How Is the Public Being Represented in Congress?

Earlier this year, we learned that members of Congress can represent their constituents as either delegates or trustees. However, the immigration reform debate has demonstrated that the nature of representation in Congress is very complex. The Republican members of the House have been the focus of media attention for their actions on immigration reform and the government shutdown. Are Republican members of the House currently acting as delegates or representatives for their constituents?


I do not believe that there is a simple answer to this question because many Republican members of the House have been very inactive on immigration reform. It is difficult to determine if this inaction is due to a lack of interest in immigration reform by Republican-represented constituents or a lack of interest by legislators to create reform. The comprehensive immigration reform bill rendered by the Senate earlier this year has been opposed and criticized by Republican members of the House for granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants and not supporting stronger border control measures. If Republican Representatives are truly representing the opinion of their constituents, then we should see if their political stances match public opinion.


Though measuring public opinion is difficult and may not always be reliable, polls can be used to identify public preferences. The preferences of the public can then be compared to congressional action to gain incited on representative behavior. Recently, a research poll was published by the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan research group, that found that 63% of all Americans support pathway to citizenship if they meet certain requirements. A pathway to citizenship is one of the issues that Republican members of the House are not willing to negotiate on. This data implies that Republican members of the House are likely not acting according to the preferences of their constituents. The same study also reported that a narrow majority of all Americans support stronger border control measures including the installation of 700 miles of new fencing long fence along the US-Mexico border. When considering this aspect of immigration reform, Republican House members’ preferences are more likely to match the preferences of their constituents. This is interesting because it demonstrates that legislators in the House are capable of demonstrating both delegate and trustee behavior on different aspects of the same issue.


I believe the study conducted by the PRRI sheds some light on the nature of representation in Washington. It clearly illustrates how members of Congress can decide their own policies even if they might not have a majority of their constituents’ support. Maybe the key to passing immigration reform this year is to appeal to the individual preferences of members of Congress.

PRRI Study:

-Arthur Townsend



6 responses to “How Is the Public Being Represented in Congress?”

  1. Chris Gibson says :

    I cited the same study in the post I just wrote – I would be interested to see a state-by-state breakdown of the numbers (they only break it down to Arizona, Florida, and Ohio). As far as I can tell, it seems like the pro- and anti-reform groups are clustered together, so there are ~60% of districts with pro-reform constituencies, which isn’t unreasonable seeing that most Democrats support reform and a not-small number of Republicans are open to the idea. And as I wrote, current efforts could see Republicans in anti-reform districts making moves towards the center and supporting reform, even if it’s only in a limited way.

    • legprocess says :

      As Chris said, it would be very interesting to see a state-by-state breakdown of these numbers. It is possible that the members of congress are being delegates for their jurisdiction, because while the 60% number is a representation of the majority of Americans–the breakdown by congressional district might tell a different story. These 60% of Americans might be über-concentrated in districts with an overwhelming democratic majority, and in districts where it was a very close race but with a slight democratic majority. However, this also might not be the case–and the Republicans in Congress might be sticking to party line and avoiding pathways to citizenship because these new citizens might join the Democratic party, and the far right is in strong opposition to any form of leniency and amnesty.
      -Sophie S.

      • caelegislativeblog says :

        Yeah, I’d like to apologize. When looking through the study I tried to identify any information that could have give a state by state breakdown for the other 47 states, but couldn’t find any. The survey data was collect nationally at random through phone interviews. Could it be that the randomly selected phone interviews all occurred in the most liberal districts within states? I highly doubt it, but I’m not entirely sure. As I stated in the blog post, polls are not always perfect.

        –Arthur T.

  2. caelegislativeblog says :

    Regardless of whether it is state-by-state or not, I am fascinated by the appeal to the individual members of Congress, especially to the MC’s who do not have a strong opinion on immigration. Someone mentioned to me the other day that Anthony Kennedy is the second most powerful man in the country. Regardless of whether he is second or not, the role he plays on the supreme court is incredibly important as the median voter, just like McCaskil plays an incredibly important role as well. Maybe targeting the MC’s who have little opinion on immigration may push the vote one way or the other – Erica

    • legiprocess says :

      If the constituents of members of Congress who are ambivalent get in touch with them, you would think they would quickly become more in favor of immigration reform rather than sticking to the party line. Republicans are definitely against immigration reform, but some of their party members such as Marco Rubio have made their support for it clear. So I think that you’re right; what could make immigration reform possible would be the ambivalent, close-to-the-median MC’s hearing from their constituents. The question is whether there are enough of those ambivalent members, and whether their constituency is in favor of reform.

      – Will

  3. Brian N. says :

    There have been countless studies, some of which we’ve discussed in class, which demonstrate that our elected representatives can very often act as trustees with little to no harm coming to them politically. Also, it should be pointed out that there is a huge discrepancy across the nation in terms of population of individual districts – even if the majority of the country supports it, it is very possible that the majority of house districts don’t. Remember, Democratic House candidates got overall more votes than Republicans did, and still ended up very much in the minority.

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