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We develop a new approach to the study of representation based on agenda setting and attention allocation. We ask the fundamental question: do the policy priorities of the public and of the government correspond across time? To assess the policy priorities of the mass public, we have coded the Most Important Problem data from Gallup polls across the postwar period into the policy content categories developed by the Policy Agendas Project (Baumgartner & Jones, 2002). Congressional priorities were assessed by the proportion of total hearings in a given year focusing on those same policy categories, also from the Agendas Project. We then conducted similar analyses on public laws and most important laws, similarly coded. Finally we analyzed the spatial structure of public and congressional agendas using the Shepard-Kruskal non-metric multidimensional scaling algorithm. Findings may be summarized as follows:

First, there is an impressive congruence between the priorities of the public and the priorities of Congress across time. Second, there is substantial evidence of congruence between the priorities of the public and lawmaking in the national government, but the correspondence is attenuated in comparison to agendas. Third, although the priorities of the public and Congress are structurally similar, the location of issues within the structure differs between Congress and the general public. The public “lumps” its evaluation of the nations most important problems into a small number of categories. Congress “splits” issues out, handling multiple issues simultaneously. Finally, the public tends to focus on a very constrained set of issues, but Congress juggles many more issues.

The article has strong implications for the study of positional representation as well, because for traditional representation to occur, there must be correspondence between the issue-priorities of the public and the government. We find substantial evidence for such attention congruence here.