Congressional "Loose Ends"

The Congress can be viewed as the citizens' direct link to the branch of government that is responsible for forming public policy. Members of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are elected directly by the people (until 1913 Senators were selected by state legislatures). To run for the House a candidate must be at least 25 years old, an American citizen for 7 years, and an inhabitant of the state they represent. Representatives serve two-year terms. Senate candidates must be 35 years old, an American citizen for 9 years, and a resident of the state they represent. Senators serve six year terms. The size of the House of Representatives is fixed by law at 435 although every ten years, as a result of the census, some states gain seats and some lose seats through the process of reapportionment. The boundary lines for these Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures.

In the past 30 years, the single most important variable in determining the oucome of an election to Congress is incumbency. Incumbents are better known to voters, find it easier to raise campaign funds (ex. PAC's favor incumbents), can use staff members to do constituent service, and often serve on committees that enable them to help their constituency. Incumbent Senators are less likely to be re-elected than members of the House. Pork Barrel legislation helps the re-election chances of members of Congress because such legislation helps earn the members of Congress a reputation for service to his or her district. Those most likely to be re-elected are very visible in their districts and have a good staff to handle casework (solving problems) for their constituents ("all politics is local"). Communication between members of Congress and constituents occurs through their personal staffs.

The legislative process is frequently lengthy, decentralized, and characterized by compromise and bargaining.

The vast majority of members of Congress are white males who identify themselves as Christian and come from the banking, business or law related fields but 1992 saw an increase in the number of women and minorities elected to Congress.

Congress is organized around a system of standing committees. Congressional standing committees can be best described as permanent subject matter committees. The significance of these committees is that they encourage members of Congress to develop expertise in a particular area. First term members members of Congress usually seek placement on a committee which would maximize their opportunities for constituent service. Committees such as Agriculture and Civil Service would be more advantageous than Foreign Relations, Rules, Judiciary or Foreign Relations. Even though their power has decreased over the past 20 years committee chairs still wield considerable power. Committee chairs are always chosen from the majority party and, under the seniority system, the chairmanship would always go to the member of that party who has served the longest on the committee in question.

Committees also oversee the bureaucracy's implementation of legislation. The main tool used by Congress for oversight of the bureaucracy involves authorization of spending.

Less than 10% of all bills referred to committees in the House and Senate ever make it to the floor (full Congress) for a vote .

Along with the committee system, each house has a party system that organizes and influences members of Congress regarding policy-making decisions. The majority and minority leaders of both houses organize their members by using whips who's job is to check with party members and inform the majority leader of the feelings of the membership regarding issues to be voted on. Whips are also responsible for keeping party members in line and keeping an accurate count of who will be voting for or against a particular bill. The party caucus is a means by which each party develops a strategy or position on particular issues. The majority and minority party meet (caucus) privately to determine which bills to support, the type of amendments to bills they would be willing to accept, and the official party positions on major issues.

Communication between congressional representatives and constituents occcurs mainly through their personal staffs.

It is also important to note that lobbyists and interest groups play a crucial role, not only in the election of senators and representatives, but also the passage of legislation. The actual details of legislation are worked out in congressional subcommittees.

The greatest influence Congress can exert on a federal agency is by reviewing the annual budget proposals for that agency.

Congress is likely to defer to the President in the area of foreign policy.

Congress is usually unable to override a President's veto and presidents sometimes threaten to veto a bill that is under consideration in order to try and influence the final version of the bill.

If the Supreme court finds a law unconstitutional Congress can try to amend the Constitution.

Loose Ends Glossary

session of Congress - two years

special session - can only be called be the President

gridlock - when the White House and Congress cannot work together and pass legislation

perks - fringe benefits members of Congress receive in addition to their salary

"closed rule" - amendments to a bill can not be offered

fast track - treaties can be approved without amendments

filibuster - takes place in the Senate only

cloture vote - ends a filibuster with a vote of 60 members

joint committee - made up of members of both houses

Conference Committee

Ways and Means Committee

Rules Committee

Appropriations Committee

co-author - when more than one person writes the a bill

speaker pro-tempore

enumerated powers - listed in the Constitution

implied powers - not listed in the Constitution

elastic clause

commerce powers of Congress - have been frequently contested in federal courts

McCulloch v. Maryland

Baker v. Carr


block grants

categorical grants




Voting Rights Act of 1965 - gave the national government, not the states, the power to decide whether an individual is qualified to vote.