Orientation and Getting Started
Early Development of the Legislative Branch and the Problem of Representation
Enumerated Powers of Congress
Implied, Expansive, and Limited Powers
The Two Congresses: Representation and Lawmaking
Separation of Powers and Interaction between the Branches
Institutional Development and Change
Congress and the American People

Representation in Congress

Four Views of Representation

In The Concept of Representation, political theorist Hanna Pitkin develops four views of representation: (1) formalistic, (2) symbolic, (3) descriptive, and (4) substantive. We should consider how the Constitution and contemporary politics inform those views of representation for representatives and senators in the United States Congress. Additional aspects of representation focus on the dynamic relationships between elected officials and their constituents in different contexts and consider aspects of representation that transcend geographical spaces. 

Formalistic Representation

Formalistic representation describes the authority a representative gains through election to office.  Election to office grants privileges to representatives and senators and authorizes them to act on behalf of their constituents in the lawmaking process. Since formal representation allows voters to hold their representatives and senators accountable through the electoral process, the quality of formal representation depends on the quality of the electoral process itself. As we have seen in previous modules, Article I, Sections 2, 3, 4, and 5 contain provisions that affect elections, including powers shared by Congress and the states. The people elect members of the House and the qualifications of the voters are determined by state law (Section 2); state legislatures originally appointed senators (Section 3), and the state’s executive (i.e. the governor) determines how Senate vacancies are filled between elections. Article I, Section 4 stipulates that the state legislatures determine “the times, manner, and places of holding elections,” but Congress “may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.” Article I, Section 5 gives each house the power to be the “judge of elections, returns and qualifications.”

Constitutional amendments that address voting rights dealing with race (Fifteenth), women (Nineteenth), and age (Twenty-sixth) affect who is eligible to vote in elections. The Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, changed the selection of Senators from appointment by state legislatures to election by the people, and significantly changed the nature of constituency representation in the Senate. In Module 5 on Bicameralism, we explore the Seventeenth Amendment in addition to several laws and court cases that affected formalistic representation. For now, it is important to recognize that formalistic representation in the contemporary Congress reflects requirements for voting rights, elections, and the apportionment of voters from a variety of sources: the original Constitution, amendments, national and state laws, and Supreme Court cases. 

Symbolic representation refers to the ways a representative “stands for” the people he/she is representing and how well accepted the representative is among his or her constituents. The Constitution itself prescribes no expectation of symbolic representation, but the concept was debated during ratification. The Anti-Federalists expressed concerns that the representatives to Congress would be too detached from their constituents to stand for them in a meaningful way. The voters would view the representatives as elites rather than reflections of the people they represented. Madison disagreed, arguing that various motivations of representatives would ensure a tie to their constituents: “Duty, gratitude, interest, ambition itself, are the cords by which they will be bound to fidelity and sympathy with the great mass of the people.” (Federalist, No. 57) 

Symbolic Representation

Symbolic representation is evident in the contemporary Congress. Although they have far more people to “stand for” by comparison to representatives and senators from the first Congress in 1789, they seek to do so in a variety of ways: appearances at local events, speeches on the House floor, visits to the district, letters to constituents, and campaign communications. The website of virtually every member of Congress contains elements of symbolic representation: visual portrayals of the geography, landscape, or cultural artifacts from the state or district, appeals to constituents to contact the member, a biographical profile that ties the member to the District, or links to resources for particular types of individuals: veterans, seniors, students, and the like.  Together, these efforts link the representative to his or her constituents and strengthen the bond that exists between the member and the district.

Descriptive Representation

Descriptive representation refers to the degree to which a representative resembles the demographic or socioeconomic qualities of the constituents. Anti-Federalists emphasized descriptive aspects of representation, “the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar.” (Brutus, No.1, 1787) Such representation would be possible only in a small republic where the voters themselves were relatively homogenous. The Federalists were less concerned about the extent to which a representative shared the descriptive qualities of constituents: they believed representatives should be elected on the basis of merit. Madison states in Federalist, No. 57: “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society…”

It is impossible, of course, for a single representative to embody the diverse characteristics of a constituency, but consider how the collective body of the House or Senate reflects—or does not reflect—the socioeconomic mix of the population. Representatives and senators are older, more educated, more oriented toward a professional career, more religious, and less diverse in terms of race, gender and ethnicity than the population of the United States. A Congressional Research Service study of 114th Congress (Manning, 2005) shows that the average age of representatives is 57 and senators is 61; the vast majority of members rank either public service, politics, business, and law as the prior occupation; 94% of House members and 100% of Senators have at least a bachelor’s degree and 64% of House members and 74% of Senators hold higher degrees; 98% claim some religious affiliation and 92% of those are Christian; a total of 108 (20%) are women; 48 (8.9%) are African American; 38 (7%,) are Latino or Hispanic; 14 (2.6%) are Asian/Pacific Islander; 2 (less than 1%) are Native American; and 16 (or 2.9%) were foreign born. About 101 members (18.7%) had served in the military. Membership in the House and Senate has become more diverse over the past forty years, but neither body “looks like America” in the descriptive sense. 

Substantive Representation

Substantive representation refers to the legislative actions members take on behalf of constituents, the bills they sponsor and the votes they take on bills and amendments. Representatives’ actions are often defined by one of two styles, a delegate or a trustee. A “delegate” relies on the opinions of the constituents, whereas a “trustee” acts on the basis of personal judgment to do what he or she believes is in the best interest of the constituency. Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century member of the British Parliament and political theorist, poses these two ideal types in his famous letter to the electors of Bristol, England in 1774. He recognized the delegate approach: “Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention.”  Thus, the delegate believes, “his will ought to be subservient to yours.”  But since Burke believed that “government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment and not of inclination,” he also believed that a representative should be free to use his/her judgment.  Governmental decisions should be based on deliberation, facts, and arguments that voters cannot possibly know about. In matters of public policy, the representative should put the interests of the constituents above his/her personal interest: “…his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.” Thus, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” (Burke 1774)