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Dodd: Congress and the quest for power

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Dodd. 1977. Congress and the quest for power. In Congress Reconsidered, eds Dodd and Bruce Oppenheimer. Washington: CQ Press..

What Members of Congress (MCs) Want

MCs are motivated by power. To get power, they must win reelection. Thus, they have a reelection incentive. However, once in office, MCs develop a strong incumbency advantage. Soon enough, they do not fear losing office, so they begin to focus more exclusively on attaining Congressional power.

MAIN THESIS: This quest for power explains the variations and evolution of Congressional organization.

Stages of a Congressional Quest for Power: The Ladder of Power

The quest for power leads MCs to follow a typical career path. MCs move to the next stage according to their success at the current stage.

  1. Shoring up the electoral base through casework and service on legislative committees that are relevant to the district's needs. At the same time, MCs begin building up favor in Congress by serving on the housekeeping committees. As MCs become more confident of their ability to continue winning reelection, they move to the next stage.
  2. Desiring more influence on legislation, MCs seek to serve on the key policy committes: commerce, education, labor. Representatives become "legislators," focusing more on national issues than on district issues. As they gain expertise and create their "myth of special personal authority" in a policy area, they gain power.
  3. Those who persist and have the right mix of electoral security and policy attributes move to the next stage: service on a power committee (Rules, Ways and Means/Finance, Appropriations, Senate Foreign Relations).
  4. Some MCs move to the next stage: party leadership as the Speaker or floor leader.

Cycles of Congressional Organization

  1. All MCs want power, but they can't all have it. Solution: A decentralized Congress with a committee system. This allows many MCs to develop considerable power, at least in a small realm. Unfortunately, a decentralized Congress has considerable institutional weakness:
    • No centralized leadership
    • Weak fiscal coordination
    • Weak accountability for policy
    • Insulation of congressional decision making from popular desires
    • Failure to oversee the administration (after all, committee members also want overproduction of their agencies' services)
  2. Responding to these weaknesses, presidents begin to assume legislative prerogatives, seeking to control legislation, the budget, the bureaucracy, and so on.
  3. Congress responds by attempting to reform its institutions: Greater centralization.
  4. Presidents, in turn, begin to cooperate more with Congress and allow Congress to do its thing. To do otherwise would be to appear undemocratic, thus costing the president popularity.
  5. Soon enough, MCs begin to chafe at the centralization. In their quest for power, they decentralize again...

Research on similar subjects


Dodd, Lawrence (author)American PoliticsAmerican Political Development

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