US Congress: Tools and Resources for Re-Election of Members


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

For members of the Congress, it is important that they get re-elected to office to be able to achieve a particular policy change, to become more powerful, or to exert influence over some part of the government. What resources do they have at their disposal to achieve their goals?

Image of a bald eagle flying in front of the US flag.
A political party wants all of its members to win their re-election contests. (Image: Patrick Rolands/Shutterstock)

Tools for Re-Election

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.

He argued that members of Congress will engage in three types of activities to help ensure they’re re-elected: advertising, position-taking, and credit-claiming.

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Advertising by Members of Congress

Advertising includes anything a member of Congress does to publicize their name and personal brand. Today, many members of Congress use social media to help do this, in addition to traditional forms of print and broadcast media.

Position-Taking on Issues

Position-taking refers to anytime a member of Congress publicly indicates their support or opposition for a policy proposal or some other pursuit of government. Position-taking is important for members of Congress in their pursuit of re-election because it gives voters a way to evaluate their legislator.

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Credit-Claiming by Members of Congress

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Members of Congress claim their accomplishments to receive credit from their constituents. (Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Credit-claiming is when a member of Congress claims to have accomplished something for his constituents. This might be something tangible and specific, like funding for a new hospital or highway bridge, or it might be something more vaguely defined, like contributing to a broad foreign-policy accomplishment.

Research shows that members of Congress are more likely to receive credit from constituents if the accomplishment is easily traceable back to the individual member.

If the accomplishment is something that a large number of people contributed to, the member will get less credit for having done their part.

Advantages of Using Re-Election Tools

Members of Congress who successfully engage in advertising, position-taking, and credit-claiming will often be re-elected.

Those members tend to have high approval ratings from their constituents, even if their constituents don’t think much about what Congress has been able to accomplish.

There are resources that members have to help them engage in these three re-election-oriented activities.

How Political Parties Help

The first resource that members of Congress have is their political party.

Political parties are very helpful to members of Congress. Parties help formulate legislative agendas and priorities, they help build coalitions to pass legislation, they help raise money for campaigning, and they may help with campaign strategy as well.

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Importance of Congressional Committees

Congressional committees are the second most important resource that members have. Every member of Congress is assigned to at least one committee. Some members sit on A-list committees (like the Rules Committee or Appropriations in the House, in the Senate, Judiciary, or Appropriations).

Members can request seats on committees that are directly relevant to the needs and characteristics of their constituencies. Committees help members to become specialists or subject area experts, and thereby define a policy portfolio that is meaningful for their district. The longer a member sits on a committee, the more seniority they gain.

Access to Legislative Staff and the Library of Congress

Third, Congress provides a variety of resources for members to help them with legislating and serving constituents, such as providing each member with a budget to hire staff.

Legislative staff are the workhorses of Capitol Hill. They arrange meetings, draft legislation, write correspondence, meet with constituents, and much more.

In addition, the Congress has access to the Library of Congress, which is the world’s largest library.

Photo of the main reading room in the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library. (Image: Carol M. Highsmith/Library o Congress/Public domain)

In addition to millions of volumes and a variety of media, the Library of Congress also hosts the Congressional Research Service, which is like a small college of experts on nearly any topic whose sole job is to produce up-to-date, scientifically accurate reports of information at the request of members of Congress.

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Government Accountability Office

Congress also has a Government Accountability Office that can offer audits and oversight to any agency at Congress’s discretion.

And Congress has its own Congressional Budget Office, to offer economic analyses on the federal budget and any legislation under consideration.

Lobbyists and Organized Interest Groups

Members of Congress can also get useful information and expertise from lobbyists and organized interest groups, who reach out to members of Congress to advocate for whatever cause or population they represent, and they often provide high-quality information to legislators.

These advocates aim to ingratiate themselves with members of Congress to help establish a relationship and line of communication between the congressional office and the advocates.

For members of Congress, this is advantageous because often these groups have the most up-to-date, first-hand field experience about particular constituencies. In this way, these groups provide an added layer of representation in Congress.

Congressional Member Organizations

Caucuses, or Congressional Member Organizations, are voluntary groups on Capitol Hill. They have no legislative authority, but they provide a venue for members and staff to connect with one another over a common interest or policy priority.

Most members of Congress participate in one- or two-dozen of these groups, which help them to connect with other offices that share the policy priority and with outside advocates and organized interests.

Common Questions about the Tools and Resources Used by Members of Congress for Re-Election

Q: According to the political scientist David Mayhew, which types of activities do members of Congress engage in to get re-elected?

According to David Mayhew , members of Congress engage in the following types of activities to get re-elected: advertising, position-taking, and credit-claiming.

Q: What is meant by position-taking?

Position-taking refers to anytime a member of Congress publicly indicates their support or opposition for a policy proposal or some other pursuit of government.

Q: How are political parties helpful to members of Congress?

Political parties help formulate legislative agendas and priorities and help build coalitions to pass legislation. They also help raise money for campaigning, and they may help with campaign strategy as well.

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