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Summary of Congressional Representation


Some representatives follow the delegate model of representation, acting on the expressed wishes of their constituents, whereas others take a trustee model approach, acting on what they believe is in their constituents’ best interests. However, most representatives combine the two approaches and apply each as political circumstances demand. The standard method by which representatives have shown their fidelity to their constituents, namely “bringing home the bacon” of favorable budget allocations, has come to be interpreted as a form of corruption, or pork-barrel politics.

Representation can also be considered in other ways. Descriptive representation is the level at which Congress reflects the nation’s constituents in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. Collective representation is the extent to which the institutional body of Congress represents the population as a whole. Despite the incumbency advantage and high opinion many hold of their own legislators, Congress rarely earns an approval rating above 40 percent, and for a number of years the rating has been well below 20 percent.

Practice Questions

  1. How has the growing interpretation of earmarks and other budget allocations as corruption influenced the way congresspersons work?
  2. What does polling data suggest about the events that trigger exceptionally high congressional approval ratings?

Sample Answer:

2. The peaks of congressional approval ratings have each occurred when the United States began military involvements overseas. This suggests that the start of a foreign war is one of the few things that triggers a positive reevaluation of Congress.


collective representation: the relationship between Congress and the United States as a whole, and whether the institution itself represents the American people

delegate model of representation: a model of representation in which representatives feel compelled to act on the specific stated wishes of their constituents

descriptive representation: the extent to which a body of representatives represents the descriptive characteristics of their constituencies, such as class, race, ethnicity, and gender

politico model of representation: a model of representation in which members of Congress act as either trustee or delegate, based on rational political calculations about who is best served, the constituency or the nation

pork-barrel politics: federal spending intended to benefit a particular district or set of constituents

representation: an elected leader’s looking out for his or her constituents while carrying out the duties of the office

trustee model of representation: a model of representation in which representatives feel at liberty to act in the way they believe is best for their constituents

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