Chapter 11
Congress: The People's Branch

Congress is complicated. Its rules are intricate; its organization is centralized; its major areas of control surprisingly dispersed; its principal functions are not clearly defined; its critics are too numerous to mention; its internal reform proposals endless; its turnover of bills staggering — and yet, it is the greatest legislative body in the world.

To graft an old phrase on a new word: Congress is all things to all people. It is a deliberative body and has been likened to a court of appeals; it is a mediating body resolving conflicts among minority groups and special interests; it is an investigative body probing misconduct and corruption; it is a political body where politicians form party blocs to defeat or promote policy, and oftentimes frustrate one another by filibustering; it is a rival to the president seeking greater involvement in domestic, budgetary, and foreign policies; and, perhaps most important of all, it is the principal source in our country where authoritative law is made.

Its committee system is like an octopus with chairmen barely astride the many legs of committees and subcommittees. Yet, these committees are miniature powerhouses. Its chairmen are often selected on the basis of seniority which many contend is unfair; yet, seniority bespeaks years of experience.

Its legislators are under great political and collegial pressures and influences; yet, they are listeners to their colleagues, to the president, and to their constituents back home, in gathering information for their decision-making.

Its labyrinth of bill passage channels would often make the most intelligent mouse give up in a similarly constructed maze; yet bills are passed and the rigorous pathway confirms their legitimacy.

Moreover, Congress has changed as much as any other political institution. Yet this powerful body is often held up to ridicule and treated with contempt or worse. In recent years it has been racked by scandal, partisan infighting, and charges of influence peddling, bribery, and corruption. Individuals are often viewed as helpful allies by all kinds of constituents. But the general impression remains that of a body out of control, requiring drastic reform. But that image was modified somewhat after 9/11, when a previously divided Congress was able to respond to a national emergency. Important anti-terrorist legislation (some 40 bills) was passed, including the USA Patriot Act.

Part I — Glossary

SENIORITY - Length of time in office. Used as determining factor in appointing congressional committees.

SAFE SEAT - An elected office, usually in a legislature, that is predictably won by one party or the other, so reelection is almost taken for granted.

INCUMBENT - The current holder of an office.

GERRYMANDERING - Drawing an election district in such a way that one party or group has a distinct advantage.

REDISTRICTING - The redrawing of congressional and other legislative district lines following the census, to accommodate population shifts and keep districts as equal as possible in population.

BICAMERALISM - The principle of a two-house legislature.

ENUMERATED POWERS - The powers explicitly given to Congress in the Constitution.

PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE - Official Chairperson in Senate when vice president is absent.

HOUSE RULES COMMITTEE - Committee that schedules House calendar of business.

OPEN RULE - A procedural rule in the House of Representatives that permits floor amendments within the overall time allocated to the bill.

CLOSED RULE - A procedural rule in the House of Representatives that prohibits any amendments to bills or provides that only members of the committee reporting the bill may offer amendments.

FILIBUSTER - Device employing long drawn-out speeches that prevent Senate vote on a controversial issue.

CLOTURE - A procedure for halting Senate debate (filibuster).

SPEAKER - Presiding officer of the House, formally elected by whole House, but actually by majority party.

WHIPS - Important House members who serve as ‘go-betweens’ in the process involving general members and leaders.

CONFERENCE COMMITTEE - A committee composed of appointed members of both Houses to compromise different versions of a bill.

JOINT COMMITTEE - Committee composed of members of both the House and Senate; such committees oversee the Library of Congress and conduct investigations.

SELECT OR SPECIAL COMMITTEE - A congressional committee created for a specific purpose, sometimes to conduct an investigation.

STANDING COMMITTEE - A permanent committee established in a legislature, usually focusing on a policy area.

RIDER - A provision that may have little relationship to the bill it is attached to in order to secure its passage.

DISCHARGE PETITION - A petition signed by a majority of House members to pry a bill from a committee.

MINORITY LEADER - Party leader elected by the minority in each House to serve as an opposition spokesperson.

MAJORITY LEADER - The legislative leader selected by the majority party, who helps plan party strategy, confers with other party leaders, and tries to keep members of the party in line.

POCKET VETO - A veto exercised by the president after Congress has adjourned; if the president takes no action for ten days, the bill does not become law and is not returned to Congress for a possible override.

OVERRIDE - An action taken by Congress to reverse a presidential veto that requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

SENATORIAL COURTESY - Presidential custom of submitting the names of prospective appointees for approval to senators from the states in which the appointees reside.

PARTY CAUCUS OR CONFERENCE - A meeting of the members of each party to select leaders and determine policy.

STATE DELEGATION - The senators and representatives from the same state.

LOG ROLLING - Mutual aid and vote trading among legislators.

HOLD - A procedural practice in the Senate whereby a senator temporarily blocks the consideration of a bill or nomination.

DELEGATE ROLE - The concept that a congressperson should reflect the prevailing sentiment of the district.

TRUSTEE ROLE - The concept that an elected representative should reflect independent judgment, rather than the current attitude of the district.

Part II — Political Dialogue

The Clash of Issues and Ideas

1.“Any examination of congressional backgrounds confirms the charge that they are an elitist group that is elected and kept in office by the 'well-fed, well-bred, well-wed' segment of American society that controls things, rather than a cross-section of all Americans. Elitist blocs elect Congress: Congress in turn does what these elites want. It's all very cozy and unrepresentative.” Discuss.

2.Recent election figures seem to confirm that we elect congressmen for life rather than for two- or six-year terms. Of those House members who ran for reelection in 2002, ninety- eight percent were victorious. In the Senate, eighty-five percent of all incumbents won. Can we claim that we continue to have representative government when incumbents have such a hammerlock on congressional and U.S. Senate seats? Comment.

3.Review the key points in the Ashcroft-Leahy debate involving "dissent in war." Which

man's views do you support most and why?

4.The distinguished senator, Sam Ervin, who sat on the Watergate Committee once said on the issue of trustee versus delegate, “My home state voters sent me to the Senate because they trusted my good judgment. I don't have to go back to them for guidance every time I vote. They don't have the time or inclination to sort out every issue. That's what they sent me to Washington for.” Is this a valid position?

5.Congress has been so fragmented in the name of reform that it is an impotent octopus, without a central nervous system to give it coordination or direction. What we need to do is toss out thirty years of “reform” and recreate authority and leadership. Did Speaker Gingrich make such reforms--why or why not?

6.The frustrations of members of Congress who hope to achieve any goal are enormous. What we have lost by way of potential leadership is unmeasurable. Who can replace the wisdom and legislative skills of such men as Barber Conable, Thomas O'Neill, Otis Pike, William Proxmire, Howard Baker, or Paul Wellstone? How can we restore the dignity and honor once accorded to Congress and congresspersons?

Part III — Political Science Today

1.According to your text, one of the major differences between the House and Senate is that

debate is more limited in the House than Senate. Review articles from national

newspapers, the Internet, or other publications which cover congressional activities to find

out the issues that provoked those filibusters. Did any of these filibusters work to delay

and/or modify the legislation under consideration? Explain fully.

2.Review national newspapers and other news sources published during 2001 to determine whether President George Bush’s nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General was the only cabinet-level appointment which ran into difficulty in the Senate confirmation process. What reasons formed the basis for concerns raised in the Senate? For contrast, review articles about Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Senate confirmation hearings. Given your findings, do you believe the Senate in 2001 exercised its responsibility to use “politics as a safeguard” in the confirmation of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet?

3.(a) Many House and Senate members choose not to seek re-election. Review national newspapers or weekly news magazines published at the end of 2001 and early 2002 to find articles about members of the House and Senate who chose not to run and the reasons they cited for their decisions. Discuss your findings/conclusions in a short paper.

(b) In May 1999, Congress was pressured to create gun control legislation because of the

school shooting at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado (12 students and 1 teacher were

killed). Research how Congress reacted to those pressures (in a policy sense). Were there

significant policy differences on gun control when comparing the House to the Senate?

Were any of the gun-control proposals actually passed by Congress and signed into law by

President Clinton? Report your findings in class or within the context of a research paper.

Also, how did the gun interest groups get involved in the 2000 presidential election?

Finally, did gun control concerns carry over to the congressional agenda from 2001 to

2003? Why or why not?

  1. Legislative case study: Students can do this project in small groups. They should select a

recent bill and trace its legislative history. What was the problem? How was it identified?

What was/were its main supporters and enemies? Which person in Congress sponsored the legislation? What was the president’s position on the legislation?

5. In similar fashion, have a team of students analyze the reasons for Republican success in the

2002 midterm elections. What mistakes did Democrats make? Conversely, does the team

agree with the text conclusions that President Bush's popularity, Iraq, and the dimming of

the economy as an issue were the chief reasons for GOP gains in Congress?

Part IV — Data Analysis

1.Many members of Congress wrestle with the potential conflict between the national interest and their district's need. In order to examine the nature of this conflict further, how do you think the following hypothetical member of Congress would vote in this situation:

In order to cut spending, the president and Department of Defense intend to close a number of military bases around the country. One base, employing some 5000 civilians and crucial to the district's economic growth, is on this “hit list.” The president calls the congressman and asks for his support in this national effort to cut federal spending. How is this congressman likely to respond when the base closing bill comes up for a vote (the bill will be voted on roughly six months before the next congressional election)?

Before deciding how you would vote on the base closure issue, you may want to review articles and commentary from nationally oriented newspapers and news magazines published since 1990 to learn more about the review process for base closing recommendations and the role of Congress in the final decisions.

  1. Review the text material on “A Profile of the 107th Congress, 2001-2003.” What salient conclusions can you draw from the data?

3. Go to the U.S. Census website ( and find the new “2000 census” figures

for each state’s electoral college votes. Which regions will have a change in electoral votes?

Which states’ congressional districts include less than the average 650,000 population?

Part V — Test Answers

Data Analysis
1. It would seem obvious that this is one issue which will be politically sensitive to the

folks back home. A congressional member who willingly voted to put 5000 constituents out of work would not be very popular. Also the economic loss of the base would have a strong ripple effect among district businessmen, labor unions, educators, politicians, and so forth. This is the kind of bread and butter vote that most members of Congress will cast in favor of unambiguous district preferences.

2/3.As the text chapter states (please review if necessary), the very small number of blacks and women in both houses of Congress could lead to the charge of congressional insensitivity to the issues of civil rights, women's rights, and poverty issues. However, Congress's upper-class and male-dominated profile has not prevented landmark legislation from helping both women and blacks in the past. Exercise #3 is self-evident from the census data.