Members of Congress are simultaneously legislators and representatives. In 1978, Richard Fenno argued that members of Congress develop “home styles,” which enable members to cultivate support from constituencies in their district. In early research, scholars found a rather tenuous connection between the activities members engaged in and their share the votes they receive. However, the story is more complicated because home styles are about generating perceptions that may translate into political support. Whether members of Congress focus on delivering particularistic benefits to their constituents or developing a reputation for expertise on some matter of public policy, the goal is the same: influencing the perceptions of constituents.
In a 2009 article (gated) in Legislative Studies Quarterly, Prof. David Parker and I explored the relationship between how members allocated their official resources and how their constituents perceived their activities. Congressional reforms in the 104th Congress (1995-1996) transformed how members of Congress could represent their constituents. Rather than having a fixed pot of money for specific activities, such as travel or franking, all of the money was combined into a Member’s Representational Allowance. Every decision a member made with regard to representation was now a zero-sum game: each dollar spent on franking was a dollar not available to spend on travel of staff.
The challenge, however, was determining whether the choices members made affected how their constituents viewed them. Measurement is a significant issue as few surveys ask whether respondents received a congressional newsletter and there are problems with reciprocal causation as well. We found a way to surmount these issues by using the “likes” and “dislikes” responses from the American National Election Studies (ANES) in 1996, 1998, and 2000 (104th to 106th Congresses). We coded the specific responses under different categories: constituent service (mentions of projects), policy expert (mentions of a stance on an issue), one of us (personal characteristics or group connections), and miscellaneous. There was variation in the data, but 60% of respondents reported at least one positive or negative comment on our three measures of home style.
Using the impressions from constituents as our dependent variable, we constructed several hypotheses tapping into the data we collected from Statement of Disbursements of the House as well as data available from the National Taxpayers Union. Our three main independent variables were dollars spent on franked mail, dollars spent per mile on travel to the district, and the amount of money spent on district office expenditures. Analyzing the data, we found that more spending on travel resulted in more positive comments. The amount of money spent on franking generated no positive or negative comments about policy expertise. Spending more money on district offices results in members being less likely to be perceived as policy experts.
The bottom line is that the activities of incumbents matter. But by focusing on election results, scholars have been looking in the wrong place and drawn erroneous conclusions about the importance of the official spending by members of Congress. Constituents do perceive the home styles members try to demonstrate and this suggests that members can still develop a personal vote through their activities as representatives.
This paper was the first of several in which we examined how members utilized their official resources. In future posts for LegBranch.com, we will explore some of the variations between members in how they deployed their official resources and turn our attention to the Senate. We remain interested in these questions and have been collecting the electronic newsletters members increasingly send in lieu of franked mail.