Why Do People Run for Congress?

Commentary on Congress By John Haskell March 19, 2024

By John Haskell

Members of Congress are on the go full-time and aren’t paid enough to qualify for a home loan within striking distance of the Capitol. So why do they do it?

In 1991 Alan Ehrenhalt wrote The United States of Ambition (Crown), a book about the types of people who are drawn to elective office and what that means for our system of government. But he began the book with a story about the striking preponderance of French restaurants in Napa Valley, California.

He suggested that customers weren’t necessarily demanding French food, rather it was more a matter of where the chefs of French cuisine in the U.S. wanted to live. You couldn’t understand the restaurant business in that part of the country as a demand side equation, but you could if you considered where the proprietors wanted to do their work.

Similarly, he went on, American elections and governance were often misinterpreted as a matter of what message the customers (voters) were sending and what they wanted from elected officials. Instead, Ehrenhalt suggested on C-SPAN:

It’s about who runs for office in America and why that makes a difference. We spend a lot of time asking ourselves why elections turn out the way they do and we always ask the same question: What are the voters trying to tell us? … [S]ometimes voters aren’t trying to tell us much of anything. What really mattered was who wanted the job [city councilman, state legislator, Member of Congress, etc.] in the first place.

And from that premise, he went on to ask: “What sort of government do they give you?”

Political ambition in mid-20th century America

Party leaders at the state and local level were the gatekeepers of nominations for office in much of the 20th century, a fact that conditioned behavior on the part of aspiring politicians. A good old boy network prevailed in the political system – an aspiring candidate needed to work his way up to get noticed and nominated.

As a result, a certain kind of politics and governance prevailed. Prospective public officials were vetted by party leaders and other power brokers and were beholden to them while in office. Loyalty and experience were rewarded and the ability to win elections was paramount – which often meant putting forward moderate, non-ideological candidates.

Primaries heralded a new politics of ambition

In the 1960s a new kind of candidate emerged for many reasons, one factor being that the power brokers had been replaced by primaries as the means to nominate candidates in much of the country. Also, campaigns were more expensive than before – there was the primary and the general election – and advertising on television cost a lot.

Self-starters – political entrepreneurs – were successful in this environment. You needed people skills to succeed in a primary campaign, and of course the ability to raise a lot of money from a lot of people, particularly once campaign finance law restrictions went into effect in the 1970s. People needed to make a career and even a life commitment to politics to win office, and those people weren’t beholden to party bosses anymore.

What motivated someone to go through all that? Ehrenhalt observed that the new breed of politicians in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s tended to be more ideological than party boss-picked candidates, often inspired by the Civil Rights Movement on the Democratic side and an anti-big government message on the Republican side.

People who made it from the training grounds of county or state legislative office all the way to Congress were reluctant to give up what they had worked so hard to achieve. Plus they liked federal office, the fame, delivering for constituents and making policy breakthroughs, the possibility of a promotion to the Senate, and, who knows, to be talked about as a potential presidential candidate.

Many people elected in the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s did indeed stay in office for decades.  Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), David Price (D-NC), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Hal Rogers (R-KY) are examples. They delivered policy and pork for decades, and some still are.

Ehrenhalt criticized the Congress of the 1980s and early 1990s for its lack of party discipline, ideological rigidity and stalemate, and weak leadership. But, still, members seemed to like the work and did have opportunities to deliver through annual appropriations, regular transportation bills, and other legislative vehicles. They were legislators, in the true sense of the word.

Ambition in the 21st century

Today, the burdens of running for office are greater than ever. The successful freshman member of the House must raise $2 or $3 million depending on the district, and toss-up races often cost north of $5 million.

In the Senate, some races have seen candidates raise more than $100 million – Raphael Warnock (D-GA) raised over $250 million for his 2022 campaign. Sitting senators up for reelection need to raise an average of $15,000 or more dollars per day in that cycle. House members might need to raise anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 a day. And the fundraising pressures never end, as members set up leadership political action committees (PACs) if they want to serve in leadership or on key committees.

These days that’s only one part of the fundraising equation. Closely contested races end up drawing attention from bulked up national party campaign committees that commit millions of dollars in advertising in the form of attack ads. This is not to mention independent groups set free by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (2010) to spend freely, again, often in the form of attack ads. Running for public office means having your name dragged through the mud in every conceivable medium.

Social media have only enhanced pressures on public officials with the need for constant up-to-the-minute communications. The new media have changed the opportunity structure as well, with candidates and members in a position to create a brand from day one, whether it be Matt Gaetz (R-FL) at the vanguard of the Make America Great Again movement or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a leader of the Squad of progressive firebrands.

When you consider that most members fly back home almost every weekend to meet with constituents, the job of a member of Congress is daunting. And all this for a stagnant $174,000 salary which isn’t enough to quality for a loan for most homes within striking distance of the Capitol – especially when one considers that most members maintain two households.

So what are they getting out of it? Hint: it’s not legislating, as it once was.

Congress in the 21st century

When Ehrenhalt wrote, Democrats had been dominant in the House and usually in the Senate going back to the 1950s. But the 1994 Republican Revolution changed everything. Ever since, the margins favoring one party over the other in Congress have usually been slim, with party control up for grabs in every election cycle in both chambers.

The tenuous hold a party has in the majority has moved both parties toward not just bulking up their campaign committees but also centralizing power in leadership in Congress, almost totally in the House and to a significant degree in the Senate – an approach aided by the fact that the parties are more ideologically distinct than they have ever been.

While it was once the case that members could insulate themselves from national trends with constituency-focused pork, by the time the new century rolled around it was increasingly difficult to do that as split-ticket voting all but disappeared. In the 1980s as many as 40% of House districts split their presidential and congressional vote; today that number is closer to 5%. The old adage “all politics is local” no longer applies.

The upshot for individual members, as former Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski said in his final speech on the House floor in December 2020, is that legislation controlled at the leadership level leaves the rank and file with precious few opportunities to weigh in. Federal office is clearly still an attractive destination for some people, but it’s not because of the legislative work.

What motivates aspiring politicians today?

If it’s not about legislating, then why do they do it?

There is the prestige of being a member of Congress, which has always been a motivation. And you get a budget to hire staff, something that is attractive and hard to give up. Also, if you’re good at developing a brand, the payoff may be the speedy escalator to notoriety and national stature that expert use of social media can achieve.

But there is more to it. Our contentious politics breeds a kind of missionary zeal on the part of ambitious politicians that goes far beyond the incremental politics of the past. Members on both sides believe America is drastically off track – for Republicans it’s a country on the road to socialist serfdom and for Democrats a country suffering from persistent racism, gross inequality, and a deteriorating environment. And – this is important – it is critical to prevent the opposing party from gaining power and making matters worse.

Why else would a person go through the constant exposure, abuse from opponents in Washington and at home, the never-ending treadmill of fundraising, and the threat of physical peril for themselves and their families – an increasing problem – if not for dedication to mission?

Even mainstream conservatives who were appalled by then-President Donald J. Trump’s behavior during and following the events of January 6, 2021 – John Thune (R-SD) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are two of the most prominent examples – find the prospect of a second Joseph Biden term so abhorrent that they lined up behind Trump. On the flip side, the most conservative of Democrats, Joe Manchin (D-WV), has expressed how important it is to keep Trump from regaining the White House, and of course the animating principle of the Biden campaign and national Democratic efforts at the congressional level is to save democracy from a second Trump term.

Updating The United States of Ambition

Ehrenhalt argued in 1991 that the governance we get is not tied to demands from the voters, but rather is derived from the kinds of politicians who are drawn to serve – then it was entrepreneurial self-starters motivated in significant part by the opportunities Congress presented to make lasting change through legislation. Today we get mission-driven aspirants for office, with members of both parties persuaded that the opposition is a threat to freedom and democracy.

Given that changes in the party system and how Congress does its work have resulted in few opportunities for the rank and file to participate in the sausage making on Capitol Hill, effectively we are left with a disconnection between what draws people to serve and the actual work of Congress to make the laws that decide policies and fund the government. Absent reforms in how elections are conducted and Congress does its business, we can expect more of the same.

John Haskell is a political scientist from Arlington, VA, who focuses on Congress and the party system. Haskell served in leadership positions at the Library of Congress and has taught policy and government at Davidson College, UNC-Chapel Hill, Drake University, Georgetown University, and Claremont McKenna College.


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