Congressional History and American Political Development

In recent years, more and more political scientists have set their Wayback Machine[1] for travel to earlier eras in order to study various aspects of congressional history. This trend is remarkable in that, not long ago, most students of Congress focused almost exclusively on contemporaneous events and behaviors, to the point where (testing the boundaries of hyperbole) a casual observer of the literature might think that the institution did not exist prior to World War II. This propensity to ignore the past can be explained in part by data constraints, as systematic member, constituency, and electoral data for the pre-War period had, until only recently, been in short supply. Yet, this did not prevent luminaries like Nelson Polsby, Joseph Cooper, David Brady, and Samuel Kernell from carrying out their masterful studies.[2] Moreover, the necessity of collecting data has never prevented scholars from exploring new or understudied questions relating to the contemporary Congress. Another explanation, therefore, must be in order. In my mind, congressional scholars – until the last two decades or so – have not considered the net benefit of studying congressional history to be sufficiently high. Why has this been the case?

Certainly, doing congressional history has never been an especially “sexy” endeavor. Flipping through dusty old journals, digging around in poorly-organized archives, and growing dizzy scrolling through old newspapers on microfiche left a lot to be desired. Nor has congressional history traditionally been considered cutting edge. In fact, it has not been unusual for some political scientists to question the worth of doing historical research at all, suggesting that little can be learned from events and interactions that took place 100, 150, or 200 years ago. To understand why members of Congress vote, interact with constituents, and pursue reelection as they do, scholars have generally immersed themselves in the changing dynamics of the contemporary legislative environment.

This tendency to focus on the contemporary Congress has been understandable. Most theories of congressional behavior and organization have been designed for the “here and now,” and it is only natural that most empirically-driven political scientists have concentrated on deriving and testing hypotheses from those countervailing theories. Yet, beginning around the turn of the 21st century, political scientists increasingly directed their energies toward the study of congressional history. This was due partly to new data efforts that had begun to emerge – chiefly by Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal (photo below) – which would yield complete voting histories and preference (or “ideological”) measures for all representatives and senators back to the First Federal Congress. Cleaner partisan labels for members of Congress (thanks to Kenneth Martis) and more complete electoral data (thanks to Michael J. Dubin) also appeared. Moreover, technological advances made finding congressional voting records and biographical information, debates and proceedings, and election results – as well as newspaper stories on Congress – back to the late-eighteenth century a trivial matter, requiring only a computer, an internet connection, and a couple of key strokes.[3] Thus, the cost of studying congressional history has decreased considerably in recent years.

This data “windfall” and accompanying electronic availability, however, is only part of the story. There has also been a change in the way Congress has been studied by legislative scholars. As rational-choice theorists in the 1970s began to realize the importance of studying legislative rules, processes, and structures, the view of Congress as a venue for sociological-based analysis of elite behavior, typified by David Truman and Donald Matthews, gradually gave way to one that emphasized the study of legislative behaviors and outcomes through the lens of institutions. This movement – termed “The New Institutionalism” and led by scholars like Kenneth Shepsle – often required a “before and after” analysis, along the lines of: how did legislative decision making change after an institutional innovation? The first generation of such analyses focused on post-World War II institutional innovations; eventually, scholars turned their attention to innovations from earlier eras to conduct lengthier, comparative analyses. Such analyses allowed for more and different institutional variation. History thus provided for the natural evolution in institutional analyses.

Thanks to greater data availability, technological advances, and new theoretical directions, then, students of Congress began to realize that congressional history was a lush, untapped resource that could be used to advance a number of intellectual agendas. With that realization came a rush of interesting and creative studies.

The use and application of congressional history has taken three general forms:

    • Testing the Robustness of Existing Theories: Congressional history can be used to test the robustness of existing theories, because certain behavioral conditions or institutional arrangements that offer different perspectives on theoretical questions may have only existed in the past. In other words, history can offer “new” ways of studying a particular theoretical issue, which may lead to the extension or refinement of the general theory.
    • Building New Theories: Congressional history can also be used to build new theories. For example, modern theories of Congress often take certain institutional features – like the committee system, rules of procedure, and the party system – as given, in order to pursue more contemporary theoretical questions. Yet these institutional features areendogenous, resulting from institutional choices made by members of Congress in bygone eras. This has opened the door for students of Congress to use congressional history to develop new theories of institutional development.
    • Explaining Historical Events: Congressional history is also ripe for social-scientific investigations. This constituted a sort of “normal science” approach, which involves a substantive, case-specific inquiry, rather than an attempt at theory building or theory extension/refinement. In short, historical events have often been documented and interpreted by historians, who perform admirably in the areas of fact-gathering and story-building, but often are not trained in methods of causal inference. Political scientists, by comparison, possess the background to apply statistical techniques to historical questions, to determine if social-scientific findings correspond with historical explanations. As such, modern political science can shed light on the often-murky historical world.

What’s Next? Connecting Congressional History and American Political Development (APD)

I believe my point from the previous section is clear: over the last two decades, congressional history has emerged from the dark recesses of the discipline and vaulted into the mainstream. Doubts about the benefits of historical research have vanished, to the point where congressional history is now viewed as an “exciting” area within congressional studies more generally. The transformation, which has occurred over a fairly short time period, has indeed been remarkable.

This leads to the question: What’s next? What opportunities and challenges await young congressional scholars who want to be a leader in historical congressional research? I believe the biggest challenge is creating a better connection between historical congressional research and “traditional” American Political Development (APD) research. In this way, I build on the notion of a “frontier” in historical research discussed in recent Broadstreet blog posts by Jared Rubin, Scott Gehlbach, and Tracy Dennison. Unlike those posts, which discuss a boundary between disciplines (social science and history), I believe the frontier for congressional scholars is within-discipline – and involves traversing the boundary with APD.

APD traces its modern origins as a subfield within American Politics to Stephen Skowronek’s masterpiece on state formation – and the expansion of national administrative capacities – in the United States from 1877-1920. The subfield emerged in response to behavioralism’s dominant position in the American Politics field and its lack of attention paid to the role of institutions in political life.[4] APD scholarship is largely sociological in nature (and sometimes has a distinctive normative flavor) and thus falls within the larger genre of Historical Institutionalism. APD scholars, at their core, are interested in topics like the development of the state, temporality in decision making, liberalism, policy feedback, and the interplay of multiple institutions at the national level (for a broad overview, and a “justification for studying politics historically,” see Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek).



Despite the theoretical focus of the enterprise, APD scholars have traditionally not made Congress a vital player in their research. Rather, the focus has been on the “state of courts and parties” in the 19th century and the turn toward bureaucratic development, administrative capacity, and presidential power in the 20th century. In an important essay nearly a decade and a half ago, Ira Katznelson and John Lapinski noted the glaring absence of Congress in APD accounts and called for developing stronger ties between the APD and Congress subfields.[5] In their minds, the issue of lawmaking, which is Congress’ main role, is central to the focus of APD; thus, developing stronger ties between the subfields makes perfect sense.

From the point of view of APD scholars, however, several barriers exist that make a broader union between APD and congressional scholarship more difficult. One is methodological – congressional scholars are typically rational-choice “normal scientists” and thus approach questions from an individual basis and with critical tests in mind, whereas APD scholars are more “big picture” in orientation and less inclined to focus on causal relationships. Another barrier is scope – congressional scholars study legislative phenomena within fairly fixed time intervals, while APD scholars ascribe great importance to temporal factors, which persist and evolve across long swaths of time, to explain events. Yet another barrier is substantive – congressional scholars typically downplay (or ignore) the role of policymaking, and how it shapes and affects broader concepts like representation, while APD scholars put a premium on policymaking and its relationship to American society at large.

The barriers noted above are non-trivial. Scholars of congressional history might prove to be critical in this endeavor. Typically, historical congressional scholars have been sensitive to issues of time and often engage with the broader concept of policymaking. Methodological issues still exist, of course, as congressional scholarship – even that which is historical in nature – tends to be premised on individual models of behavior and often incorporates standard (large-N) critical tests. That said, an increasing number of historical congressional studies that take matters of APD seriously have appeared in the flagship journal for APD research, Studies in American Political Development, in the years since Katznelson and Lapinski’s essay.[6] Congressional historical scholarship that has focused on temporality, policymaking, and representation – like that of Charles J. Finocchiaro and Scott MacKenzie, Sarah Binder, Jon Rogowski, and Joshua Clinton – has also appeared in mainstream political science journals. By comparison, writing years after his after his initial essay with Lapinski, Katznelson remarked that “the study of Congress within APD remains patchy.”[7]



Thus, closing the gap between historical congressional research and APD research is gradually occurring, and is being led – at least at this point – by scholars of congressional history. I anticipate this trend to continue, as scholars in the different subfields maintain their dialogue and engage each other’s work. In many ways, influential scholars with a foot in both congressional history and APD – like Eric Schickler and Ruth Bloch Rubin – will be important intermediaries.[8] And younger scholars who are trained in modern statistical methods and the importance of causal inference, but with a sensitivity to history and a value for methodological pluralism, will also be important for bridging the intra-field gap.

In closing, I wanted to speak to a broader initiative that has been operating for two decades now: the Congress and History Conference (photo from the 2016 edition at the University of Oklahoma below), which was the brainchild of Katznelson and Greg Wawro. It was conceived

“as a way to bring scholars of Congress from different backgrounds, perspectives, and cohorts together to pose and answer key questions about the historical evolution and development of Congress. Participants are encouraged to use multiple methodological approaches in their research – from narrative case studies to quantitative analyses to formal models – and to expand the range of historical information that is available for scholarly use. The broad goal of the conference is to encourage discussion and debate among scholars that might not otherwise cross intellectual paths.”[9]

I’ve had the pleasure of attending nearly every Congress and History Conference – it meets every summer at a different host university – and the opportunity to interact with APD scholars like Katznelson, Richard Bensel, Rick Valelly, and Elizabeth Sanders has helped shape the way that I approach research questions. In short, engagement and communication with APD scholars has broadened my intellectual perspective and made me a better scholar. This, I think, is the most important way to bridge the gap between historical congressional research and APD research: tolerance of different perspectives and a willingness to learn across boundaries, which fosters a healthy respect for those with alternative ideas and approaches.[10]





[1] Fans of Peabody’s Improbable History will immediately recognize this reference. For those who are unaware of Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman, see:

[2] Note that several of these historical studies – and others like them – were helped along by early efforts to gather and publish Congress-related data, such as the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (first published in 1961) and the Congressional Quarterly Guide to U.S. Elections (first published in 1975).

[3] For example, the Poole-Rosenthal data are available at; congressional biographical information, back to the First Federal Congress, are provided electronically, via a search engine, by the Library of Congress (; congressional debates and proceedings through the 1870s ( and historical newspapers between 1860 and 1922 are provided by the Library of Congress ( Other congressional datasets and research materials require a university affiliation.  Such restricted-access resources, which include a lengthier series of congressional election data, all congressional proceedings and debate, and a range of historical newspapers and periodicals, are provided by the ICPSR (, HeinOnline (, and ProQuest (, respectively.

[4] Behavioralism was predicated on understanding “empirical regularities by appealing to the properties and behaviors of individuals. According to the behavioral persuasion, individuals constituted the fundamental building blocks and political results were simply the aggregation of individual actions” (from Shepsle article cited earlier). In this regard, historically-based institutional work and rational-choice-based institutional work both emerged in response to the hegemony of behavioralism. For more on this point, see Jeffery A. Jenkins, “APD and Rational Choice.” 2016. In Richard Valelly, Suzanne Mettler, and Robert C. Lieberman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of American Political Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Katzelson and Lapinski are quite explicit in their belief that APD scholarship – with some exceptions – has ignored Congress almost entirely.

[6] Examples include work by Wendy Schiller, Sarah Binder, Frances Lee, David Mayhew, Nolan McCarty, and Charles Stewart.

[7] See Katznelson, “Historical Approaches to the Study of Congress: Toward a Congressional Vantage on American Political Development.” 2011. In Frances Lee and Eric Schickler, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the American Congress. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Indeed, the best known APD work that places Congress at its center was written by Katznelson himself, in collaboration with David Bateman and Lapinski. See Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy after Reconstruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). Research by Kimberley Johnson and Richard Valelly is also in this vein.

[8] Indeed, Schickler and Bloch Rubin wrote an excellent essay on the connection between Congress and APD. See Eric Schickler and Ruth Bloch Rubin. 2016. “Congress and American Political Development.” In Richard M. Valelly, Suzanne Mettler, and Robert C. Lieberman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of American Political Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[9] Taken from:

[10] Note that this is a substantially revised version of an earlier essay, “Studying Congress Historically,” which appeared in New Directions in Congressional Politics, Jamie L. Carson, ed. New York: Routledge.


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