Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government

By Stephen C. Craig | Go to book overview
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about their legislator's Washington behavior, they are forced to form their impressions on the basis of information provided directly or indirectly (e.g., through local press reports) by the individual whose actions are being evaluated. Not surprisingly, the information is usually positive -- and so are the images of legislators held by most constituents.

Such a state of affairs engenders considerable discretion for legislators to pursue their own private interests, thereby impairing the contract between representatives and the represented. Although discretion might be used to advance altruistic causes rather than the parochial interests of constituents (therefore benefiting society as a whole), it also renders the representational contract vulnerable to opportunistic exploitation. Legislators might use their discretion, for example, to vote in a manner that is antagonistic to the interests of district voters but that can be easily rationalized to an uninformed electorate; or they might use their positions to obtain favors at the expense of society or constituents. Like most contracts, the one between voters and the leaders they elect leaves ample opportunity for postcontractual opportunism.

If the information received by most constituents is largely a result of the home-style messages of legislators, then it is likely that violations of the implicit contract between voters and their representatives will be difficult to detect and, even if uncovered, effectively rationalized. In his conclusion to Chapter 1, Stephen Craig suggests that the appearance of "broken contracts" between leaders and the led has impelled voters in the 1990s to do "whatever they can to keep elected officials on a short leash. Given the problems inherent in ensuring contractual performance, who could really argue with this sentiment? We could only add that our findings question the ability of voters to know the length of the leash! Let us not forget that even in the volatile political climate of 1994, a very high percentage of congressional incumbents who sought reelection (all Republicans and most Democrats) were returned to office.

Two examples of how power can be used to further constituency interests are the efforts of former Senator Mack Mattingly (D-Ga.), who placed language in appropriations legislation to prevent the Forest Service from closing a ranger station in his home state; and Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), who took similar action to prevent AMTRAK (the federally funded national railroad corporation) from terminating a money-losing, long-distance passenger line through West Virginia (see Fitzgerald and Lipson 1984, pp. 43, 66).
Proximity to Washington is not the only variable that conditions the attentiveness of senators. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), for instance, maintained the same level of constituency presence -- i.e., a very attentive home style -- during his term in the Senate as he had while serving in the House of Representatives ( Fenno 1992, p. 185).
The ANES surveys are made available by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. Data used here were collected in 1988 and 1990 (see the Senate Elections in Context 1988-1990 Pooled File, ICPSR study no. 9580); the 1988 uni


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