Style and substance in the U.S. House of Representatives

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By Tracy Sulkin and William Bernhard

Upon arriving on Capitol Hill, all new members of Congress (MCs) face a central choice: what kind of legislator will they be? This is not a trivial task, as the available opportunities for investment of time, effort, and resources are numerous. What, for example, is the right balance between working in the district and on Capitol Hill? Will they be policy specialists, focusing on a particular issue; policy generalists, active in a number of areas; or will they avoid investing in policymaking altogether? Should they toe the party line or chart their own course? With whom should they collaborate and form coalitions? Should they seek to develop a national reputation by giving speeches and cultivating the media? What is the “right” amount of time to spend raising money, and what should they do with those funds once they collect them?

In our recent book, Legislative Style, we explored stylistic differences across members of Congress. Our conception of style is rooted in the fact that MCs vary in how they conceive of their roles as legislators, coming to Congress with differing career goals, electoral and institutional constraints, past experiences, role orientations, and personal inclinations. These factors all shape their allocation of time and effort in office, and, together, the decisions they make on a daily basis define their legislative styles. Styles are fundamental to understanding individual legislators' behavior and aggregate dynamics within the House of Representatives, shaping the quality of representation constituents receive, the scope and content of the policy legacies legislators leave, and the trajectories MCs’ careers take in the chamber and beyond.

Our analyses focused on the 1049 legislators who served in the 101st-110th Congresses (1989-2008). We proceeded by gathering data on MCs' activities, categorizing these into indices that reflect components of legislative style, and using longitudinal model-based clustering techniques to uncover how these components group together. Our results revealed that MCs' patterns of activity cluster into five stable and predictable styles—policy specialists (31% of observations), party soldiers (27%), district advocates (26%), party builders (12%), and ambitious entrepreneurs (4%). These groups are characterized as follows:

Policy Specialists

Representatives with focused agendas, generally targeting issues within the jurisdiction of their committee assignments, and who vote and cosponsor regularly with their parties. They do not engage in much speechmaking or other publicly visible activities, and they do not raise or redistribute much money, choosing instead to get things done behind the scenes.

Party Soldiers

Mostly junior MCs who are loyal backbenchers and members of the party team who can be counted on to toe the party line and participate in the legislative process, but who do not appear to be particularly invested in policy specialization or in fundraising activities that would help them rise through the hierarchy.

District Advocates

These legislators are not a part of the party fold (often crossing the aisle in their roll call voting and cosponsorship decisions), are not particularly legislatively active, and operate largely beneath the radar rather than seeking out visibility and attention. Instead, they devote their energy and resources to cultivating their districts.

Party Builders

MCs who are strong party loyalists, serve as its public face and its fundraising arm, and engage in heavy lifting legislatively.

Ambitious Entrepreneurs

Legislators who devote significant effort to public visibility and fundraising, but who have no compunction about going against their parties. However, they are not necessarily moderate; instead, some are part of idiosyncratic coalitions, steering their own individual course or trying to build reputations in the chamber and beyond to enable them to rise to positions of power.

The Origins and Consequences of Legislative Style

Our analyses in the book explore the distribution of styles across MCs and congresses, the factors that influence why a legislator adopts a particular style in his or her freshman term, the evolution of style over individuals' service in the House of Representatives, and the effects of style on MCs' electoral and legislative success and career advancement. This approach offers new insight into a number of enduring questions in legislative politics. We show, for example, that the path to leadership often begins early. John Boehner was distinct from his peers from the start--among the only 6.5% of MCs who adopt a party builder style by their sophomore terms. We also demonstrate that progressively ambitious legislators—those who desire to move up to higher office--tend to make different stylistic choices than their colleagues planning long service in the House. For some MCs, these stylistic choices are apparent from the beginning of their careers. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for instance, began his House service as an ambitious entrepreneur, eventually leaving that chamber behind for a run for the Senate and then the Presidency. For others, a shift in style accompanies a change in the opportunity structure that makes a run for the Senate or governorship a viable option. Among this latter group are MCs such as Charles Schumer (D-NY), who had been a party builder, but shifted to the ambitious entrepreneur style during the term leading up to his Senate bid.

Legislative style also offers leverage in explaining the effects of macro-level shocks like shifts in majority control, redistricting, or shifts in congressional rules. Changes that make congressional service more attractive to certain types of current or prospective legislators may also influence the distribution of styles within the chamber. As we demonstrate, a Congress full of party soldiers looks different from one populated by policy specialists or district advocates, and the styles adopted by MCs have downstream consequences for representation and policymaking, ranging from the amount of attention legislators devote to their districts to the volume of legislation passed into law.

 Finally, styles matter for individual legislators’ success at the polls and on the floor of the House of Representatives. Styles are most likely to result in electoral success when they map on well to the district. The competing demands of heterogeneous constituencies, for instance, are better managed by some styles (e.g., the district advocate style) than others. All else equal, the failure to adopt one of these styles is likely to produce stronger electoral challengers, lower vote shares, and, potentially, defeat. Similarly, styles are related to MCs’ accomplishments in lawmaking, but there are multiple paths to such achievement, with styles related to legislative stature and expertise (e.g., party builders and policy specialists) both yielding success in the legislative realm.

 In sum, then, considering legislators’ styles—the choices that define who they “are” as legislators—enhances our understanding of a variety of dynamics in congressional politics, and raises new questions for inquiry. Perhaps most importantly, it suggests that, even in an era of heightened partisan and ideological polarization, legislators are still individuals, and the decisions they make about how to pursue their jobs have implications for their constituents, for their own careers, and for the health of Congress as an institution.

Tracy Sulkin and William Bernhard are professors of political science at University of Illinois.