Free «Role of Political Parties in Congress» Essay Sample

According to Smith, Roberts, and Wielen (2005), political parties aim at participating in and influencing the government through having their members elected to government positions. However, many political scientists have disagreed on the role of political parties in Congress. Mayhew (1974), Cox and McCubbins (2005) have laid out some of the most prominent arguments. This essay will compare and contrast the perspectives of the two arguments.

Mayhew (1974) argues that behavior of Congress members is explicable by the motive that they should win reelection to retain office. Mayhew posits that this leads the members of Congress to devote their energy and resources to advertising, claiming credit, and position taking. It is crucial to note that Mayhew does not wholly claim that reelection is the exclusive motive for members of Congress. Rather, Mayhew aims at deducing the behaviors that one would expect if the assumptions of the reelection motive were true (Bibby & Maisel, 2003). Incidentally, these behaviors closely conform to the reality (Mayhew, 1974).

Mayhew (1974) argues that reelection is the primary goal of the members of Congress because it is only through reelection that the members of Congress get a chance to pursue the other goals. Though some researchers such as Fenno have detailed more than one goal, Mayhew (1974) maintains that such goals are irrelevant if there is no guaranteed reelection of the members of Congress. To get a clear picture of the goals of members, Mayhew (1975) argues that studies of the Congress of the United States should focus on individuals and not groups, such as parties. This is because parties tend to conceal the underlying goals of their members by showing off party manifestoes that express genuine concerns of the population.

Besides, Mayhew (1974) argues that members of Congress believe that they are constantly in danger of losing in the primary or general election. The members also believe that they have the capacity to improve their chances of winning. This makes the members always worry about their ratings of popularity instead of delivering party promises. As a result, the members of Congress focus on out-witting their likely competitors by engaging in advertising, credit claiming, and taking of positions.

In addition, Mayhew (1974) presents the effects of making reelection an exclusive goal. The author does this by forwarding two themes. The first theme is that the organization of Congress meets the various needs of the members remarkably well. The second theme is that the satisfaction of the needs of electoral requires significantly little conflict among members. The author suggests that the three structural units of Congress (Congressional offices, committees, and parties) aim at enabling credit taking. According to Mayhew (1974), parties lack cohesiveness because their members seek to avoid taking “wrong” positions.

Moreover, Mayhew (1974) argues that the functions of members of Congress are to express public opinion, handle requests of constituents, and legislate and offer oversight. However, in legislation and oversight, Mayhew (1974) argues that unless particularistic benefits are evident, members take credit for taking positions and not for passing or implementing legislations. Because the payoff is for position taking, the members of Congress do not care about genuine legislation. The results of this tendency are delays, seemingly organized services, symbolism, and other negative acts understood to everyone (Mayhew, 1974).

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Mayhew argues that Congress stays relevant because of control committees and party leaders. The control committees and party leaders ensure that individual interests do not destroy the entire enterprise (Smith, Roberts, & Wielen, 2003). The two groups of people get payoffs from internal benefits rather than electoral benefits (Mayhew, 1974).

On the other hand, Cox and McCubbins (2005) posit that a legislative party aims to control the agenda rather than to control votes. Political parties want to determine what members should vote on so that there is lessened pressure of determining the way the members cast their votes (negative agenda control). Whereas Mayhew (1974) focuses on votes, Cox and McCubbins focus on the agenda.

According to Cox and McCubbins (2005), each member of a party desires to control the agenda so that his/her legislations get into the agenda instead of those from competitors. This primarily arises from the fact that party’s legislative achievements are another party’s failures (Bibby & Maisel, 2003). Cox and McCubbins (2005) posit that the opportunity cost of this tendency is large. This is because members from the majority party will seek to monopolize (or cartelize) control of the agenda.

According to Cox and McCubbins (2005), cartelization of the agenda occurs when there is delegation of agenda-setting powers to various offices like committee chairs, speakership as well as rules committee. Besides, cartelization occurs when the majority party’s members get most of the above offices, and, as a result, procurement of agenda-setting services is only from members of the cartel. Moreover, cartelization occurs when “senior partners” of the majority party holding the agenda-setting offices act basing on minimal fiduciary standards (which means that they fail to use their official powers to drive legislation that might pass against the wishes of the most in their party). This echoes Mayhew’s position that members take credit for taking positions and not for passing or implementing legislations. In both positions, it is evident that members serve self-interests.

Like in Mayhew’s argument, Cox and McCubbins (2005) argue that members’ goal is reelection to the house. However, the argument by Cox and McCubbins adds that the members seek internal advancement in the house as well as majority status. Mayhew posits that members always mind individual reputation. On the other hand, Cox and McCubbins suggest that members depend on the party’s reputation for their reelection. According to the latter, the reputation of the party (brand name) determines the members’ probability of reelection as well as the probability of the party to secure a majority. Cox and McCubbins argue that party’s legislative accomplishments influence party’s ability to promote reelection of its members. Management of the label of the party is the principal collective problem faced by members of the party. It is only through partnerships that members accomplish their collective aim to solve this collective action problem. Cox and McCubbins also argue that the majority party controls its members and helps to overcome problems of collective production through delegation to a central authority. Thus, the crucial resource that majority parties give to senior partners is the power of setting the legislative agenda. This is because the majority party establishes a procedural cartel that monopolizes agenda setting power (Cox & McCubbins, 2005).

Cox and McCubbins (1974) argue that there are offices in the Congress that have agenda-setting powers. The party forming the majority chooses these offices. Special agenda-setting powers ensure that members can determine the bills for consideration on the floor and procedures to assess such bills. The party with the majority members comes up with the procedure for selecting the members in charge of the agenda and setting offices, which results into most members of the party winning the agenda setting offices. Controlling procedure will then enable the majority party to stop unwanted legislation from reaching the floor (negative agenda control).

The basis of the disagreement between the two authors is in the point of focus. Whereas Mayhew focuses on the individual member, Cox and McCubbins focus on the party. While Mayhew overlooks the significance of the party, Cox and McCubbins view the party as highly significant to Congress members. Mayhew views the acts of a member of the senate as serving personal endeavors, while the other two authors view the collective acts of the party as serving the interests of the members of the party.

Mayhew, Cox, and McCubbins agree that reelection is the main goal of members of the senate. Though the pursuit may be different, the members aim at the same goal. The authors also agree that selfish demands drive the Congress actions. The voting in the senate does not take into account the genuineness of legislations but rather the personal benefits.

In my opinion, Cox and McCubbins' argument is more persuasive than Mayhew’s. Their argument about the whole party is more comprehensive than Mayhew’s, which is focused on an individual party member. A glaring criticism of Mayhew's work is that his discussion about control committees and party leadership contradicts his position of not focusing on groups (Schickler & Rich, 1997). The author does not consider an individual but “Congress” or “parties” by using control committees and party leadership. Moreover, Mayhew posits that parties will never experience cohesiveness unless their members ask their party leaders to put in force a unified line. The work of Cox and McCubbins (2005) challenges this position by proposing that party cohesiveness is achievable through delegation of agenda setting powers. The work of Mayhew, Cox and McCubbin is extremely crucial in analyzing the role of political parties.


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