The US Congress: Challenges in Its Institutional Design


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

While most Americans seem to hate the Congress in general, they do like and support the member of Congress who represents them. So, how is the United States Congress designed? And, what are the challenges it faces in its functioning?

Image of the US Capitol building.
Americans tend to trust the government more when their political party is in control. (Image: Architect of the Capitol/Public domain)

US Congress: What People Think

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019, only 14% of Americans feel they can trust the government to do what is right most of the time. Some of that distrust has to do with partisanship, because Americans tend to trust the government more when their political party controls government; but even still, public trust in government is at historic lows.

And more than 80% of Americans think that members of the Congress behave unethically at least some of the time. When Pew asked Americans about how they felt about eight different categories of leaders and public servants—including teachers, police officers, military and religious leaders, local officials, journalists, leaders of technology companies, and members of Congress—members of Congress were lowest on the list.

The Gallup organization has also been asking people if they approve of Congress for several decades. In September of 2019, only 18% of Americans approved of Congress. In addition, the last time that approval rating was above 30% was in 2009.

On the other hand, when Americans are asked if they approve of their particular member of Congress, the approval ratings from constituents are routinely in the 50% to 60% range and can even climb into the 80% range.

So why is it that so many people seem to hate Congress in general, but love the people that directly represent them?

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Why Become a Member of Congress?

The political scientist David Mayhew is famous for writing something in the 1970s that seems quite obvious now about how Congress works. That is, more than anything else, members of Congress seek re-election.

What he means is, whether a member of Congress is motivated by achieving a particular policy change, or becoming more powerful, or exerting influence over some part of the government, the member must first be elected to office before any of those things can happen.

Learn more about the major types of government.

Incentives for Members

If every member of Congress worked to serve only his or her constituent and never worked toward some common collective good, nothing could ever happen in Congress.

Photo of the members of the US House of Representatives.
The members of the Congress are expected to work toward the common collective good. (Image: domain)

To pass a bill, one needs the support of other members of Congress. If each member is only out for themselves or their own constituents, they will not be able to achieve their goals.

In other words, the way the institution is designed, individual members of Congress have an incentive to serve their constituents, but they also have incentives to work with one another.

This creates a natural tension for members of Congress, forming the core of what can be thought of as the classic dilemma that they face on a regular basis.

Dilemma Faced by the Members

The dilemma occurs when a member of Congress feels pressure to do one thing for their constituency, but also feels pressure to do something different for the political party.

All members of Congress have a party affiliation and use one of the major parties—the Democrats or the Republicans—to help them achieve policy-oriented coalitions.

If I am a member of Congress and my political party and my constituency seem to want me to do the same thing, it is clear which position I should take.

However, if I perceive that my constituency and my political party want different things, then I may have a problem. I may be tempted to prioritize my constituency over my party—after all, they are the ones who will re-elect me. But if I did this all the time, I would never be able to pass policies to help my constituents, because I need the help of my colleagues to do that.

Learn more about the strategic tactic of filibustering in the Senate.

Political Parties: Striking a Balance

From the perspective of a political party, it must strike a balance as well. The party wants to maintain its seats in the legislature and potentially gain seats. That means it wants all its members to win their re-election contests.

Image of many hands casting ballots.
Political parties want all of their members to win their re-election contests. (Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

Sometimes, party leaders will calculate that individual members are more likely to be re-elected if they do not fall in line with their party’s primary position.

On the other hand, since parties need to pass policies in order to have a record of accomplishment, sometimes parties insist their members show loyalty in support of the party goals over constituent goals.

Learn more about how congressional elections are structured.

Drawback in the Institutional Design of Congress

Ultimately, the fact that members of Congress are conflicted when the needs of their constituency contradict the needs of their political party, contributes to the sense that many in the American public have that their individual member of Congress serves them well, while Congress as an institution does not.

A reasonable citizen might think highly of their own representative while feeling critical of a Congress that fails to solve real problems. While this critique is not unfair, what should be clear by now is that this phenomenon does not happen because representatives just aren’t good enough or don’t try hard enough, rather, it’s the institutional design of Congress that is the impediment to progress.

Common Questions about Challenges in the Institutional Design of United States Congress

Q: What creates a natural tension for members of Congress?

The way the US Congress is designed, individual members of Congress have an incentive to serve their constituents, but they also have incentives to work with one another. This creates a natural tension for members of Congress.

Q: Why are political parties important?

Political parties are important because they are the mechanism that Congress uses to organize individual legislators into coalitions that form the majorities to pass bills.

Q: Which are the two major political parties in the United States?

The Democrats and the Republicans are the two major political parties in the United States.

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