Lecture – Congress
- Congress: Representing the American People. The primary responsibility of a member of Congress is to the district and to his or her constituency, the residents in the area from which he or she is elected.
- House and Senate: Differences in Representation. The framers provided for a bicameral (having two chambers or houses) legislature. The legislative body is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Today, members of the House and Senate are elected by the people. There are 435 House members elected from districts apportioned according to population. The one hundred senators are elected by state, with two senators for each. The two houses play different legislative roles. The smaller Senate encourages deliberation and debate. It discourages specialization on particular issues because senators serve large, often diverse, statewide constituencies. In the Senate, less power is concentrated in the leadership’s hands. On the other hand, the larger, more centralized and organized House gives the leadership more legislative control and allows for specialization. Differences in terms of office and requirements for eligibility and representation determine how both houses develop their constituencies are well organized agents for local interests, whereas the senators are agents for both local and national constituencies.
- Sociological versus Agency Representation. What does it mean to represent someone or something? There are two circumstances under which one person may be trusted to speak or represent another. They are as follows:
- Sociological Representation. A type of representation in which representatives have the same racial, gender, ethnic, religious, or educational background as their constituents. It is based on the principle that if two individuals are similar in background, character, interests, and perspectives, then one could represent the other’s views. The assumption here is that sociological similarity promotes good representation. Thus, the composition of a properly constituted legislature ought to mirror the society it represents.
- The Social Composition of the U.S. Congress. Congress is not a sociologically representative assembly. Religious affiliations of members of both houses are first overwhelmingly Protestant, then Catholic, and then Jewish; this religious distribution is close to that of the population at large. Women and minorities in Congress are greatly underrepresented according to their proportion in the general population. However, African Americans, women, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans have increased their congressional representation in the past twenty years. Most members of Congress are lawyers or business and industry professionals.
- Agency representation is the type of representation by which representatives are held accountable to their constituency if they fail to represent it properly. This is the incentive for good representation when the personal backgrounds, views, and interests of the representative differ from those of his or her constituency.
- Representatives as Agents. Although members of Congress do not share their constituents’ (clients’) sociological characteristics, they do work hard to be their clients’ agents and serve their interests in the governmental process. This can be seen in the constant client-agent communication and in the sizable increase in House and Senate staffers employed in district offices, many of whom spend their time consumed by client service, or casework. Members often vote along with their districts’ interests. Still, many constituents do not have strong views about every issue. Therefore, representatives are free act as they think best. The power of an agent is not unlimited, however. Constituents also influence legislative votes, because representatives who go against district wishes are unlikely to be reelected.
- The Electoral Connection. Three factors related to the electoral system affect who gets elected and what they do in office.
- Who runs for office? Voters’ choices are restricted by who decides to run for office. Today, political parties ensure that well qualified candidates run for Congress, but running for office is a personal choice ignited by the individual’s ambition, potential for raising funds, and support.
- Incumbency. This is defined as holding the political office for which one is running. Incumbents provide constituents with services to ensure reelection. The services include taking care of individual requests and regular communications with constituents to establish a personal relationship with them. The success of this strategy is evident in the high re-election rats. Incumbency can help a candidate by scaring off potential challengers. The advantage of incumbency preserves the status quo in Congress and keeps the social composition of Congress consistent. Therefore, supporters of term limits (legally prescribed limits on the number of terms an elected official can serve) argue that such limits are the only way to get new faces in Congress. However, because of retirement, on average 10 percent of members of Congress retire each election.
- Apportionment and Redistricting. The last factor affecting congressional seats is the way congressional districts are drawn. The number of House seats is set at 435. Apportionment is the process, occurring after every decennial census, which allocates congressional seats among the fifty states according to population changes. Therefore, states whose population grows gain seats and states whose population declines lose seats. Redistricting is the process of redrawing election districts and redistributing legislative representatives. This happens every ten years to reflect population shifts or in response to legal challenges to existing districts. Redistricting can be a highly political process because districts can be shaped to create an advantage for the majority party in the legislature, which controls the redistricting process. Redistricting can also give an advantage to one party by clustering voters with some ideological or sociological characteristics in a single district, or by separating those voters into two or more districts. The manipulation of electoral districts to serve the interests of a particular group is known as gerrymandering. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act, race became a major and controversial consideration in redistricting (e.g., the creation of minority-majority districts to increase minority representation in Congress). However, in the 1995 case of Miller v. Johnson, the Supreme Court limited racial redistricting and stated that race cannot be the predominant factor in drawing electoral district lines.
- Direct Patronage. Congress members often have the opportunity to provide direct benefits or patronage for their constituents. The most important legislative patronage opportunity is called the pork barrel, a type of appropriation that specifies a project to be funded within a particular district. The ability bring home “pork” to one’s district contributes positively to a member’s chance of re-election. Congress members introduce “earmarks” in legislation that provide special benefits for their constituents. Highway bills are a favorite vehicle for congressional pork barrel spending.
In 2007, the House passed a new ethics rule requiring those representatives supporting particular earmarks to identify themselves and guarantee that they had no personal financial stake in the requested project. The new requirements seem to have had some impact, for example cutting in half the vale of earmarks included in a 2007 defense spending bill. President Obama has called for Congress to publish a list of all earmark requests on a single website.
A limited amount of other direct patronage exists. For example, a form of constituency service is intervention with federal administrative agencies on constituents’ behalf. A different form of patronage is the private bill – a congressional proposal to provide a specific person with some kind of relief, a special privilege, or a special exemption. This privilege is often abused but is hard to curtail because it is the easiest, cheapest, and most effective form of congressional patronage and contributes to members’ re-election chances.
- The Organization of Congress. To exercise its power to make the law, Congress must first organize. The building blocks of congressional organization include the political parties, the committee system, congressional staff, the caucuses, and the parliamentary rules of the House and the Senate. Each of these play a key role in congressional organization and legislative formulation.
A (political) caucus or conference is a legislative or political group’s closed meeting for selecting candidates, planning strategy, or making decisions regarding legislative matters. Every two, years, at the beginning of a new Congress, each party gathers and elects its House leaders. The House Republicans’ gathering is called the conference. Democrats call their gathering the caucus.
- Party Leadership in the House. The elected majority leader is automatically elected by the whole House as the Speaker of the House, the chief presiding officer of the House of Representatives. The Speaker is elected at the beginning of every Congress. The Speaker is the most important party and House leader and can influence the legislative agenda, the fate of individual pieces of legislation, and members’ positions within the House and committee assignments.
The House majority then elects a majority leader, while the minority party elects a minority leader. In the House, the majority leader is subordinate in the party hierarchy to the Speaker of the House. Both parties also elect whips to line up party members on votes and convey voting information to the leaders.
- Party Leadership in the Senate. In the Senate, the office of the president pro tempore is a ceremonial position, held by the most senior member of the majority party. In the Senate, the real power lies in the hands of the majority leader and minority leader, who perform tasks equivalent to their counterparts in the House. Along with these organizational tasks, congressional party leaders may control or try to set the legislative agenda.
- The Committee System. The committee system is central to congressional operation. Congress relies on committees to do the work of building legislation. There are different types of committees:
- Standing committees are permanent in nature. They have the power to propose and write legislation. The jurisdiction of each standing committee covers particular subject matter, such as finance, tax, trade, Social Security, and Medicare. Among the most important standing committees are those in charge of finances, such as taxation and trade. Appropriations committees also play important roles because they decide how much funding various programs will actually receive. The House Rules committee allots debate time and sets floor amendments rules.
- Select committees. These are usually temporary legislative committees set up to highlight, investigate, or address a particular issue not within the jurisdiction of existing committees.
- Joint committees are legislative committees formed by members of both the House and Senate. There are four of these committees concerned with economics, taxation, library, and printing. Joint committees play important information gathering roles.
- Conference committees are temporary joint committees created to work out a compromise on the House and Senate versions of a piece of legislation. These committees are important for reconciling differences between House and Senate legislation.
- Politics and the Organization of Committees. Each committee’s hierarchy is usually based on seniority, an individual’s ranking based on the length of continuous service on a congressional committee. From time to time, both parties have departed from the seniority system to foster other legislative and electoral goals. Over the years, Congress has changed its original structure and operating procedures. Among those changes is the increase in subcommittees that are responsible for considering a specific subset of issues under a committee’s jurisdiction. This change was made to reduce the power of committee chairs. However, it brought power fragmentation problems, making it more difficult to reach legislative agreement. In 2001, the Republican House reduced the number of subcommittees and instituted limits on the number of times a member could serve as a committee chair. When the Democrats became the majority party in 2007, they kept many of these reforms.
Sharp partisan divisions among members of Congress have made it difficult to deliberate and bring bipartisan expertise to bear on policy making as it has in the past. With committees less able to engage in effective decision making and often unable to act, it has become more common in recent years for party driven legislation to go directly to the floor, bypassing committees.
- The Staff System: Staffers and Agencies. Every congress member employs many staff members whose tasks include handling constituency requests and, to a large and growing extent, dealing with legislative details and the activities of administrative agencies. In addition to their personal staff, senators and representatives employ committee staffers who are responsible for administering the committee’s work, such as research, scheduling, and organizing the legislative process. Congress also established staff agencies or legislative support agencies responsible for policy analysis. These agencies help Congress oversee the executive branch; they include the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office, among others.
- Informal Organization: The Caucuses. In addition to the official congressional organization, there is an unofficial structure – the caucuses. A congressional caucus is an association of congressional members based on party, interest, or social group, such as gender or race. They seek to advance the interests of the groups they represent by promoting legislation, hearings, and favorable treatment. Some caucuses have evolved into powerful lobbying organizations.
- Rules of Lawmaking: How a Bill Becomes a Law. The rules for congressional procedure are important to the legislative process. These rules govern the process from the introduction of a bill (a proposed law that has been sponsored by a congressional member and submitted to the clerk of the House or Senate) all the way to the submission to the president for signature.
- Committee Deliberation. The first step to pass a law is to draft the bill. These drafts are then submitted to the appropriate committee for deliberation. Then the committee refers the bill to a subcommittee. It may hold hearings, testimony, and markup (revision) sessions before the next step – passing the bill up to the full committee for markup and a vote. Many bills are simply allowed to “die in committee” with little or no serious consideration given to them. The handful of bills reported out of committees must pass the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee allots debate time and floor amendments rules. The committee may attach a closed rule (a provision limiting or prohibiting the introduction of amendments during the bill’s floor debate) or an open rule (a provision that permits floor debate and the addition of new amendments to a bill). Senate rules are more relaxed, reflecting the deliberative character of that chamber.
- Debate. The next step in passing a law is debate of the bill on the floor of the House and Senate. The Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader have the power of recognition during the bill’s debate. The House Rules Committee has allotted debate time to be controlled by the bill’s major sponsor and opponent. In the Senate, the leadership has less control over floor debate. Once given the floor, a senator has unlimited time to speak. Once a bill is debated on the floor of the House and the Senate, the leaders schedule it for a vote on the floor of each chamber. By this time, the bill is expected to pass; otherwise, it is not even brought to the floor.
- Senators can use a tactic called filibusterto prevent action on legislation they oppose by continuously holding the floor and speaking until the majority backs down. Once given the floor, senators have unlimited time to speak, and it requires a vote of three-fifths of the Senate to end a filibuster. This procedure is called cloture, a rule allowing a majority of two thirds or three fifths of the members in a legislative body to set a limit on the debate over a given bill.
- Senators can also place “holds” or stalling devices, on bills to delay debate. The origin of the hold is kept secret. Senators place holds on bills when they fear openly opposing them will be unpopular.
- Conference Committee: Reconciling House and Senate Versions of Legislation. The next step is to send the bill to a conference committee to iron out the differences between the versions issued by the different houses. Once the compromise bill version leaves conference, the bill must pass another floor voting session in each chamber. Note for students that it is easier for a bill to die than to emerge victorious from all the legislative hurdles.
- Presidential Action. Once a standard version of the bill has been adopted by both the House and Senate, the final step for the bill is to go to the president, who may chose to do the following:
- Sign the bill: in this case, the bill becomes the law of the land.
- Veto the bill: in this case, the president rejects the bill. The veto is the president’s constitutional power to turn down congressional acts. A presidential veto may be overridden by a two thirds vote of each congressional house.
- Pocket veto the bill: this is a presidential veto that is automatically triggered if the president does not act on a given piece of legislation passed during the final ten days of a legislative session.
Point 4. How Congress Decides. External and internal factors play a role in congressional decision making. External influences include the legislators’ constituencies, interest groups, and political parties. Internal influences include party leadership, congressional colleges, and the president.