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.