The cause was suspected complications from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said his son, Craig Fenno.
Dr. Fenno, a longtime professor at the University of Rochester in western New York, was considered one of the most original and influential political scientists of his generation. His studies on appropriations, the importance of congressional committees and the ways members of Congress interacted with their constituents were considered groundbreaking and startlingly original. His practice of following members of Congress from Capitol Hill to their home districts reshaped how political scientists went about their work.
“Fenno was hands down the most significant student of Congress of the last half of the 20th century,” political scientist and author Norman J. Ornstein wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “He was the first to note that voters loved their congressman while hating Congress, he wrote the definitive study of the appropriations process (“The Power of the Purse”) and a series of books where he explored the relationship between legislators at home and in Washington.”
In a 1978 book, “Home Style: House Members in Their Districts,” Dr. Fenno pointed out the apparent contradiction that came to be known as Fenno’s Paradox. He traveled throughout the country, interviewing voters and observing members of Congress in their districts, seeking to understand why many representatives were reelected year after year, despite low approval ratings for Congress.
He attributed the tendency to “home style,” or the way members of Congress looked after the concerns of their constituents. His book about the phenomenon was recognized as a classic in the field.
In his first book, published in 1959, Dr. Fenno examined changes in presidential Cabinets in the 20th century. He later devoted most of his scholarly attention to Congress. He dubbed his manner of research “soaking and poking,” or acquiring vast quantities of information about governance while poking into the details of political campaigns. The phrase has been adopted by later generations of political scientists.
“I began with a study of the power of the purse, how politics plays out as Congress goes about appropriating funds,” Dr. Fenno told the Rochester Review, a university publication, in 1991. “That led me to realize that the real work and real life of these politicians goes on not on the floor but in committees and subcommittees.”
He offered a detailed look at the appropriations process, including battles between congressional committees and executive branch agencies, in his 1966 book, “The Power of the Purse.” Dr. Fenno went on to explore the influence of congressional committees, which were more autonomous in the 1960s and 1970s than they are today.
“It gradually came to me,” he told the Rochester Review, “that what they do in these committees is vitally connected to how they perceive their home districts and states. That’s when I started hanging around with politicians in earnest.”
His 1973 book, “Congressmen in Committees,” was considered a landmark analysis of the committee system, highlighting its strengths, weaknesses and internal conflicts.
For years, Dr. Fenno spent almost as much time in Washington and in far-flung congressional districts as he did on the Rochester campus. In the 1960s, he was instrumental in launching one of the country’s first Washington internship programs, in which students received academic credit for working in congressional offices or federal agencies.
After focusing much of his scholarly attention on the House of Representatives, Mr. Fenno turned in the 1980s and 1990s to the Senate, which he once likened to “a colony of movie stars.”
With fewer members, the Senate could be a more collaborative place than the House, but Dr. Fenno found that senators could easily become out of touch with their home states.
“When you go out campaigning with a senator, you feel like he’s doing something he hasn’t done lately,” he told the New York Times in 1983. “The great difference between Senate and House campaigns is the media. A Senate campaign depends on the media. A House campaign depends on handshakes.”
Dr. Fenno published in-depth studies of several senators, including Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), who served as George H.W. Bush’s vice president; John Glenn (D-Ohio); Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.); Mark Andrews (R-N.D.); and Arlen Specter, a senator from Pennsylvania who began his political career as a Democrat, then became a Republican and later switched back to the Democratic Party.
The books contained many candid observations, including Quayle’s sometimes profane language and, despite his Republican credentials, “a willingness — almost an eagerness — to lean occasionally against the accepted position of conservatives.”
In 1984, Dr. Fenno followed the short-lived presidential campaign of Glenn, the astronaut turned senator.
“He would have made a good president,” Dr. Fenno concluded, except for one thing: “I found him to be uncomfortable in political situations. He is a natural hero, not a natural politician.”
Richard Francis Fenno Jr. was born Dec. 12, 1926, in Winchester, Mass. His father was in the coal business; his mother died when he was a child.
He served in the Navy during World War II, then attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1948. He received a doctorate in political science from Harvard University in 1956.
He joined the Rochester faculty a year later and, with another professor, William Riker, helped build one of the country’s foremost political science departments. Dr. Fenno also led efforts to increase diversity among the faculty and student body.
He was a past president of the American Political Science Association, which named a book award in his honor. Dr. Fenno officially retired in 2003 but maintained a campus office — and a study carrel in the library — until his late 80s.
His final book, “The Challenge of Congressional Representation,” was published in 2013.
Survivors include his wife of 71 years, the former Nancy Davidson of Rye; a son, Craig Fenno of Armonk, N.Y.; a sister; and two grandchildren. Another son, Mark Fenno, died in 2017.
Dr. Fenno wrote almost equally about Republicans and Democrats and explored rural, urban and African American congressional districts in depth. Yet he never endorsed any candidates for public office, and even many who were close to him could not say what his private political views may have been.
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