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U.S. House Members in Their Constituencies: An Exploration*

  • Richard F. Fenno (a1)

The paper addresses itself to two questions left underdeveloped in the literature on representative-constituent relations. First, what does the representative see when he or she sees a constituency? Second, what consequences do these perceptions have for his or her behavior? The paper reverses the normal Washington-oriented view of representative-constituent relations and approaches both questions by examining the representative in his or her constituency. The paper's observations are drawn from the author's travels with seventeen U.S. House members while they were working in their districts. Member perceptions of their constituency are divided into the geographical, the reelection, the primary and the personal constituencies. Attention is then given to the home style of House members. Home style is treated as an amalgam of three elements – allocation of resources, presentation of self, explanation of Washington activity. An effort is made to relate home style to the various perceived constituencies. Some observations are made relating constituency-oriented research to the existing literature on representation.

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My I.O.U.'s lie scattered all over the United States among my friends in and out of academia. They are too numerous to list here. But Theodore Anagnoson, Viktor Hofstetter, John Kingdon, and Herbert McClosky deserve special thanks. So do the Russell Sage Foundation and the University of Rochester for their financial help. A slightly different version of this article was delivered under the title “Congressmen in Their Constituencies: An Exploration,” at the American Political Science Association Convention in San Francisco, September, 1975. It is a part of a larger study, Home Style: U.S. House Members in their Constituencies (Boston: Little Brown, forthcoming).

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1 Dexter's seminal article was The Representative and His District,” Human Organization 16 (Spring, 1957), 214. It will be found, revised and reprinted, along with other of Dexter's works carrying the same perspective in: Dexter, Lewis, The Sociology and Politics of Congress (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969).

2 Political science studies conducted in congressional constituencies have been few and far between. The most helpful to me have been: On Capitol Hill, ed. Bibby, John and Davidson, Roger (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967); On Capitol Hill, ed. Bibby, John and Davidson, Roger (Chicago: Dryden, 1972); Donovan, John, Congressional Campaign: Maine Elects a Democrat (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1957); Jones, Charles, “The Role of the Campaign in Congressional Politics,” in The Electoral Process, ed. Zeigler, Harmon and Jennings, Kent (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1966); Kingdon, John, Candidates for Office: Beliefs and Strategies (New York: Random House, 1966); Leuthold, David, Electioneering in a Democracy (New York: Wiley, 1968). And no one interested in this subject should missHarris's, Richard superb “How's It Look?”, New Yorker, 04 8, 1967. The most recent study is: The Making Of Congressmen, ed. Clem, Alan (North Scituate: Duxbury, 1976).

3 The group contains sixteen men and one woman. In the title of the paper and in the Introduction, I have deliberately employed the generic language “House member,” “member of Congress,” “Representative,” and “his or her” to make it clear that I am talking about men and women. And I have tried to use the same language wherever the plural form appears in the paper. That is, I have tried to stop using the word “congressmen.” In the body of the paper, however, I shall frequently and deliberately use “congressman” and “his as generic terms. Stylistically, I find this a less clumsy form of the third person singular than “congressperson,” followed always by “his or her.” This usage has the additional special benefit, here, of camouflaging the one woman in the group. Where necessary, I have used pseydonyms for these seventeen members in the text.

4 Additional evidence will be found in: Matthews, Donald R. and Stimson, James A., Yeas and Nays: Normal Decision Making in the U.S. House of Representatives (New York: Wiley, 1975), pp. 2831.

5 Marginal districts probably tend to be heterogeneous. Safe districts probably are both heterogeneous and homogeneous. On the relationship of electoral conditions to homogeneity and heterogeneity, I owe a lot to my conversations with Morris Fiorina. See his Representatives, Roll Calls and Constituencies (Boston: Lexington, 1974).

6 On the usefulness of the distinction, see Stokes, Donald and Miller, Warren, “Party Government and the Saliency of Congress,” Public Opinion Quarterly 26 (Winter, 1962), 531546. In Barone, M., Ujifusa, G., and Matthews, D., Almanac of American Politics (Boston: Gambit, 1974), the authors often describe congressional districts as artificial and containing no natural community of interest. See for example, pages 86,133,146,162, 376,402,419, 373,616.

7 See Johnson, Donald B. and Gibson, James R., “The Divisive Primary Revisited: Party Activists in Iowa,” American Political Science Review 68 (03, 1974), 6777.

8 The term is that of Snowiss, Leo, “Congressional Recruitment and Representation,” American Political Science Review 60 (09, 1966), 627639.

9 For example, White, Theodore H., The Making of the President: 1960 (New York: Atheneum, 1961), pp. 276278; Frady, Marshall, Wallace (New York: New American Library, 1969), pp. 2–4, 3839; White, Theodore H., The Making of the President: 1972 (New York: Atheneum, 1973), pp. 147, 414–415, 456457.

10 On recent trips, wherever possible, I have also asked each congressman at the end of my visit, to rank order the events of the visit in terms of their “political importance” to him and in terms of the degree to which he felt “at home” or “comfortable” in each situation.

11 Two of the best studies ever on the point are Mayhew, David, Congress: The Electoral Connection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), and Kingdon, John, Congressmen's Voting Decisions (New York: Harper and Row, 1973).

12 The basic research was done by Saloma, John, and is reported in his Congress and the New Politics (Boston: Little Brown, 1969), Chapter 6; in Tacheron, Donald and Udall, Morris, The Job of the Congressman (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1966), pp. 280288; and in Guide to the Congress of the United States (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1971), pp. 532ff. But no one has expanded Saloma's work. A pioneer work, which would have given us a wider perspective, but which seems to have been neglected is Cronheim, Dorothy H., “Congressmen and Their Communication Practices” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, Department of Political Science, 1957).

13 These surveys will be described in the next section of the paper. We shall not, however, again use the figures on total number of days spent in the district. They seem less reliable than the others, when checked against the few cases in which I have the complete record. Also, it should be noted that the number of cases for which the total number of days was collected was 401.

14 Other kinds of data were collected which might also be useful as an indication of district staff strength. Three of them correlated very highly with the indicator being used, so that it does not appear we are missing much by relying on one indicator. The measure we are using in the article – per cent of staff expenditures allocated to district staff – showed a correlation of .861 with number of people on the district staff, of .907 with the per cent of total staff members allocated to the district, and of .974 with the dollar amounts spent on district staff. Also recorded were the rank, in the total staff hierarchy, of the highest paid person on the district staff, as another indicator of district staff allocation practices. That indicator has not been used in the article, but it might be noted that the range is from first (i.e., the highest paid district staffer is the highest paid of all the congressman's staffers) to more than ninth (anything above nine was not recorded).

15 See footnote 18.

16 The 1974 interviewers were Larry Fishkin, Nancy Hapeman, Bruce Pollock, Kenneth Sankin, Fred Schwartz, and Jacob Weinstein. The 1975 interviewers were Joel Beckman, Joanne Doroshow, Arthur Kree-ger, and Susan Weiner. Sandra Bloch, Fishkin, Hapeman, and Schwartz helped with the analysis. During the later stages of the analysis, I have leaned particularly heavily on Viktor Hofstetter.

17 There were eleven members who went home every night — eight from Maryland, two from Virginia, and one from Pennsylvania. In computing averages, they were coded at ninety-eight trips (more than anyone else) rather than at 365, so as to minimize distortion. Also, so as to minimize distortion, caused by these cases, we have used the median number of trips in the analysis of this section rather than the average number of trips.

18 The most common replies were “every week,” “once a month,” “twice a month,” “every other week,” between once and twice a month,” ‘Hhree or four times a month,” etc. Congressmen placed in the “low” category were those whose staffers were unwilling to go as high as “twice a month.” Congressmen whose trips were reported as “once a week” or more fell into the “high” category. But some respondents said “every week except for a few” or “every week, but maybe he missed one or two here or there.” So, we decided to try to capture that sense by including in the “high” category people who were reported to have made somewhat less than fifty-two trips. (Doubtless, those who said they went home every week missed a few too.) Since a sizeable group had forty trips and none had forty-one or forty-two, the cut was made at that point, which made 43+ the “high category. The middle category were those who remained – people who went home at least twice a month (twenty-four trips) but not as often as forty-three times in 1973.

19 The frequency of 1973 home visits does not bear any relationship to whether the member's electoral margin declined, increased, or remained the same between 1972 and 1974.

20 See Fiorina, Representatives, Roll Calls and Constituencies, Chapter One. For an analysis of why House members ought to worry, see Robert Erikcson, “A Reappraisal of Competition for Congressional Office: How Careers Begin and End,” paper presented at Conference on Mathematical Models of Congress, Aspen, Colorado, 1974. The one piece of research which dovetails best with my research is Miller, Warren, “Majority Rule and the Representative System of Government” in Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems, ed. Allardt, Erik and Littunen, Yrjo (Helsinki, 1964), Chapter 10. Miller uses subjective marginality as the measure of competitiveness and relates it to the policy attitudes of the congressman and his re-election constituency.

21 The number of cases is lower here than for the other parts of the analysis because the data were collected in 1975 – after a number of the 1973 congressmen were no longer available for questioning.

22 An excellent study of district staff operations in California, containing many stimulating comments on the general subject is: Macartney, John D., “Political Staffing: A View From the District” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Political Science, 1975).

23 For example, Clausen, Aage, How Congressmen Decide: A Policy Focus (New York: St. Martin's, 1973); Deckard, Barbara, “State Party Delegations in the U.S. House of Representatives: A Study in Group Cohesion,” Journal of Politics, 34 (02, 1972), 199222; Ferejohn, John, Pork Barrel Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974); Kessel, John, “The Washington Congressional Delegation,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, 8 (02, 1964), 121; Matthews and Stimson, Yeas and Nays.

24 Fifty-six per cent, or 72 or 129.

25 Goffman, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1959). The language I have quoted appears in the Introduction and Conclusion.

26 Goffman, Chapter 3, especially p. 128. Often comments made in the “back regions” provide clues for “at homeness” estimates. “We're having breakfast tomorrow with a businessman's group. They're really a bunch of hoodlums.”

27 The two styles are the most common among my group. They may be the most common among all representatives. In his study of representation, Paul Peterson uses two very similar analytical categories, “particularistic representation” (person-to-person) and “iiniversalistic representation” (issue-oriented) Peterson, Paul, “Forms of Representation: Participation of the Poor in the Community Action Program,” American Political Science Review, 64 (06, 1970), 491501. Other styles will be elaborated in a later, lengthier study, of which this paper is a part.

28 See Fiorina, Morris, “Electoral Margins, Constituency Influence and Policy Moderation: A Critical Assessment,” American Politics Quarterly, 1 (10, 1973), 479498.

29 See Stokes, and Miller, , “Party Government,” p. 542; and Bullock, Charles S. III, “Candidate Perceptions of Causes of Election Outcome,” paper delivered at American Political Science Association Convention, New Orleans, 1973, Tables 7, 8. In his analysis often congressional campaigns in 1962, David Leuthold found that “probably more than half the appeals (of the candidates) … were based on the qualities of the candidate or his opponent.” Leuthold, , Electioneering in a Democracy, p. 113. He believes that voters are looking for ability, concern, and similarity to themselves. That – in the somewhat different words, qualification, empathy, and identification – is what my representatives think the voters want. See Leuthold, pp. 23-24.

30 The first people to view congressional incumbency, in the light of SRC analyses, as a long-term force were Arseneau, Robert and Wolfinger, Raymond, “Voting Behavior in Congressional Elections,” paper delivered at American Political Science Association Convention, New Orleans, 1973. Observations consistent with those here, made in different contexts are David Mayhew's emphasis on “the expected incumbent differential” and Charles Jones's conclusion that House campaigns are less likely to be “issue-oriented” than “image-oriented” and “issue-involved.” Home style contributes to the congressman's “incumbent differential” and to his “image.” Mayhew, The Electoral Connection; Jones, “The Role of the Campaign in Congressional Politics.” From an election analysis perspective Walter Dean Burnham has recently emphasized the “office specific” nature of elections and the need to develop ways of looking at congressional elections that are not simply imitative of what we have done for presidential elections. Burnham, Walter Dean, “Insulation and Responsiveness in Congressional Elections,” Political Science Quarterly, 90 (Fall, 1975), 411435.

31 Kingdon, , Congressmen's Voting Decisions, pp. 4653.

32 Congressional Record, Daily Edition, 07 23, 1974, H6962H6963.

33 Congressional Record, Daily Edition, 08 1, 1974, E5209E5210.

34 Kindgon's respondents told him that they could explain one vote that went contrary to constituent expectations, but not A string of votes.” Kingdon, , pp. 4142.

35 Goffman, , Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, pp. 136ff. A possible pattern of explanation requiring further research is that members explain their activities in different policy areas to distinctive groups in the constituency. See Oausen, How Congressmen Decide, especially his discussion of a special foreign policy constituency on pp. 225-226.

36 See also, Fenno, Richard F., “If, as Ralph Nader Says, Congress is ‘The Broken Branch,’ How Come We Love Our Congressmen So Much?”, paper presented to Time, Inc. Symposium, Boston, Massachusetts, 12, 1972, and reprinted in Congress in Change, ed. Ornstein, Norman (New York: Praeger, 1975).

37 Prewitt, Kenneth, “Political Ambitions, Volun-teerism and Electoral Accountability,” American Political Science Review, 64 (03, 1970), 517.

38 Pitkin, Hanna F., The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972). Pitkin recognizes the complexity of constituencies – see p. 220 of her book – but she does not incorporate the idea into her analysis.

39 Abramowitz, Alan, “Name Familiarity, Reputation and the Incumbency Effect in a Congressional Election,” The Western Political Science Quarterly, 28 (12, 1975), 668684; Cover, Albert, “One Good Term Deserves Another: The Advantage of Incumbency in Congressional Elections,” paper delivered at American Political Science Association Convention, Chicago, 09 1976; Ferejohn, John, “On the Decline of Competition in Congressional Elections,” American Political Science Review, 71 (03, 1977), 166176; Fiorina, Morris, “The Case of the Vanishing Marginals: The Bureaucracy Did It,” American Political Science Review, 71 (03, 1977), 177181; Raymond Wolfinger and Robert Arseneau, “Voting Behavior in Congressional Elections.” See also Muller, Edward N., “The Representation of Citizens by Political Authorities: Consequences for Regime Support,” American Political Science Review, 64 (12, 1970), 11491166, esp. p. 1157; Parker, Glenn R. and Davidson, Roger H., “Bases of Public Assessments of Government Performance: The Content of Congressional Evaluations,” unpublished paper, University of California at Santa Barbara.

40 Mayhew, The Electoral Connection.

41 see Frantzich, Stephen, “Congressional De-Recruitment: A New Look at Turnover in House Membership,” unpublished paper, Hamilton College, 1975.

42 The argument of the last paragraphs is more fully contained in Fenno, Richard, “Strengthening a Congressional Strength,” paper presented at a conference on “The Role of Congress” sponsored by Time, Inc., Washington, 1975, reprinted in Congress Reconsidered, ed. Dodd, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, Bruce (New York: Praeger, 1977).

* My I.O.U.'s lie scattered all over the United States among my friends in and out of academia. They are too numerous to list here. But Theodore Anagnoson, Viktor Hofstetter, John Kingdon, and Herbert McClosky deserve special thanks. So do the Russell Sage Foundation and the University of Rochester for their financial help. A slightly different version of this article was delivered under the title “Congressmen in Their Constituencies: An Exploration,” at the American Political Science Association Convention in San Francisco, September, 1975. It is a part of a larger study, Home Style: U.S. House Members in their Constituencies (Boston: Little Brown, forthcoming).

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