Congress: 2014 Edition


With 2014 midterm elections around the corner and questions about how Americans will respond to the Obama presidency, this course will examine the current American political scene framed around the 2014 congressional elections. The class will examine the current political climate as it relates to the 2014 elections but will also involve a broad survey of the legislative branch and an examination of issues of representation and elections broadly, party leadership, interbranch relations, as well as committee power, rules, and procedures. The intention here is to help us collectively generate a deeper and more realistic understanding of the complexities of congressional politics beyond the superficial coverage that its members receive in the media and in popular culture (e.g., House of Cards) and how they apply to modern American politics today. As the US Congress is the most open and accessible branch and among the most studied political institution in political science, a framework for its study and the above topics is warranted. This course, therefore, will ask two interrelated questions: 1) What does Congress do and why? (2) What are the various ways of studying congressional behavior? To answer these questions, our readings and discussion will focus on the basic social, empirical, and historical facts about Congress: what it takes to get elected, how Congress works internally, and how the relationships between Congress and the rest of the federal government are organized. We will read classic work from scholars such as Mayhew, Fenno, Shepsle, Kreihbel, and McCubbins, along with more modern work by scholars such as Shickler, Wawro, Mettler, and Kroger. Among the topics that we will cover relating to elections is incumbency advantage, the basic facts of re-election rates, the amount of money spent by incumbents and challengers, and the nature of congressional districts. Additionally, we will examine the existing theories and evidence about the behavior of voters that maintains so many incumbents in office, including the impact of issues, the impact of campaign spending, and whether voters have become more polarized. We will also look at the extent to which congressional elections are decided by national forces versus conditions peculiar to the individual race (i.e., 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2012). For conference, students will be asked to focus on the 2014 congressional election and will be tasked to analyze the outcomes of this important election in a particular district in light of the research on elections that we will cover in the course. Comfort with data and statistics is expected.