The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 7: Congress

Read or download the textbook here.


by Carl D. Cavalli

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Public Domain.The framers created a bicameral congress out of their concern that the legislature is the most powerful branch. Beyond simple division into two houses, they deliberately created differences: different terms, and different methods of apportionment. They allowed each house to create its own rules and organization. This results in a complex parallel structure of rules and behavior that produces significantly differing views on policy from representatives and senators – even though both are attempting to represent their constituents. The resulting legislative and budgetary processes are difficult, complicated, and more likely to lead to failure than success for any given proposal. In recent decades, the Congress has evolved to meet public demands for greater democracy and openness, and has attempted to adapt to increasing polarization between the political parties. This evolution results in even greater complexity and a focus on responsiveness (to constituency) over responsibility.


Chapter 7: Congress

I. Understanding Congress: House and Senate
A. The First Branch
B. Politics is about "who gets what, when and how"
1. Congress decides!
C. Bicameralism: Congress is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate
1. The division was a result of the fear of Congress growing too powerful and dangerous
D. The Capitol Building – a metaphor for Congress
II. Understanding Congress: Two Different Branches
A. The House of Representatives “House” (Lower House)
1. Larger of the two (435 Members)
2. Fewer number of constituents per member
3. Constituents more homogenous
4. Informal Stepping Stone to Senate
5. Representatives are considered closer to the public
B. Senate (Upper House)
1. Smaller of the two (100 members)
2. Larger numbers of constituents (whole state)
3. Less directly connected to public
III. Understanding Congress: Representation
A. Does Congress truly represent the public?
1. By demographic characteristics: No
B. Agency Representation
1. Do members of Congress speak for their constituents?
a. Yes
2. Necessary for re-election
IV. Delegate v Trustee Representation
A. Delegate Theory: the legislator’s role as a ‘‘representative’’ is simply to reflect constituents’ wishes
B. Trustee Theory: to use their knowledge to do what is best for their constituents, regardless of what the constituents say
V. Congressional Districts
A. Constitutionally, districts must be equal in population
B. Redistricting: Population Shifts and demographic changes measured by the United States Census and can have decisive effect on who is elected.
C. Federal Law requires that if a state has more than one representative, individual districts must be drawn for each creation of districts where minority groups comprise the majority of the district population where possible.
A. Roots in the districting process used in Massachusetts in the early 19th century under the direction of Governor Elbridge Gerry (where one unusually-shaped district was said to look like a salamander)
B. Modern Use of “Gerrymandering”: districts deliberately drawn to advantage one group of people over another
C. Most battles have been fought over racial, ethnic, and partisan gerrymandering
VII. Organization
A. Leadership
1. Instituitional
2. Partisan
3. The Johnson Treatment
B. Rank and File
1. Committees
2. Committee assignments based on seniority
VIII. Leadership of Congress
A. Institutional Congressional Leadership
1. House of Representatives
a. Speaker of the House (Always member of majority party)
i. Decides which committees bills are referred
ii. Presides over floor debate enforcing formal limits
iii. Appoints majority party members
2. Senate
a. Senate President (Vice President of United State)
b. President pro-tempore (Senior-Most Member of Majority Party)
i. Very little institutional power in these positions
B. Partisan Leadership: Each party in each house has its own leadership that coordinates party policy positions and manages their party’s voting.
1. Majority Party Leader
a. in charge of scheduling floor activity
i. House: Is under Speaker of the House
ii. Senate: Main Leader of the Senate
2. Minority Party Leader
a. organize and coordinate their party in opposition to the majority
3. Party "Whips"
a. formally, "assistant floor leaders"
b. link the leadership to everyone else
C. THE "JOHNSON TREATMENT": Before Lyndon B Johnson, Senate did not really have any kind of leadership. Johnson set the expectation of an active, involved majority leader subsequently became the norm.
D. Rank and File: means everyone else not in leadership positions
1. since the 1950s are increasingly filled with political professionals
2. deliberately seeking issues on which to legislate to demonstrate their value to their constituents
3. Pork Barrel legislation
a. legislation or funding for projects of little to no benefit beyond a single district
b. generally involves inserting amendments—or ‘‘earmarks’’—into vital ‘‘must-pass’’ legislation like the annual federal budget
IX. Committees
A. Types of Committees
1. Standing
a. They are permanent and focus on legislating
b. contain only members of one chamber
2. Select (or Special, or Ad Hoc)
3. Temporary
a. generally used to investigate issues that do not fit neatly into any standing committees
b. contain only members of one chamber
4. Joint
a. may be permanent or temporary and are generally advisory
b. coordinate policy between the House and Senate
c. they contain members from both chambers
5. Conference
a. most temporary and specific of all committees
b. created as needed, solely to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of a single bill
c. contain members from both chambers (usually members from the standing committees that developed the bill).
X. Making Laws
A. Proposals
1. Where is starts
2. may come from anywhere: constituents, interest groups, the president, and members of Congress
3. Most proposals come from the president
B. The House Process to Get to the Chamber
1. bills are first submitted to the Speaker’s office
2. Speaker determines which committee(s) to send the bill
a. multiple referral (mid-70s): allows the Speaker to send a bill to several committees at once or to divide pieces of a bill among several committees
3. Once in committee, bills are first referred to a specialized subcommittee
4. subcommittee holds hearings to gather information on the bill
5. They then ‘‘mark up’’—make changes to, or amend—the bill based on information from the hearings
6. vote on whether or not to send the bill to the full committee – if it fails to get support bill dies, if supported, goes to full committee
7. Once is full committee, goes through same process as sub-committee
8. if it fails to get support bill dies, if supported, goes to full chamber
C. The Senate Process to Get to the Chamber
1. bills are first submitted to the office of the majority leader
2. In consultation with the minority leader, refer the bill to one or more committees
3. The committee and subcommittee process in the Senate is identical to the House process
4. If the full Senate committee supports the bill, it will also go before the entire chamber
D. On the House Floor
1. Strict limits on debating and amending legislation on the floor
2. Each and every bill gets a rule from the Rules Committee before it is scheduled for floor action by the entire chamber
a. May place limits on floor debate and amendments (down to none at all)
b. Due to the ability to make these rules the Rules Committee is very powerful
E. On the Senate Floor
1. Unanimous consent agreements (UCAs)
a. Are agreements on debate and amendment limits that—as the term implies—require the consent of everyone in the chamber
2. To debate legislation, senators seek recognition to speak
a. Once granted, they may engage in discussion and debate
b. As long as they are recognized, no other action takes place on the Senate floor
3. Lack of enforcement power is often used strategically in two forms
4. Filibuster - an attempt to talk a bill to death
5. Cloture: petition among senators to formally limit debate on a bill – must have 60 votes
a. Today, Cloture votes are often done before the bill goes to the floor
F. Once they pass one house
1. In order for a bill to become law, it must pass both houses in identical form and be submitted to the president
2. Due to the each houses ability to amend the bills, the bills that are passed are different from each other
3. Differences must be resolved if the legislation is to be presented to the president
a. one house simply adopts the other’s version
b. Both houses will call for a conference committee for the purpose of resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill
4. Reconciled version is presented to both houses for an up-or-down vote
5. If it passes both houses, it is presented to the president
G. Presidential Actions
1. Signs it into Law
2. Does Nothing: while Congress is in session 10+ days, will become law.
3. Pocket Veto (does nothing, congress dismisses within 10 days)
4. Veto
XI. How members decide
A. Cues
1. Signals to decide whether or not to vote for legislation
B. Influences
1. Constituents
2. Fellow legislators
3. Party and committee leadership
4. Interest groups
5. The Executive Branch
6. Congressional staff
7. Media

The Structure of Congress in the U.S.

The Structure of U.S. Congress

How a Bill Becomes a Law

How a bill becomes a law


This video explains how a bill becomes a law.

Earmarks take up less than two percent of Obama's spending bill.

Test Your Knowledge

Think you got a handle on how Congress works? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!



For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 7 References on pages 213-215 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

What’s Stronger Than a Blue Wave? Gerrymandered Districts by Maggie Astor and K.K. Rebecca Lai.

The Senate Filibuster, Explained, by Ron Elving.