy and how aggressive it is often dictate how much pressure the president can afford to exert. By pushing for too much too soon, a president risks failure even under conditions of unified government.
C. Congress and the Courts
Even if Congress is successful in mustering majorities and passing legislation that the president signs into law, all of that work can be undone by a lawsuit that works its way into the federal court system. District and circuit courts of appeal, most notably the U.S. Supreme Court, can and do use the power of judicial review afforded to them by the famous Marbury v. Madison (1803) case to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. When this happens, Congress must then choose either to abandon the issue or to pass an attenuated piece of legislation that the members believe will avoid invoking the courts again. And the relationship between the courts and Congress extends beyond the potential for judicial review. The Senate must confirm presidential nominations to vacant federal benches, and Congress holds the power to impeach and remove judges. This sets up a complicated interplay between the legislature and judiciary, who must each weight their goals against the potential actions of the other branch.
In their seminal work on the Supreme Court, Segal and Spaeth (2002) insist that Supreme Court justices are not uninvolved in politics but are, rather, firmly entrenched in the policy-making process. They argue that Supreme Court justices take advantage of the fact that legislation is often ambiguous or vaguely worded in order to make decisions that further their own political goals. This fact puts them at odds with Congress since both branches are pursuing often different ideological and policy agendas. If Segal and Spaeth are correct and justices are concerned more with taking political sides than with merely dispassionately dispensing justice, then one potentially must view this system of checks and balances between the two branches as a source of increasing institutional conflict. Important work is current being undertaken to explore the depth of this conflictual relationship.
D. Congress and the Bureaucracy
Since it is the duty of Congress both to appropriate money to the various bureaucratic administrative agencies and to oversee their operation, it is not surprising that members of Congress are often perceived by the public as shirking the duty of oversight. When the media publicize stories of bureaucratic waste and inefficiency, it is often Congress that absorbs much of the blame. And this fact may go partway to explaining why Congress is seen as public enemy number one in American politics. Presidential campaigns often fan the flames of public dissatisfaction by heaping blame interchangeably on what they characterize as a bloated, inefficient federal government and an equally untrustworthy Congress.
McCubbins and Schwartz (1984) insist that this process is much more subtle and nuanced than it appears at first blush. Recalling Mayhew’s theoretical argument that members of Congress will seek to claim credit for programs that benefit their constituencies and thus their reelection chances, they take great care in how they allocate their resources. Therefore, there is little motivation for members to undertake the more resource-costly police patrol method of overseeing bureaucracy on a daily basis. They instead prefer the so-called fire alarm method of oversight, which calls on them to act when there is reason for doing so and in instances when they can claim credit for having acted in their constituents’ best interests. The fact that Congress controls appropriations for executive agencies, on the other hand, gives them a much greater degree of control than is apparent to less-attentive observers. For this reason, McCubbins and Schwartz prefer to view executive agencies as agents of the committees and subcommittees who are responsible for the proportion of the budget that is allocated to the bureaucracies they oversee. A more detailed account of the budgetary and oversight functions can be found in Stillman’s (1996) The American Bureaucracy. These valuable insights bolster the idea that oversight, like much else connected with the Congress, is more complicated than a cursory examination will reveal.
E. Congress and Interest Groups
An additional area of concern is the influence of organized interest groups on legislative output. Ever since David Truman’s (1971) influential book on interest groups, there has been a growing literature on the sway that social and political lobbies have over the members of Congress. It is well-known that interest groups engage in direct lobbying efforts, providing information and resources to members of Congress, and indirect or social lobbying, which can include hosting fund-raising events. Although a series of campaign finance and lobbying reform acts since the 1990s have sought to curtail the use of lavish gifts and vacations as avenues for lobbyists to gain undue influence over Congress, questions remain over the extent to which interest groups shape the public agenda. Organized interests are even known to author, in whole or part, the language of bills that make it to the floors of the House and Senate.
Some scholars prefer to see the interactions between special interest groups, congressional committees, and the bureaucracies they fund as so-called iron triangles (Knott & Miller, 1987; Truman, 1971). The triangle imagery is meant to convey the idea of a reciprocal system in which benefits flow among the three apexes. Lobbies provide electoral support to members of Congress, who provide funding and political support to bureaucratic agencies, who in turn provide special favors to interest groups in a self-perpetuating cycle. Other scholars characterize congressional committees and subcommittees and the areas of policy specialization on which interest groups focus their efforts as an unavoidable consequence of administering a huge national system. Members of Congress do not have time to focus on all areas of public policy, so they must become specialists in more specific areas— hence, the congressional committee. The same limited resources of time and knowledge make it necessary for them to rely on information sources outside their limited staffs. Interest groups readily provide this information, often in distilled form. And since interest groups represent the aggregate of citizens to whom these policies are important, this information provides a shortcut to discerning the public will.
Regardless of the value of the information provided, many will continue to see the role of interest groups as an indication of a Washington system run amok. Many are led to question the accuracy of information provided with the goal of currying influence and political or monetary gain. There is similar debate among scholars as to the value of the information provided by interest groups to the academic world. For instance, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and the conservative American Conservative Union provide scores on individual legislators (0–100) on how well or poorly they voted on liberal or conservative issues, respectively. Some scholars have used these scores as measures of ideological leaning among members of Congress. Other scholars insist that these scores will be slanted by the interest groups’ own ideological leanings. Thus, there is little consensus as to the accuracy of these scores. Similarly, the question of how well interest groups represent the public will as opposed to the moneyed minority of citizens that fund them remains unanswered.
V. Future Directions
The previous section already touched on some open questions in congressional studies. Clearly, many issues remain for legislative scholars. Perusing the current literature in the field reminds one that this is a very complex and dynamic field. Just as other areas of political science have embraced interdisciplinary perspectives, so too has legislative politics been enriched by findings in other fields. In particular, behavioral explanations for the decisions of members of Congress have been offered by scholars in psychology that are enlarging the scope of the debate on party and policy. One of the important questions being asked is whether Congress is also swaying to the purported trend in American politics toward a more partisan orientation.
One of the implications of Mayhew’s argument that members of Congress are single-minded seekers of reelection is that policy itself is not as important as taking a position on an issue that will please as much of one’s electorate as possible. Yet in a seminal article in social psychology, Geoffrey Cohen (2003) demonstrates that group pressure from a participant’s self-identified partisan cohort (Democrat or Republican) contributed significantly to support for a welfare-policy initiative. When a policy proposal for a work-training program, for instance, was proposed by a Republican, the study participants identified as Republican overwhelmingly supported it and tended to regard it as a conservative proposal by definition. The same was true for Democrats. This occurred despite the fact that there was no difference in the two proposed bills except for the sponsor. Interestingly, the study’s subjects denied having been influenced by their political party. Cohen refers to this as the effect of social identity—people are unconsciously constrained in their choices by the types of groups they identify with. It remains to be seen if this same type of group pressure applies to members of the House or Senate, but given that Congress votes overwhelmingly along party lines, it may indeed prove to be the case.
Much research continues to look at the influence of public opinion on congressional behavior. New research is aimed at discerning the interrelation of levels of public support among institutions—Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidency—over time (Bailey, 2007). Bailey insists that levels of support among the branches are actually more similar than previously estimated, with the disparity being accounted for by inadequate means of measurement. A separate but similar line of inquiry seeks to identify the effect of information on levels of approval for Congress. In a manner similar to Born (1990), Mondak, Carmines, Huckfeldt, Mitchell, and Schraufnagel (2007) find that higher levels of political knowledge translate into more specific evaluations of Congress whereas lower sophistication tends to lead to more heuristic judgments. These heuristic judgments will tend to be more susceptible to the influence of mass media and political actors that readily paint Congress in a negative light. Much research indicates that the availability of information and its temporal proximity have a great effect on the importance afforded to it unconsciously as the brain processes information.
Political science will continue to benefit from these enlarging perspectives. Research into the cognitive processes that inform public opinion has barely begun and may prove to add substantially to our knowledge of how the information environment interfaces with perception to shape political judgments. Similarly, scholars continue to probe the effect of evaluations of other institutions on government in general and how these translate into support for Congress. As previously mentioned, Congress does not operate in a vacuum, and scholars continue to investigate the cumulative effects of divided government and shared power among the branches. Although this research paper has not specifically mentioned the media’s role in shaping Congress’s policy priorities, a large body of literature aims at identifying these important linkages.
What should a 21st-century student of legislative politics know about this complex field of study? Clearly, there are a great many avenues for research, and this research paper has only just brushed on them. Facing an ever-enlarging body of literature and an increasing reliance on the insights being offered by other disciplines, such as psychology, many scholars choose to specialize in only a very narrow area of analysis—agenda setting or the effect of public opinion, for example. Additionally, as the issues faced by Congress become larger and more complex, as a growing population with more diverse interests dictates, so too will the job of studying Congress become more complicated. With this complexity, however, comes the prospect of a seemingly endless range of research possibilities. Study of the legislature is one of the richest areas of American political science.
As such, this research paper is able to offer only a brief look at the many faces of congressional research, which, to summarize, started with the seminal theoretical works and traced their respective studies of the electoral and often competing national pressures that bear down on members of Congress. Next, this research paper looked at the literature on the roles of parties and coalitions in shaping the actions of Congress. From there, the paper turned to the significant public opinion challenges faced by all legislators as members of an institution that is generally perceived to be corrupt and to be failing in its job of acting in the public interest. The policy implications gleaned from this theoretical base naturally lead to the question of Congress’s efficacy in enacting policy. This naturally entails looking at the legislature in its dealings with the other branches of government with which it shares power. The paper examined this complex question by briefly looking at the literature on presidential agenda setting, the consequences of divided government, and interactions with the federal bureaucracy and the judicial system. Finally, this research paper looked at some potential areas of future research.
These, then, are some of the major themes in legislative study. This brief look, however, does not exhaust the field. What this research paper has sought to do is not only to overview the complexity of congressional research but also to highlight the many competing interests that vie for the attention and favor of Congress. As the first branch of government, the legislature has the huge responsibility not only of controlling the federal budget, but also of making the laws that govern all the states and citizens of the nation. Yet in the Madisonian tradition of the founding and Constitution of the United States, Congress must also share this power to ensure that its sway over national policy is checked and restrained. For all of these reasons, Congress cannot be seen as a simple institution, nor can it be seen as a mere collection of 535 members with individual constituencies and agendas. It is a lawmaking body characterized by complexity, competition, and compromise, and it is this very mix of interactions that makes Congress so interesting and challenging to study.
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