CONGRESS AS A
ASSEMBLY: THE CONCEPT
Congress: The First Branch of
• Congress is a representative and legislative assembly.
– How (and how well) does Congress do its job of
– How (and how well) does Congress (especially the
House of Representatives) stack up as a represen-
• A more fundamental question is: What do we mean by
– This is a major question in both traditional political theory and
modern political science.
– We need to distinguish among different types and styles of
National vs. Local Representation
• National representation: how well does the House of
Representatives (or Congress as a whole) represent the
American people as a whole?
• Local representation: how well do individual Represen-
tatives (or Senators) represent the people in their
particular constituencies, i.e., their districts (or states)?
• Note: In some countries, the national parliament is
elected by the people of the national as a whole (using a
system of proportional representation).
– This provides very good representation (of a particular type) at the
• but may provide no local representation.
– In contrast, English-speaking countries typically use of single-member
districts [SMDs] to elect representatives.
• Representation as similarity:
– ―X represents Y‖ means ―X looks like Y‖
– President Clinton famously said he wanted a Cabinet
that ―looks like the American people.‖
• Descriptive representation at the national level: is
Congress (especially the House or Representatives) a
―representative cross-section‖ of the American people‖?
– Demographic characteristics:
Descriptive Representation (cont.)
• Representative cross-section (cont.)?
– Personal characteristics and background:
• Political interest?
• Political background?
• Personality types?
– Experiential characteristics:
• Leading typical work/home lives?
• Experiencing life as most people experience it?
– 19th century ―republican‖ ideal: rotation in office
– 20th century approximation: term limits
– Maybe none of the above really matters: rather preferential
• Party affiliation?
• Ideology (liberal—conservative)?
• Policy preferences?
– Maybe we don’t really want perfect representation even in this
respect (Madison, Federalist 10).
Descriptive Representation (cont.)
• Why is descriptive representation imperfect?
– Members of Congress are to a great extent self-
• Desire to hold office is a necessary, though certainly not
sufficient, condition for gaining it.
– Among those who desire office, the actual office
holders are selected in competitive elections.
• Voters may not want representative who are similar to
• they may want representatives with similar policy
– Moreover, this competitive selection process is locally
National vs. Local Descriptive
• At the local level, descriptive representation is best
fulfilled when the representative shares the modal (most
common) characteristics of his/her constituents.
• Suppose that, in the American population as a whole,
60% of the people are Type A and 40% are Type B (with
respect to some descriptive or preferential characteristic,
e.g., an opinion on some issue).
• Suppose further that this 60% to 40% ratio holds over all
states and districts.
– If we have perfect local representation, Congress must display
highly imperfect national representation. (100% are Type A.)
– If we have perfect national representation, Congress must display
highly imperfect local representation. (At least 40% fail to be
similar to their constituents.)
Perfect Descriptive Representation
at the National Level?
• Study Guide Questions for discussion:
– How could we select an assembly that would achieve
nearly perfect descriptive representation (at the
– For what governmental institution is a procedure like
this actually used?
Perfect Descriptive Representation?
• How could we select an assembly that would achieve
perfect descriptive representation (at the national level)?
– By using election by lot to create a sample assembly,
• in the manner of samples used by survey research and
public opinion polls.
– But service would have to be mandatory.
– For all practical purposes, this system would imply a one-term
limit on members.
– Would such a body be an effective legislative assembly?
• Where is a procedure like this actually used?
– In selecting juries, with service being (technically) mandatory.
Representation as Agency
• Gideon v. Wainwright: every defendant is entitled to be
―represented‖ by a lawyer.
– Gideon did not want a lawyer who was similar to (descriptively
representative of) himself.
• Representation as Agency:
– ―X represents Y‖ means ―X acts on behalf of Y,‖
• or ―X is a representative agent of Y.‖
• National vs. local agency:
– Congress as the representative agent of the American people,
– an individual member of Congress as the representative agent of
Representation as Agency (cont.)
• A common complaint (among political scientists and
– individual members of Congress are very good
representative agents of their districts, but
– Congress as a whole is not very effective as
representative agent of the people as a whole.
• This may be due in large part because members devote
so much time, attention, and effort to local representation
as agency, by
– visiting their districts almost every weekend;
– devoting staff time and resources to casework; and
– emphasizing pork barrel [distributive] politics (and
Delegate vs. Trustee
• Two types of representative agents:
– The (instructed) delegate: the agent merely ―stands in‖ or
―speaks for‖ for the principal [the person or group being
– The (uninstructed) trustee: the agent has special expertise that
he/she uses to advance the best interests of the principal.
– In diplomacy: 18th century plenipotentiaries vs. 20th century
diplomacy with instant communications.
• Under the Articles of Confederation, members of Congress were
(often instructed) delegates representing state governments that
could recall them at any time.
• Under the Constitution,
– Senators were appointed by state legislatures who sometimes tried to
instruct them, but without much success because the Senators had
fixed and long terms of office.
– Today Senators, like Representatives, are elected by large electorates
who cannot give literal instructions (but public opinion in their districts
may be lopsided on some issues and hard to go against).
• In general, an agent representing a plural principal (e.g., an
electorate) cannot be a pure instructed delegate, but elected agents
can lean more or less in the delegate or trustee direction.
Dilemmas of Representation
• Edmund Burke: an 18th century British politician and
– Burke’s ―Speech to the Electors of Bristol‖:
• It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to
live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and
the most unreserved communication with his constituents.
Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their
opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention.
But your representative owes you, not his industry only, but
his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he
sacrifices it to your opinion. . . . Parliament is not a congress
of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which
interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate,
against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a
deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of
the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices,
ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the
general reason of the whole.
Dilemmas of Representation (cont.)
• Burke’ ideal representative is a trustee for the nation as
a whole (vs. a local delegate).
• A Burkean dilemma occurs when an elected
representative is faced with a conflict between the
delegate and trustee roles.
– Historical note: Burke was defeated for re-election.
– JFK’s Profiles in Courage.
• A delegate’s dilemma occurs when a representative’s
constituency is about equally divided on some divisive
and salient issue that the representative must vote on.