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Hagle: Advantages of being the party in control

BY GUEST COLUMN | NOVEMBER 05, 2012 6:30 AM

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Incumbents running for Congress have certain advantages over their challengers. On one level they can usually talk about the votes they have taken and the things they have done to benefit their district or state. Unless an incumbent’s record contains serious political weaknesses, this puts challengers at a disadvantage as they can only talk about what they want to do if elected. 

On another level, long-serving incumbents can speak about how they are members of important committees and subcommittees. This is particularly so when the incumbent is the head (if in the majority party) or the ranking member (if in the minority party). When running for re-election, incumbents will often note their membership on important committees and argue that the state or district would be hurt by the loss of seniority or committee membership if the challenger is elected.

New members of Congress will obviously have the least seniority, but they still have the power of any other member and may have additional persuasive abilities depending on several factors.

One factor is the party in control. If, for example, Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives, a new Republican will have more power than a new Democrat would. More senior members of the minority party do have more power, but it’s still the majority party that controls the agenda and many committee activities.

Another factor, particularly for representatives, involves the political composition of the person’s district. Party leadership will usually be aware of how politically safe a district is for a particular representative. That can sometimes influence what committee assignments a new member receives.

In other words, a new representative might receive more desirable committee assignments if he or she has been elected from a district that is less favorable to that party.

A third factor is whether the challenger has gained national attention in some positive way. This is more likely to happen in Senate races, but it can sometimes happen in House races as well.

How much power or influence a new member of Congress may have is also related to how he or she gets along with other members of that person’s party. That doesn’t mean that the new member must simply follow “orders” from the party leadership, but it does mean that the member will need to be able to work with those leaders, as well as members from the other party, to achieve her or his legislative goals.

Timothy Hagle
UI associate professor of political science


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