Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America

By Paul Frymer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Black Representation in Congress

THUS FAR, I have demonstrated the thesis of electoral capture with evidence drawn primarily from the politics and policies of the executive branch. At the congressional level, electoral incentives apply somewhat differently, leading party leaders in Congress to behave somewhat differently. For starters, there are 435 individual members in the House of Representatives, representing districts with radically different demographics. Some of these members represent districts where African Americans are the majority. Others represent districts where African Americans are a sizable plurality. Still others represent districts where there are very few African American voters. Representatives from black majority districts, in turn, pursue policies that reflect the interests of these constituents. Those that represent few black constituents pursue policies that reflect the interests of their own constituents. Thus, while national party leaders tend to elide the interests of African American voters in order to build a national political coalition, some individual members of Congress are motivated to pursue vigorously the concerns of African Americans.

Parties in Congress have historically reflected the district-based incentives of their members. Since members are accountable to local constituencies, congressional party leaders generally do not interfere with how members vote.1 During election campaigns, this often means that the national party maintains a low profile in specific congressional races if the candidates are likely to benefit from such a low profile. As Richard Fenno has shown, many congressional candidates rely on “home style” appeals to their districts, and these appeals rarely entail a mention of the candidate’s national party.2 Members also have a great deal of control over their own committee assignments and legislative jurisdiction, especially when a specific assignment allows them to better represent their district.3 Members of Congress have been further insulated from

1 See David R. Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

2 Richard Fenno, Jr., Home Style: House Members in Their Districts (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1978).

3 See Richard L. Hall, Participation in Congress (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

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