Guest Essayist: The Honorable Frank Reilly


In The Challenge of Congressional Representation, Richard Fenno studies the activities of five members of the U.S. House of Representatives in their home districts.  The book follows-up on Fenno’s 1978 Home Style: House Members in Their Districts, in which he outlined Fenno’s Paradox, which posits that while people generally dislike Congress as a whole, they like their own Member of Congress.

Fenno studies the representational activities of House members, rather than their activities in Washington, which differentiates the study from others. Fenno describes the study as “one small-step effort to help redress a research imbalance” in which much is known about how House members operate in Washington, but little is known about their activities back home.

The book recognizes that no research standards exist — listening and observing are very personal and do not lend themselves to standardization — and that future studies will be difficult.  In fact, the best that political scientists can hope for in the short term would be to create an inventory of connection questions and connection patterns for use in later studies.  The long-term goal would be to transform the questions and patterns into explanations.

Fenno’s first subject was Congressman Barber Conable, Jr., a New York Republican.  Conable had “a strong sense of identification with” the more rural, small-town part of his district, having been raised there in a family with deep roots.

Conable connected with his constituents by going home at least 40 times every year, usually travelling alone without staff, adding to his credibility and visibility.  Conable also sent out a weekly printed newsletter, a frequency then-unheard of in Washington.  Conable noted that he focused his time on those who agreed with him, and to whom he was obligated.  He used his newsletter to educate undecided voters.

To protect his independence and engender trustworthiness, he limited campaign contributions $50 from any group or person.

“There’s a natural tension between being a good representative and taking an interest in government,” said Conable.  Toward the end of his Congressional career, he began to believe his interest in government was beginning to overtake his desire to be a good representative.

Fenno next studied Congressman Glenn Poshard, an Illinois Democrat, who also had deep roots in his district.

Poshard noted that the district was difficult to represent because “[t]he issues change every 50 miles….”  To keep in touch, Poshard travelled home most weekends, even though he rarely missed a House floor vote.  He preferred town hall events where he could explain his positions.  He diligently answered constituent mail, but did not send newsletters.  Even though he expanded his district offices from 1 to 6, he was frugal with his official office budget, spending less than any other member from his state.

He refused PAC contributions, and limited others to $500.  He kept his campaign promise to serve no more than 5 terms, saying that term limits provide “a greater sense of freedom to do what you want to — and a certain sense of security.”

Fenno’s next followed Congresswoman Karen Thurman, a Florida Democrat, who served a sprawling district.

Thurman initially ran as a moderate with legislative experience, then after the Democrats lost control of the House in 1994, she shifted her strategy and ran as a partisan Democrat.

Due to the lack of political constituencies or power bases in her district, she relied heavily upon PAC and Democratic Party funding.

Fenno noted a tension between party influences in Washington and the strength of a legislator’s constituency outside of Washington, and observed that the party’s pull on Thurman increased through the years.

Fenno next studied several campaigns that Congressman Jim Greenwood, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican, ran in a very compact district.

Greenwood’s campaign prepared different direct mail brochures separately targeted to specific areas, individually tailored by issues of importance to the recipient constituency.

Greenwood visited the district’s four major newspapers’ editorial boards every six months, and focused his campaign activities at shopping centers (he called it “going retail”).  There he would seek to “meet voters and change minds.” He avoided town meetings, finding that they were not well attended.

After his first election to Congress, he lobbied early and hard for a position on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which was important to his district.

Greenwood used his refusal of PAC contributions as a campaign pitch and provided good constituent casework service.

Greenwood’s success within the Republican Party leadership as a moderate leader yielded positive new coverage at home for his activities.

Fenno’s final subject was Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Northern California Democrat with strong ties to her diverse, but liberal, district.

To reach her constituents, she promptly responded to mail, and handled citizen case issues.  In her first campaign, she explained an unusual campaign tactic, saying “[s]ometimes we go out, unannounced, and set up an ironing board in front of a grocery store, and invite people to come talk.”  In later years she held more town hall meetings.

As a Judiciary Committee member, she earned media coverage and raised her profile nationally and at home with interviews on the Clinton impeachment hearings.

To better serve her Silicon Valley high tech constituency, Lofgren sought and obtained a position on the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property Rights.

Fenno relates that a change in the local economy from the growth of Silicon Valley impacted her votes in Washington — land values skyrocketed and people who had been of modest means were now being subjected to the burdens of the federal estate tax, so Lofgren supported reductions and repeals of that tax.

Calling it a “chicken or the egg stalemate,” Fenno closes by postulating that until more studies are performed in home districts, proper questions that will formulate the research cannot be framed.

Frank M. Reilly teaches constitutional law, election law, and other political science courses at Texas Tech University. He is also a lawyer in private practice in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, and serves as a municipal judge for two Texas cities.  Follow him on Twitter @FrankReilly or on Facebook at JudgeFrankReilly.


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1 reply
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Interesting. A good source for following a Congressman in his home district may be to work with Congressional staff in the home district, activities, etc. Would take some work, but since most Congressmen are in a perpetual state of campaigning, may not take as much work as you would think.


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