re-apportionment; cloture; Committee of the Whole; concurrent resolutions; conference committee; congressional caucus; filibuster; franking privilege; gerrymandering; joint committees; joint resolutions; legislative oversight; off-year elections; oversight function; partisan; politico; roll-call vote; safe congressional district; seniority system; special or select committees; standing committees; standing vote; trustee; veto override; voice vote; whips
I. Members of Congress, in general
A. Personal and Political Backgrounds
1. Congress is not a representative cross section of the American people.
2. The average member of Congress is a white male in his mid-50s.
3. Most members are married, have children, and are members of a Christian church.
4. Most members are lawyers, though many have backgrounds in business, education, agriculture, journalism, or professional politics.
B. Duties of the Job
1. In General. Members of Congress must act as legislators, committee members, representatives of their constituents, servants of their constituents, and exercise oversight.
**** The oversight function of a member of Congress is to check to see if agencies in the executive branch are working efficiently and according to law. It is NOT their job to run a department of the executive branch. Congress can generally control the bureaucracy through Senate confirmation of cabinet members (agency or department heads), authorizing the agency's programs, appropriating their budgets, and investigating agency operations.
2. Trustees Many members see themselves as holders of the public trust who must decide issues based on merit alone, and not based on the opinions of constituents or any other groups. (Constituents are people in a member of Congress's State or district).
3. Delegates Many members see themselves as agents of those who elected them and believe they should suppress their own views in favor of those of the electorate.
4. Partisans Many members see themselves as bound to vote on issues according to the party platform and the wishes of party leaders.
5. Politicos The role of a member of Congress as a balancer of conflicting factors.
6. Other Roles All members of Congress also must act as servants of their constituents, providing the people back home with a wide range of services, from making appointments to military academies to helping companies in their districts obtain government contracts.
1. Senators and representatives receive salaries of $133,600 per year. Congressional leaders are paid an additional stipend.
2. Non salary Compensation ("perks") Members of Congress receive a wide range of fringe benefits, from free parking, low-cost medical care, generous pension plans, to free printing and distribution of speeches, newsletters, and other materials.
3. The Politics of Pay
a. Congress sets its own pay and benefits.
b. The President's veto and voter backlash can act to limit salaries.
D. Congressional Immunity
1. Members may not be arrested for misdemeanors while Congress is in session.
2. Members are immune from court action because of any speech they may make on the floor of Congress. Freedom of speech is vital to legislative debate.
II. The House of Representatives
A. Size and Terms
1. Today there are 435 members of the House of Representatives.
2. The total number of seats are apportioned, (distributed, among the States on the basis of their respective populations).
3. Each State is guaranteed at least one seat in the House.
4. Representatives serve two-year terms.
5. No limit exists on the number of terms representatives may serve.
1. Reapportionment is a redistribution of the seats in the House as a result of the census.
2. In 1929 the number of seats in the House was fixed at 435.
C. Wesberry v. Sanders (1964)
1. For many years, rural congressional districts with few people were overrepresented in the House, at the expense of urban and suburban districts.
2. The Supreme Court in the 1964 case, Wesberry v. Sanders, held that sections of States may not be over-or underrepresented in Congress, upholding the principle that one person's vote should be worth as much as another's, ( "one person, one vote").
D. Qualifications for House Members
1. **** Members of the House must be at least 25 years of age, have been a citizen for a least seven years, and must be an inhabitant of the State he or she represents.
2. The House judges the acceptability of individual members and may vote to censure or remove members.
III. The United States Senate
A. Election and Terms of Office
1. The Senate consists of 100 members, two from each State.
2. Prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, United States senators were chosen by state legislatures. Since 1914, members of the Senate have been chosen by the people at regular November elections.
3. Senators serve six-year terms that are staggered so that only a third of the members are up for election every two years.
4. The Senate is generally called the "upper" house because it has stricter qualifications than the House, more prestige, a longer term of office, and has historically been a stepping-stone to higher political office.
5. Because senators serve longer terms that House members and because they represent the views of their entire State, senators are expected to focus less on the interests of small localities and more on the "big picture" of government and of their entire State.
6. Senators have become famous earlier in their career than representatives because of its small size, longer terms, and larger staffs.
B. Qualifications for the Senate
1. **** A senator must meet higher requirements for office that a member of the House. Senators must be at least 30 years of age, must have been a citizen for at least nine years, and must be an inhabitant of the state which he or she represents.
2. As in the case of the House, the Senate judges the qualifications of its members and may exclude a member-elect by a majority vote. The Senate may punish members with a majority vote or expel them with a two-thirds vote.
IV. CONGRESSIONAL ELECTIONS
A. In general
1. Off-Year Elections Congressional elections occurring in nonpresidential election years are called off-year elections, in which the party holding the presidency often loses seats.
a. Members of the House are chosen in single-member districts (by the voters in geographical districts in their States which are drawn by State legislatures).
3. Gerrymandering Congressional districts often have been gerrymandered (drawn to the advantage of the faction that controls the State legislature).
Gerrymandering: Drawing the lines of congressional districts, or of any other political district, in order to favor one party or group over another.
B. Who usually wins?
1. Incumbents **** Incumbents are those already holding office. The most important facts about congressional elections is that voter turnout is usually higher in presidential election years, and that incumbents usually win.
Even in a year of great political realignment such as 1994, in which the Republicans gained eight seats in the Senate and fifty-three seats in the House, 92 percent of the incumbent representatives won their bids for reelection.
**** A major advantage that an incumbent has over a challenger is the money that the incumbent receives from PACs and lobbyists.
2. House of Representatives
a. Not only do more than 90 percent of the incumbents seeking reelection to the House of Representatives win, but most of them win with more than 60 percent of the vote.
a. Even though senators have a better-than-equal chance of reelection, senators typically win by narrower margins than House members.
b. One reason for the greater competition in the Senate is that an entire state is almost always more diverse than a congressional district and thus provides more of a base for opposition to an incumbent.
4. Despite their success at reelection, incumbents have a strong feeling of vulnerability; thus, they have been raising and spending more campaign funds, sending more mail to their constituents, traveling more to their states and districts, and staffing more local offices than ever before.
C. The advantages of incumbents
1. Voters are not very aware of how their senators and representatives actually vote.
2. Members of Congress engage in three primary activities that increase the probability of their reelections: advertising, credit claiming, and position taking
a. Most congressional advertising takes place between elections and takes the form of contact with constituents
b. Credit claiming means serving your constituents in a way that makes you look good. There are two ways members of Congress can serve their constituency: casework and the pork barrel politics.
(1) Casework involves helping constituents as individuals (such as helping them deal with the bureaucratic "red tape").
(2) Pork barrel refers to expenditures on federal projects, grants, and contracts for cities, businesses, colleges, and institutions. Because credit claiming is so important to reelection, members of Congress rarely pass up the opportunity to increase federal spending in their state or district.
c. Position taking means actually taking a stand on issues of public policy. The positions they take may make a difference to their chances of re-election, especially if the issues are important to their constituents (ex. California's energy crisis).
d. Perhaps the most effective means of engaging in advertising, credit claiming, and position taking at the same time is the congressional newsletter. Most of the franking privilege is devoted to mailing newsletters.
Franking privilege: A privilege under which members of Congress are entitled to send mail to constituents without charge by putting their frank, or mark, on the envelope.
D. The role of party identification
1. Although party loyalty at the voting booth is not as strong as it was a generation ago, it is still a good predictor of voting behavior.
2. Most members of Congress represent constituencies in which their party is in the majority.
E. Money in congressional elections
1. Candidates spend enormous sums on campaigns for Congress. In the 1996 Senate elections, the average winner spent over $3.6 million. In the 1996 House elections, the average winning candidate spent more than $660,000.
2. Spending is greatest when there is no incumbent and each party feels it has a chance to win.
3. Critics of Political Action Committees (PACs) offer substantive criticism of the present system of campaign finance.
a. In 1996, incumbents in both houses received $131 million from PACs, challengers received $26 million.
b. Each PAC is limited to an expenditure of $5000 per candidate (most give less), but some organized interests circumvent the limitations on contributions by creating or contributing to several different PACs.
d. PACs seek access to policymakers. Critics of PACs are convinced that PACs are not trying to elect candidates but to buy influence.
F. Stability and change
1. One result of incumbents usually winning reelection is that there is some stability in the membership of Congress. This "stability" provides the opportunity for representatives and senators to gain expertise in dealing with complex questions of public policy but it insulates them from political change and makes it more difficult for citizens to "send a message to Washington" with their votes.
V. How a Bill Becomes Law
A. Congressional leadership
1. Leadership in Congress is basically party leadership. Those who have the real power in the congressional hierarchy are those whose party put them there.
2. Power is no longer in the hands of a few key members of Congress. Instead, it is widely dispersed, requiring leaders to appeal broadly for support.
3. House leadership
a. The Speaker of the House is second (after the vice president) in the line to succeed a president who resigns, dies in office, or is impeached.
(1) At one time, the Speaker had almost autocratic powers. Many of the powers were removed from the Speaker's control in 1910 and given to committees; some of the powers were later restored.
(2) Formal powers of the Speaker today include:
A) presiding over the House
B) assigning members of congress to committees
C) appointing his party's leaders
D) exercising substantial control over which bills get assigned to which committees
(3) The Speaker also has a great deal of informal power both inside and outside Congress.
b. The Speaker's principal partisan ally is the majority leader. The majority leader is responsible for rounding up votes on party legislation and for scheduling bills in the House.
c. Party whips work with the majority leader to round up votes and to report the views and complaints of the party rank-and-file back to the leadership.
d. The minority party is also organized (with a minority leader and whips), and is prepared to take over the key posts if it should win a majority in the House.
4. Senate leadership
a. The Constitution names the vice president as president of the Senate. With the exception of Al Gore and Dick Cheney, vice presidents typically have little power or influence in the Senate except in the rare case when their vote can break a tie.
b. The Senate majority leader is the position of real power and authority in the Senate. He rounds up votes, schedules the floor action, and influences committee assignments.
5. Congressional leadership in perspective
a. The structure of Congress is so complex that it seems remarkable that legislation gets passed at all.
b. Congressional leaders are not in the strong positions they occupied in the past. Leaders are elected by their fellow party members and must remain responsive to them.
B. Creating and Introducing Bills
1. **** Most bills do not originate with individual members of Congress but rather, are suggested by the executive branch, after coordination by OMB.
**** Special interest groups also suggest ideas for bills and often actually write them.
a. The president's task is to persuade Congress that his agenda should also be Congress' agenda (ex. Bush's tax cuts).
b. Presidents may try to influence members directly, but more often will leave White House lobbying to the congressional liaison office
2. **** All revenue-raising bills must begin in the House; all other bills may be introduced in either chamber.
C. Types of Bills and Resolutions
1. Bills are proposed laws presented to Congress. Public bills apply to the entire nation; private bills pertain to certain persons or places.
2. Joint Resolutions deal with temporary or unusual matters, have the possibility of gaining the force of law, must be passed by both houses, and must be signed by the President.
3. Concurrent Resolutions deal with common concerns of both houses, have the force of law, and do not require the President's signature.
4. Resolutions have no force of law; they usually are concerned with house rules and do not require the President's signature.
5. A rider is a provision not likely to pass on its own merit so it is attached to another piece of legislation.
D. Committees and subcommittees
1. **** Most of the significant decisions in the legislative process usually goes on in committees.
a. Committees dominate congressional policy-making.
b. They regularly hold hearings to investigate problems and possible wrongdoing, and to investigate the executive branch.
2. Committees can be grouped into four types: standing committees (by far the most important), joint committees, conference committees, and select committees.
a. Standing committees are permanent subject-matter committees, formed to handle bills in different policy areas. Each chamber has its own committees and subcommittees (the typical representative serves on two committees and four subcommittees, while senators average three committees and seven subcommittees each).
b. Joint committees are study committees that exist in a few policy areas, with members drawn from both the Senate and the House.
c. **** Conference committees are formed to reconcile the differences when the House and Senate pass different versions of the same bill. (Membership is drawn from both houses).
d. Select committees are temporary committees appointed for a specific ("select") purpose (such as the Senate select committee that looked into Watergate).
3. The function of committees
a. More than 11,000 bills are submitted to Congress every two years. These must be sifted through and narrowed down by committees..
b. The most important output of committees and subcommittees is to "mark-up" (revise and rewrite) a bill, and then submit it to the full House or Senate for consideration.
c. Members of the committee will usually serve as "floor managers" of the bill when it leaves the committee. They also become "cue-givers" to whom other members turn to to decide how to vote.
d. Legislative oversight the process of holding executive branch agencies accountable for their actions. It is one of the checks Congress can exercise on the executive branch.
(1) Oversight is handled primarily through hearings. The process enables Congress to exert pressure on executive agencies, or even to cut their budgets in order to secure compliance with congressional wishes.
(2) Congressional oversight occasionally captures public attention, such as congressional investigations into the Watergate scandal, the 1987 Iran-Contra affair, Whitewater, and numerous other scandals during the Clinton Administration.
e. Most committee work is done by subcommittees which investigate, debate, and recommend the fate of particular bills.
4. Getting on a committee
a. Just after election, new members write to the party's congressional leaders and members of their state delegation, indicating their committee preferences. Each party in each house has a slightly different way of picking its committee members, but the leaders always play a key role.
b. **** Members seek committee assignments that will help them achieve opportunity to make policy in areas they think are important. For the first-term representative, concentrating on assigned committee work is essential to maximize his or her power in the House. Merely doing constituent work to assure reelection or performing other functions with that same goal will not enure power in the House but may guarantee reelection.
c. Although every committee includes members from both parties, a majority of each committee's members as well as its chair come from the majority party.
5. Getting ahead on the committee: chairs and the seniority system
a. **** Committee chairs are the most important influencers of the committee agenda. As a rule, the chairs of the standing committees are held by members of the majority party, but not necessarily the most senior members of that party.
b. Until the 1970s, committee chairs were always selected through the seniority system. Seniority system: A system that resulted in those members of the majority party in a house of Congress with longest continuous service on a committee automatically becoming heads of committees. Until 1975, most of the congressional power was held by the chairs of the standing committees.
(1) Chairs were so powerful that they could single-handedly "bottle up" legislation in committee.
(2) **** The system also gave a decisive edge to members from "safe" congressional districts, where members were seldom challenged for reelection.
c. In the 1970s, Congress faced a revolt of its younger members.
(1) Both parties in both houses permitted members to vote on committee chairs. This has reduced the clout of the chairs
(2) Today, seniority remains the general rule for selecting chairs, but there have been notable exceptions.
1. **** A congressional caucus is a group of members of Congress sharing a specific interest or characteristic (such as the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the Congresswomens Caucus, and the Sunbelt Caucus). Caucuses include regional groupings, ideological groupings, and economic groupings.
3. The proliferation of congressional caucuses (about 130 as of late) gives members of Congress an informal, yet strong say in the policy agenda. Caucuses exert a much greater influence on policymaking than most non-corporate interest groups can.
VI. The Filibuster
**** The filibuster is a process by which a single senator, or a group of senators, can talk a bill to death, thus blocking votes on proposed legislation. It is a practice that DOES NOT APPLY TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, but rather, is used ONLY in the Senate.
At the present time, sixty members present and voting can halt a filibuster by invoking cloture (closure) on debate. Cloture is a Senate procedure that allows a filibuster to be ended by a vote of three-fifths (sixty members) of the entire Senate.
VII. The President Acts
1. The President may sign the bill, veto it, allow the bill to become law by not signing it within ten days of receiving it while Congress is in session, or pocket veto the bill by not acting on it before Congress adjourns.
VIII. The Congressional Veto Override
1. Congress can vote to override the veto with a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
2. **** Historically, Congress has overridden only a very small number of presidential vetoes. In over 200 years, there have been approximately 2,500 vetoes and only about a hundred have been overridden.
With thanks to Cathedral High School, El Paso, Texas