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The Power of People

Congressional Competition, Public Attention, and Voter Retribution

Sean M. Theriault

Publication Year: 2005

This book argues that the people play a vital role in controlling the actions of their representatives in Congress. In examining issues that divide constituent opinion from representatives’ desires, it finds that when the public is paying attention, members usually act against their own material interests. On those occasions when members do not heed the public’s warnings, they suffer an electoral punishment in their next election. These results suggest that, contrary to many congressional critics, democratic accountability has been, and continues to be, alive and well in America. In examining a unique set of issues that divide the public’s preferences from the interests of members of Congress—civil service reform, congressional pay, campaign finance reform, and term limits—The Power of the People finds that members of Congress whose hold on their seats are most tenuous are the most likely to forsake their personal desires to cast their lot with their constituents. The relationship is especially strong when the congressional actions garner media attention. Although rare, members of Congress have lost their seat for not following their constituents’ wishes on these issues.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

Series: Parliaments and Legislatures

Series Page, Title Page, Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

As the title of this book suggests, the people have power over their elected officials. While political pundits more frequently discuss the ways in which the system impedes the people’s power, I argue, quite simply, that the system insures competition and that competition yields accountability and responsiveness. The problem with putting the argument of the book so simply is that an argument usually becomes interesting only when the nuances are explained and analyzed. Our democratic..

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1. The Two Faces of Democratic Accountability

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pp. 1-8

Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election with a promise to end the Carter years’ malaise. Reagan’s message of increased defense spending especially resonated with Americans after two foreign policy calamities: the failed attempt to rescue the U.S. hostages held in Iran and the unprovoked Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Upon his inauguration, Reagan kept his promise and proposed massive new military spending. The Department of Defense appropriation for fiscal year 1982...

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2. The Politics of Public Pressure: Competition, Attention, and Retribution

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pp. 9-26

The link between constituent opinion and member behavior is strong. Political scientists have not only tied specific roll call votes to constituents’ preferences (Clausen 1973; Jackson and King 1989; Kingdon 1989; Bartels 1991; Overby et al. 1992; Wlezien 1995), but also have demonstrated the relationship between constituents’ general ideologies and their members’ overall voting records (Miller and Stokes 1963; Page and Shapiro 1983; Durr 1993; Stimson, MacKuen...

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3. Patronage, Political Parties, the Public, and the Pendleton act of 1883

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pp. 27-50

Politics were a party-dominated affair throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Party leaders were responsible for choosing a slate of candidates (frequently in the notorious back rooms), filling party coffers to run credible campaigns, and rewarding loyal party workers with government jobs. In contrast to the incumbent-dominated system of the late twentieth century, elected officials typically served at the pleasure of the local party leaders. None of the political players under this...

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4. Congressional Pay Raises and Public Scrutiny

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pp. 51-82

For more than two hundred years, congressional pay raises have been a politically explosive issue. James Madison, at the Constitutional Convention, noted the inherent strife members face in raising their own pay: “There is a seeming impropriety in leaving any set of men, without control, to put their hand into the public coffers, to take money to put in their pockets.”2 Impropriety notwithstanding, members have increased their pay thirty-three times since the founding...

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5. The Modern History of Campaign Finance Reform

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pp. 83-107

The financing of congressional campaigns includes two elements Americans fear most about politics: self-interested politicians and the triumph of special interests over the common good. Many Americans believe that spineless and morally corrupt politicians create loopholes for well-connected industries, give tax breaks to their friends, and make sweetheart deals with favored companies, all at the public...

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6. The Unfulfilled Reform: Congressional Term Limits

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pp. 108-131

No issue so squarely pits reelection-seeking members of Congress against their constituents’ preferences as does congressional term limits. In opinion polls dating back to 1966, the American public has registered its support for term limits.3 Although the issue has never been a particularly high priority for the people,4 term limits usually garner support from the public by a ratio greater than two to one. Furthermore...

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7. The Power of the People

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pp. 132-140

Members of Congress have incredible power over their constituents. By decree of Article I of the U.S. Constitution, members of Congress establish and can change “the Rules of [their] Proceedings” (section 5), determine their own pay (section 6), judge “the Elections, Returns, and Qualifications of [their fellow] members” (section 5), and alter—as they see fit—the “Times, Places, and Manner of...


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pp. 141-150


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pp. 151-160


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pp. 161-166

E-ISBN-13: 9780814272930
E-ISBN-10: 0814272932
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814251409
Print-ISBN-10: 0814251404

Page Count: 166
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Parliaments and Legislatures

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Representative government and representation -- United States.
  • United States. Congress -- Voting.
  • Democracy -- United States.
  • Public opinion -- United States.
  • Voting -- United States.
  • Elections -- United States.
  • United States -- Politics and government.
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