By Harrison, B.C., Harris, J.W.

Edited by Paul Ducham


For the United States’ founders, creating the national Congress was a crucially important task. Fearful of a powerful executive, but having endured the problems stemming from the weak national government under the Articles of Confederation, the framers of the Constitution believed that the legislature should be the key branch of the newly formed national government. In their vision, the Congress would be the institution responsible for making laws that would create effective public policy. In structuring the Congress, the framers strove to create a legislative branch that was at once powerful enough to govern and to check the power of the president and yet not so powerful that the legislature itself would exercise tyrannical rule. (See “Global Context” for an example of how a different constitution structured Japan’s legislature.)
As they debated the shape of the Congress, the Constitution’s framers had to balance the desires of representation of two opposing groups. The Constitution created a bicameral, or two-house, legislature in which one house, the House of Representatives, would be based on population, and the other chamber, the Senate, would be based on state representation. The constitutionally specified duties of each house of Congress reflect the framers’ views of the essential nature of the two chambers and the people who would serve in them.
The House of Representatives, with the smallest constituencies of any federal office (currently about 647,000 people reside in each congressional district), is the chamber closer to the people. As such, the framers intended the House to closely represent the people’s views. The Constitution thus requires, for example, that all revenue bills (bills that would impose taxes) must originate in the House of Representatives. In the framers’ eyes, unwarranted taxation was an egregious offense. By placing the power to tax in the hands of the members of the House of Representatives—the officials who face more frequent federal elections—the framers sought to avoid the types of unpopular, unfair taxes that had sparked the American Revolution. A short electoral cycle, they reasoned, would allow disfavored politicians to be voted out of office. Like all other bills, revenue bills must be passed in identical form by both the House and the Senate to become law, but requiring revenue bills to originate in the House reflected a victory by the large states at the Constitutional Convention. (Smaller states wanted taxation power to reside with the Senate.)
Although the framers viewed the House as the “people’s chamber,” they conceived the Senate to be a more elite, more deliberative institution, one not subject to the whims of mass politics like its lower-house counterpart. Today, because of its smaller size and because its members face elections less frequently than House members, the Senate remains a more deliberative body than the House. In addition, because of the specific constitutional duties mandated to the upper house, particularly the requirement that treaties must be ratified in the Senate, many U.S. senators have specialized in U.S. foreign policy issues. The framers’ vision was to structure the Congress to embody republican principles, ensuring that in its central policy-making responsibilities, the national legislature would be responsive to the needs and the will of the people. Both historically and continuing in the present day, civically engaged citizens have exerted a strong influence on the outcome of the policy-making process. One important avenue by which individuals influence Congress and its acts is through congressional elections, a topic we now consider.


The status of already holding office—known as incumbency—strongly influences a candidate’s ability to raise money and is probably the most important factor in determining success in a congressional campaign. Indeed, in any election year, about 95 percent of incumbent members of the House of Representatives running for reelection win, and about 93 percent of their Senate counterparts do. These outcomes may indicate what individual members of Congress are doing right: representing their own constituencies effectively, engaging with their constituents, and listening to and addressing their needs. But voters typically think about Congress in terms of a whole, rather than individuals, viewing it as a body that is overwhelmingly composed of “other people’s” representatives, who do not reflect their views. Thus the voting public frequently attacks Congress as a collective entity.
Why do incumbents so often win reelection? Several factors make it more likely that someone already in office will be returned to that office in a reelection bid:

Stronger name recognition. Having run for election before and served in government, incumbents tend to be better known than challengers.
Easier access to media coverage. Media outlets routinely publicize the activities of elected congressional officials, rationalizing that they are covering the institution of Congress rather than the individuals. Nonincumbent challengers face an uphill battle in trying to get coverage of their campaigns.
Franking. The privilege of sending mail free of charge is known as franking. Federal law allows members of Congress free mailings to every household in their state or congressional district. These mailings make it easy for members of Congress to stay in touch with their constituencies throughout their tenure in office.
Campaign contributions. Political action committees and individuals are interested in supporting candidates who will be in a position to help them once the election is over. Because donors are aware of the high reelection rates of incumbent candidates, incumbents garner an enormous proportion of contributions, sometimes as much as 80 percent in any given congressional election year.
Casework. When an incumbent personally helps constituents solve problems with the federal bureaucracy, the resulting loyalty and good-word-of-mouth reputation helps to attract support for that candidate during a run for reelection.

Thus incumbency is a powerful obstacle for outsiders who seek to unseat an elected member of Congress. Despite the incumbency advantage, in each congressional election, many individuals challenge incumbent members of Congress, often doing so knowing that the odds are stacked against them but believing in giving voters a ballot choice. Others run because they seek to bring attention to a particular issue or to shape the policy agenda—or sometimes because they simply underestimate the power of incumbency.


Sometimes the advantages of incumbency can be diminished, as in election years after reapportionment and redistricting. Reapportionment is the reallocation of seats in the House of Representatives on the basis of changes in a state’s population since the last census. Every ten years, in the year ending in zero (2010, 2020, and so on), the federal government counts the number of people in the country as a whole. If the census indicates that a state’s population has changed significantly, that state may gain or lose seats in the House of Representatives. Redistricting, the redrawing of congressional district boundaries within a state, is based on the reapportionment from the census.
Because the composition of a given congressional district can change as a result of reapportionment and redistricting, this process can mitigate the impact of incumbency. Frequently, the greatest shifts in the composition of the House of Representatives occur in election years ending in 2 (2002, 2012, and so on), when the first elections take place that incorporate the changes from reapportionment and redistricting. As a result of reapportionment in 2002, for example, New York and Pennsylvania each lost two House seats. Five states in the Midwest lost one House seat each, while several states in the South and the Southwest gained seats. Reapportionment and redistricting following the 2010 census does not occur until 2012, but on the basis of U.S. Census Bureau projections, demographers have projected that Texas will probably gain the largest number of House seats, perhaps as many as four, while Arizona and Florida could each gain two additional seats. Other states whose congressional delegations may increase in size include Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, and Utah, which probably will each gain one seat. States whose slow population growth may mean the loss of one seat include Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, while Ohio could lose two representatives.3 When a state loses a seat, the result is that an incumbent member of Congress is likely to lose a seat. When a state gains a seat, a new member of Congress can be elected to the open seat.
In some states, the goal of congressional redistricting is to protect House incumbents. The redrawing of congressional boundaries for the purpose of political advantage is a form of gerrymandering, the practice of drawing legislative district boundaries to benefit an incumbent, a political party, or some other group. The term was coined in reference to Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry after a district shaped like a salamander was created to favor his party in 1811. The illustration shows the first gerrymander.
Most forms of gerrymandering are legal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that a gerrymandering plan is unconstitutional only when it eliminates the minority party’s influence statewide. Because of the strict standards, only one partisan gerrymandering plan filed after the 1990 census was successfully challenged.
State legislatures have attempted to address the issue of racial imbalance in the House of Representatives by constructing a kind of gerrymander called a majority-minority district. A majority-minority district is composed of a majority of a given minority community—say, African Americans—and the creators’ intent is to make it likely that a member of that minority will be elected to Congress. The Supreme Court has ruled that such racial gerrymandering is illegal unless the state legislature redrawing the district lines creates majority and minority districts at the expense of other redistricting concerns. Typically, those concerns include preserving the geographic continuity of districts, keeping communities within one legislative district, and reelecting incumbents.


The primary source of congressional authority is the U.S. Constitution. As shown in Table 11.1, the Constitution enumerates to Congress a number of different powers. The nature of these responsibilities reveals that the Constitution is both very specific in describing congressional powers (as in punishing illegal acts on the high seas) and at the same time quite vague (as in its language establishing the federal court system). Many of the specific duties of Congress reflect Americans’ bitter experience in the colonial era, in that the framers granted powers to Congress that they did not want to place in the hands of a strong executive. For example, the economic powers granted to Congress, including the ability to tax and spend, to establish tariffs, and to borrow money, all limit the power of the president.
Powers specifically granted to Congress still have a distinct impact on our everyday lives. For example, Congress regulates currency, establishes weights and measures, and administers post offices. As we have seen, the connection between Congress, particularly the House, and the people was crucial to the framers, and so the Constitution requires that all taxation and spending measures originate in the House because the framers believed this chamber would be nearer to the people—and that House members would therefore ensure that the people’s will was done.
The Constitution moreover imbues the Congress with an additional source of power, one that has proved very important in the expansion of legislative authority over time. The necessary and proper—or elastic—clause states that the Congress shall have the power to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in a Department or Officer thereof.” This clause has been responsible for Congress’s ability to legislate in many matters not described in the enumerated powers. Reforming our nation’s health care system, determining the powers of law enforcement in investigating terrorism, and regulating stem cell research are all examples of powers not enumerated in the Constitution but that Congress exercises because of the broad scope of authority provided by the necessary and proper clause.
In addition to the Constitution, Congress derives power from Supreme Court decisions, the media, and the people. Supreme Court decisions often uphold the constitutionality of a law, in a sense verifying Congress’s ability to create policy on a given subject. The media grant Congress power by providing members with a forum in which to communicate with constituents, sway public opinion, and create a favorable climate for the passage of legislation. The people are a key source of congressional power through civic participation in the electoral and legislative processes. Citizens communicate their views and priorities to their representatives, who then can claim public support in their endeavors to enact policy.

table 11.1


According to the trustee model of representation, a member of the House or the Senate follows his or her own conscience when deciding issue positions and determining how to vote. Sometimes a legislator relying on the trustee model will act contrary to the views of his or her constituents. This model was espoused by British political theorist Edmund Burke (1729–1797), who served in Parliament as a representative of Bristol, England. Explaining his conception of representation, Burke emphasized to his constituents, however, that a member of Parliament “is not a member of Bristol, he is a member of Parliament.” Burke accordingly argued that a member of Parliament should follow his conscience when making decisions in the legislature: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement [sic]; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” In this trustee view, a legislator may act in opposition to the clear wishes of his or her constituents, such as in cases where an action is “for their own good” or the good of society.
Another model of representation is the instructed delegate model, the idea that a legislator, as a representative of his or her constituents, should vote in keeping with the constituents’ views, even if those views contradict the legislator’s personal views. This model of representation conceives of legislators as the agents of their constituents. A legislator hewing to the instructed delegate model faces a dilemma when his or her constituency is evenly divided on an issue.
Given these two different models of representation, which one do legislators typically follow? Most analyses of representation indicate that legislators are likely to combine the approaches. Specifically, with regard to many important or high-profile issues, legislators act as instructed delegates, whereas for more mundane matters about which their constituents are less likely to be aware or to hold a strong position, they rely on the trustee model.


Members of Congress also represent their constituencies through pork barrel politics. Pork barrel (also called simply pork) refers to legislators’ appropriations of funds for special projects located within their congressional district. Because pork brings money and jobs to a particular district, legislators who are seeking reelection work aggressively to secure monies for their states or districts—to “bring home the bacon.” Members frequently use transportation bills as a means of creating pork barrel projects for their districts. One analysis estimates, for example, that every $1 billion spent on highway and mass transit projects creates about 47,500 jobs, and members of Congress are happy to take credit for the jobs and for highway and mass transit improvements when running for reelection. In 2010, Congress appropriated about $16.5 billion for pork barrel projects. Hawaii received the most pork per capita at $259.78. Wyoming took home the least, $12.28 per capita. Table 11.2 lists the top ten recipients.
Members of Congress also use earmarks as a means of representing constituent interests: a designation within a spending bill that provides for a specific expenditure. And so, for example, in 2009 Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-California) helped ensure that the Sonoma County Integrated Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Information and Communication System was granted a $190,000 earmark in the federal budget for police and emergency communications. But many critics of the earmark process complain that earmarks are a way for members of Congress to reward supporters. Sonoma County had spent $320,000 lobbying federal lawmakers.

table 11.2


A special form of representation called casework refers to providing representation in the form of personal aid to a constituent or a group of constituents, typically by getting the government to do something the constituent wants done. Members of Congress and their staffs commonly assist constituents in dealing with bureaucratic agencies. In doing so, they serve in the capacity of an ombudsperson, an elected or appointed representative who acts as a citizens’ advocate by listening to their needs and investigating their complaints with respect to a particular government agency. For example, a member of Congress might intervene with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to request that a constituent’s relative in a foreign country be granted a visa to travel to the United States.
According to political scientist Morris Fiorina, casework is a valuable tool for legislators. Fiorina points out that serving constituents is relatively easy for members of Congress, because bureaucrats—who depend on Congress for their funding—typically respond quickly to the requests of legislators. The loyalty derived from assisting constituents is one aspect of the incumbency advantage that makes incumbent members of Congress more likely to be elected than their challengers, who do not enjoy that source of constituent loyalty.
Casework benefits constituents when, for example, a member of Congress’s staff works with a local branch of a Veterans’ Administration clinic to secure services for a retired veteran, whose family members derive a sense of efficacy—a feeling that they can get things done and that the government works for people like them. They perceive that their individual member of Congress genuinely represents them and protects their interests, with the result that these constituents not only feel engaged but also are likely to advocate for their member’s reelection bid.
But casework is not without its costs, as noted by Walter F. Mondale. Mondale, who served as a member of both the House and the Senate, as well as vice president of the United States, warns that casework can take a legislator’s time away from his or her legislative responsibilities:

Good constituent service is, of course, necessary—and honorable—work for any member of Congress and his [sic] staff. Citizens must have somewhere to turn for help when they become victims of government bureaucracy. But constituent service can also be a bottomless pit. The danger is that a member of Congress will end up as little more than an ombudsman between citizens and government agencies. As important as this work is, it takes precious time away from Congress’ central responsibilities as both a deliberative and a law-making body.

In describing the constituent service dilemma, Mondale raises questions worthy of citizens’ reflection. For example: Is the national interest served when a congressional staff member has to track down your grandma’s Social Security check? Does doing so result in a missed opportunity for government officials to create policy with broad, significant implications? And is the use of congressional staff members as ombudspeople a prudent application of taxpayers’ money?


Each year, Congress passes laws determining everything from incentives for the creation of alternative energy sources, to what restrictions should govern gun purchases, to what law enforcers can do when they suspect someone of being a terrorist. The Constitution invests Congress with other policy-making powers as well, including the authority to tax and spend, to declare war, to establish courts, and to regulate the armed forces. This policymaking function is the central responsibility that the Congress carries out, and nearly all its other functions are related to its policy-making role. Congressional policy-making power also extends to the operations and priorities of governmental departments and agencies. For example, Congress has directed the State Department to select a domestic secure production facility to create ePassports, next-generation passports with an embedded microchip.


In creating a system of checks and balances in the Constitution, the framers established the key congressional function of oversight. Oversight is the process by which Congress “checks” the executive branch to ensure that the laws Congress passes are being administered in keeping with legislators’ intentions. Congressional oversight is a check on the executive branch because the federal bureaucracy that implements laws is part of the executive branch.
In carrying out their oversight function, members of Congress use a variety of tools, some of which are listed here:

■ congressional hearings, in which government officials, bureaucrats, and interest groups testify as to how a law or a policy is being implemented and examine the impact of its implementation
■ confirmation hearings on presidential appointees to oversee executive departments or governmental agencies
■ investigations to determine whether a law or a policy is being implemented the way Congress intended it to be, and inquiries into allegations of wrongdoing by government officials or bureaucrats
■ budgetary appropriations that determine funding of an executive department or a government agency

These tools ensure that Congress has some say in how the executive branch administers the laws that Congress creates. Members of Congress increasingly have viewed their role of checking the executive branch as crucially important.


Congress engages continuously in agenda setting: determining which public policy issues the federal legislature should consider. Indeed, political scientists such as Cox and McCubbins assert that agenda setting relieves the pressure parties face in getting their members to vote with the party. At the beginning of a congressional term, House and Senate leaders announce their goals for the coming session. Those goals reflect the issues and positions that predominated during the electoral campaign and that congressional leaders perceive to represent the people’s priorities.
In setting the national agenda, Congress serves as a key agent in molding the scope of civic engagement and discourse, as people learn about, discuss, and form positions about issues. Frequently, agenda setting is itself influenced by public discourse, as when constituents complain to a member of Congress about a problem that needs to be solved or when an interest group contacts a legislator about a policy its membership would like to see implemented. For example, in 2010, pressure from gay rights activists led Congress to eliminate the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military as part of a defense spending measure. Though elimination of the policy was narrowly defeated, its inclusion demonstrates how the public shapes the congressional agenda.


Congress also has a significant influence in managing the societal conflict inherent in a divided society such as the United States. Some citizens want policies benefiting rural areas, and others give higher priority to urban areas. Some want more money for programs for senior citizens; others seek funding for children’s programs. With respect to abortion policy, some people are pro-life, and others are pro-choice. In addition, there are divisions related to social class, race, geography, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. Congress manages these conflicts by representing a wide range of views and interests.


Although the House of Representatives and the Senate share numerous functions, the two chambers of Congress differ in significant ways. As President Woodrow Wilson remarked, the “House and Senate are naturally unalike.” Constitutionally, the two houses are conceived as unique organizations, and the framers designated their duties to match the strengths and expertise of the people who would come to hold office in each chamber. Table 11.3 highlights these major differences. As discussed earlier in this article, the Constitution empowers the House of Representatives, as the legislative body closer to the people, with initiating any bills that result in taxes; whereas it empowers the Senate, as the more deliberative house, to give the president advice and consent on appointments and the ratification of treaties. The differences between the House and the Senate are not limited merely to their functions, however. The electoral and legislative structures are also sources of differences between the two houses.
Each of the 435 current members of the House of Representatives represents a legislative district determined by the reapportionment and redistricting process that occurs every ten years. In more populated areas, these congressional districts are often homogeneous, cohesive units in which a House member’s constituency is likely to have fairly unified positions on many issues.19 Senators, however, are elected by the population of an entire state, and although the political culture in some states is somewhat cohesive (for example, Vermont voters are more liberal on most issues than are Kansas voters), in many states there are notable differences in constituents’ views, ideology, and policy priorities. For instance, senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both represent the entire state of California, and both are Democrats. Although California is generally viewed as a very liberal political culture, Boxer and Feinstein also must represent the interests of both liberal voters in the western coastal areas of the state and more conservative voters inland to the east. At times, moreover, the interests of a senator’s constituents divide over a given issue: in California, for example, environmental activists and fishers have argued against programs that divert water from lakes and streams so that it can be used for irrigation on commercial farms, whereas affluent agribusinesses advocate water diversion. A U.S. senator must balance such conflicting positions when making policy decisions.
The differing length of representatives’ and senators’ terms of service affects how members of each chamber of Congress relate to their constituents. Given their short two-year terms, members of the House of Representatives naturally are reluctant to defy the will of the electorate on a given issue because of the likelihood that their opposition will be used against them during their reelection campaign. As the framers structured it, the House remains “the people’s house,” the chamber in which civically engaged individuals can effectively have their interests represented. And although U.S. senators naturally also want to please their constituents, they recognize that voting against their constituents’ will on a particular issue might be less significant than such an action would be for a House member, especially if the issue arises early in their term and is not important enough for people to hold against them six years down the road.
The size of the chambers and the length of terms also affect the relative prestige of each chamber. In general, the smaller Senate is considered more prestigious than the House of Representatives, although some individual House members may enjoy more prestige than some senators.
Although the House and the Senate differ in their constitutionally determined duties, both must pass any piece of legislation before it can become law. But the way in which legislation is considered and voted upon differs in each house of Congress.
The larger size of the House of Representatives, with its 435 members, necessitates a more formal legislative structure to prevent unruliness. The House, for example, generally has more, and more formal, rules guiding debate than the Senate. Despite the differences between the two chambers, the legislative process is remarkably similar in both.

table 11.3


Bills are introduced differently in each chamber of Congress. In the House of Representatives, a member of a legislator’s staff drafts the proposed legislation, and the House member puts the bill into the hopper, a wooden box that sits on a desk at the front of the House chamber. Upon introduction, a bill is referred to as “H.R.,” meaning House of Representatives, followed by a number that indicates the order in which it was introduced in a given legislative session, for example, “H.R. 207.”
In the Senate, the process is less formal. Here, senators can announce proposed legislation to colleagues in a speech on the Senate floor. (See “Analyzing the Sources” on page 348.) Alternatively, a senator can submit a written draft of the proposed legislation to an official known as the Senate clerk, or sometimes a senator will propose legislation simply by offering it as an amendment to an already pending piece of legislation. Once a bill is introduced in the Senate, it is referred to as “S.,” or “Senate,” followed by its number reflecting the order in which it was introduced in a given legislative session—for example, “S. 711.”
Before 1995, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives could be subject to joint referral, the practice of referring the bill simultaneously to two different House committees for consideration. But the 104th Congress abolished joint committee referrals. Today, bills introduced in the House are referred to one committee, called the lead committee. Occasionally, when the substance of a bill warrants additional referrals to other committees that also have jurisdiction over the subject of the bill, the bill might be subsequently referred to a second committee. 20 In the Senate, bills typically are referred to only one committee.


After introduction by a member of the House or the Senate, a bill is read into the Congressional Record, a formal record of all actions taken by Congress. Because of the large number of bills introduced, both chambers rely on an extensive committee structure that facilitates the consideration of so high a volume of bills.21 Most bills that are introduced “die” in committee. That is, a committee does not consider the bill (sometimes because the committee does not have the time in a legislative session to take up the measure) or declines to forward the bill to the full chamber.
Each congressional committee and subcommittee is composed of a majority of members of the majority party in that chamber. For example, if 218 or more members (a majority in the House) elected to the House of Representatives are Republicans, then every committee and subcommittee in the House has a majority of Republicans. The parties in each chamber decide members’ committee and subcommittee assignments.
Though the selection of committee chairs varies between chambers and parties, committee chairs are often chosen using the seniority system, by which the member with the longest continuous tenure on a standing committee receives preference when the committee chooses its chair. The committee chairs run committee meetings and control the flow of work in each committee. Although the seniority system is an institution in Congress, it is an informal system, and seniority does not always determine who will be the committee chair.22 Chairs are chosen by a secret ballot, and in recent years junior members sometimes have won out over senior committee members.
Standing committees are permanent committees with a defined legislative jurisdiction. The House has twenty-four standing committees, and the Senate has twenty. The House Committee on Homeland Security and the Senate Armed Services Committee are examples of standing committees.
Select committees are specially created to consider a specific policy issue or to address a particular concern. In 2005, the House formed a select committee, the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, which examined what went wrong in the preparations for and response to that killer storm. Other select committees have focused on such issues as homeland security and terrorism, aging, and transportation.
Joint committees
are bicameral committees composed of members of both chambers of Congress. Sometimes these committees offer administrative or managerial guidance of various kinds. For example, one joint committee oversees the presidential inauguration, and another supervises the administration of the Library of Congress.
In addition to the congressional committees, the House has more than ninety subcommittees, and the Senate has sixty-eight. Subcommittees typically handle specific areas of the committees’ jurisdiction. For example, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs is a standing committee. Within the committee there are seven subcommittees: the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health; the Subcommittee on Asia, Pacific, and the Global Environment; the Subcommittee on Europe; the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia; the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight; the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade; and the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Each subcommittee handles bills relevant to its specified jurisdiction.
When a committee or a subcommittee favors a measure, it usually takes four actions:

Agency review. During agency review, the committee or subcommittee asks the executive agencies that would administer the law for written comments on the measure.
■ Hearings. Next the committee or subcommittee holds hearings to gather information and views from experts, including interest groups, concerned citizens, and celebrities involved with the issue.
Markup. During markup, the committee “marks up” the bill with suggested language changes and amendments. The committee does not actually alter the bill; rather, members recommend changes to the full chamber. In a typical bill markup, the committee may eliminate a component of the proposal or amend the proposal in some way.
Report. After agreeing to the wording of the bill, the committee issues a report to the full chamber, explaining the bill and its intent. The bill may then be considered by the full chamber.

In the House of Representatives, a special measure known as a discharge petition is used to extract a bill from a committee to have it considered by the entire House. A discharge petition requires the signature of a majority (218) of the members of the House.


Table 11.4 compares the legislative process in the House and the Senate. For example, if a House bill is “discharged,” or makes it out of committee, it then goes to the Rules Committee, one of the most important committees in the House, which decides on the length of debate and the scope of amendments that will be allowed on a bill. The Rules Committee sets the structure for the debate that ensues in the full House. For important bills, the Rules Committee tends to set strict limits on the types of amendments that can be attached to a bill. In general, the Rules Committee also establishes limits to floor debate in the House. The Senate does not have a committee to do the work of the Rules Committee, but the Senate’s small size allows members to agree to the terms of debate through unanimous consent agreements. Unanimous consent must be just that: every senator needs to agree to the terms of debate (including time limits on debate), and if even one senator objects, unanimous consent does not take effect. Senators do not look favorably on objections to unanimous consent, and so such objections are rare. Objecting to unanimous consent agreements can potentially undermine a senator’s ability to get legislation passed by provoking the ire of other senators.
If the Senate does not reach unanimous consent, the possibility of a filibuster arises—a procedural move that attempts to halt passage of the bill.23 Sometimes the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to compel a bill’s supporters to alter a bill’s content. During a filibuster, a senator can speak for an unlimited time on the Senate floor. Filibustering senators do not need to restrict themselves to speaking only on the subject of the bill—they just need to keep talking. Some senators have read the Bible, cookbooks, and even the Nynex Yellow Pages into the Congressional Record. In the 1930s, Senator Huey P. Long (D-Louisiana) filibustered many bills, once speaking for fifteen hours to block one that he viewed as “helping the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Long, viewed as a character by many of his Senate colleagues, was a favorite among visitors to the Senate galleries, where he would entertain onlookers with New Orleans recipes for “pot-likkers” and with his articulations of Shakespeare in a Louisiana drawl. Former Republican South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond holds the Senate record for the longest filibuster. In an attempt to block passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Thurmond filibustered for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes. A filibuster can end by a vote of cloture, in which a supermajority of sixty senators agrees to invoke cloture and end debate. Cloture is initiated if sixteen senators sign a cloture petition. In 2010, when Senator Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts) was elected in a special election to replace the late Democratic senator Edward M. Kennedy, the specter of filibusters in the Senate became more likely as Brown’s election as the forty-first Republican in the Senate meant that Democrats had lost the sixty-member filibuster-proof majority they had held. After a bill is debated by the full chamber, the members vote on it. Before a bill can become law, identical versions of the bill must pass in both the House and the Senate. If only one chamber passes a bill during a congressional term, the bill dies. If both the House and the Senate pass bills on the same topic but with differences between the bills, the bills are then sent to a conference committee, a bicameral, bipartisan committee composed of legislators whose job is to reconcile the two versions of the bill. Typically, the legislators appointed to the conference committee will be members of the standing committees that considered the bill in their chambers. After the committee develops a compromise version of the bill, the bill then goes back to both chambers for another vote. If the bill does not pass in both chambers during a congressional term, the bill is dead, although it can be re introduced in the next session. If both chambers approve the bill, it then goes to the president for signature or veto.

table 11.4


When both the House and the Senate manage to pass a bill in identical form, it proceeds to the president, who may take one of three actions. First, the president may sign it, in which case the bill becomes a law. Second, the president may choose to do nothing. If the president does nothing and Congress is in session, the bill becomes law after ten days without the president’s signature. A president may take this route if he or she does not support the bill but knows that Congress would override a veto. If, however, the Congress has adjourned (that is, the bill was passed at the end of a legislative session), the president may exercise a pocket veto. A pocket veto occurs when Congress has adjourned and the president waits ten days without signing the bill; the president effectively “puts the bill in his pocket,” and the bill dies. Finally, a president may exercise the executive power of a veto: rejecting the bill and returning it to Congress with a message explaining why the bill should not become law. Congress can vote to override the veto by a two-thirds vote in both houses, in which case the bill becomes law. But overriding a presidential veto is a difficult and rare achievement.


Although Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution states, “The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers,” and all members of the House vote for the Speaker, it is really the members of the majority party who select their Speaker of the House. Second in the line of presidential succession (after the vice president), the Speaker serves as the presiding officer and manager of the House. In this capacity, the Speaker chairs floor debates, makes majority party committee assignments, assigns members to the powerful Rules Committee, negotiates with members of the minority party and the White House, and guides legislation through the House.28 But the Speaker is also the leader of his or her party in the House, and a key duty associated with this role is helping party members get reelected. Finally, the Speaker is himself or herself an elected member of the House.
The House leadership—which, in addition to the Speaker, includes the majority leader, the minority leader, and the party whips—is chosen at the beginning of each session of Congress through a conference also known as a caucus. During a caucus, all the members of the political party meet and elect their chamber leaders, approve committee assignments, and elect committee chairpersons. Party leaders also may call a party caucus during a legislative session to shore up support on an issue being voted upon or to formulate the party’s position on an issue on the agenda.29 One issue before Congress is the problem of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, which is considered in “Thinking Critically About Democracy.”
In 2010, Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives, ousting Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who had served as speaker since 2006. Pelosi proved to be a lightning rod for critics in the 2010 mid-term elections, with Republican candidates urging voters to “Fire Pelosi” by electing a Republican majority. Voters, many of whom objected to President Obama and the Democratic Congress’s handling of the economy and health care reform, listened and the Republican majority swept into office.
Pelosi, the first woman to serve as speaker, was an unabashed liberal who had railed against many of the George W. Bush administration’s policies during her first two years as speaker. Her posturing resulted in a lack of cooperation by many Republicans in her chamber, and then the loss of the Democratic majority in the 2010 elections paved the way for the election of John Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) as Speaker of the House.
As speaker, Boehner’s priority is repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, President Obama’s healthcare reform package that had been passed during Pelosi’s tenure. Boehner, who enjoys respect and loyalty among his colleagues, is also a vocal critic of the Obama administration, much in the way that Pelosi opposed the Bush administration during her tenure. As speaker, Boehner will be forced to herd the various elements of the Republican party in House of Representatives, including those members ascribing the Tea Party positions, to a cohesive position. He will need to unify liberal, moderate, and conservative Republicans, build coalitions composed of representatives from different districts, generations, ethnicities, and sexes. These skills are essential attributes for the Speaker of the House.
The Speaker relies on the House majority leader to help develop and implement the majority party’s legislative strategy, work with the minority party leadership, and encourage unity among majority party legislators. In this last task, the Speaker and the House majority leader are assisted by the majority whip, who acts as a go-between with the leadership and the party members in the House. The term whip comes from the English hunting term whipper-in, a hunter whose job is to keep the foxhounds in the pack and to prevent them from straying during a fox hunt. Similarly, the job of the party whip is to keep party members together, encouraging them to vote with the party on issues and preventing them from straying off into their own positions. The minority party in the House also elects leaders, the House minority leader and the minority whip, whose jobs mirror those of their majority party colleagues but without the power that comes from holding a majority in the House.


In the Senate, the vice president of the United States serves as the president of that body, according to the Constitution. But in actual practice, vice presidents preside over the Senate only rarely. Vice presidents, however, have one power in the Senate that, although rarely exercised, is enormously important. If a vote in the upper house of Congress is tied, the vice president breaks the tie. Such a situation occurred in 2005 when Vice President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote on a major budget bill that slashed federal spending by nearly $40 billion by allowing states to impose new fees on Medicaid recipients, cutting federal funds that enforce child-support regulations, and imposing new federal work requirements on state welfare recipients.
The majority party in the Senate elects a Senate leader called the president pro tempore. Meaning “president for the time,” this position is often referred to as “president pro tem.” The job of the president pro tem is to chair the Senate in the vice president’s absence. Historically, this position has been honorary, with the majority party senator who has the longest record of continuous Senate service being elected to the office. Although the position is honorary, the Senate’s president pro tem is third in the line of presidential succession (following the vice president and the Speaker of the House). Following the death of Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) on June 28, 2010, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was sworn in as the current president pro tem.
The real power in the U.S. Senate is held and wielded by the Senate majority leader, whose job is to manage the legislative process so that favored bills are passed; to schedule debate on legislation in consultation with his or her counterpart in the minority party, the Senate minority leader; and to act as the spokesperson for the majority party in the Senate. The majority and the minority leaders both play crucial roles in ushering bills through the Senate, and the majority leader facilitates the numerous negotiations that arise when senators bargain over the content of a given piece of proposed legislation.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was elected after the Democrats won a majority of seats in the 2006 Senate elections. Reid is a soft-spoken politician who was elected partly because of his talent at building consensus, a necessary skill given his desire to tackle some highly partisan and controversial issues when he assumed his leadership role, including ethics reform, funding for stem cell research, and an increase in the federal minimum wage.


Figure 11.2 shows the party breakdown in Congress since 1985. The data show that 1994 was a pivotal year, ending Democratic control in the House and the Senate. For nearly all of the next twelve years, Republicans retained control over both the House and the Senate. (Republicans lost their narrow majority in the Senate in 2001 when one Republican senator switched parties, but they regained control in the 2002 elections.) But in 2006, the balance of power shifted back to the Democrats, who won majorities in both houses, squeaking out a majority in the Senate with a one-member lead. That year, Democratic candidates benefited from President George W. Bush’s unpopularity and public weariness with the war in Iraq. As shown in Figure 11.3, in 2008 the Democrats continued to increase their majorities in both houses, as a result of voters’ continuing dislike of Bush’s policies, and—for some Democratic congressional candidates—from Barack Obama’s coattails. But this trend was reversed in 2010, with Republicans winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and increasing their numbers in the U.S. Senate.
The partisan breakdown of Congress is important because most major legislative votes cast are “party votes,” meaning that most members of one political party vote one way, and most members of the other party vote the other way. In some cases, this divide is due to the differing ideologies. In other instances, party voting is simply pure partisanship: Democrats vote against something because Republicans vote for it and vice versa. For example, in 2009, when Congress voted to overhaul the nation’s health care system, all 60 Democrats in the Senate voted for the bill, and all 39 Republicans voted against it (Senator Jim Bunning, a Republican, did not vote). Similarly, in the House of Representatives, only one of 216 Republicans supported the measure, whereas all 219 Democrats voted for it.
Partisan voting increased after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s and rose again after the 1994 congressional elections, in which Republicans took control of Congress. Partisan voting tends to be particularly acrimonious immediately before congressional and presidential elections. It occurs more often when members are voting on domestic policy issues, such as environmental or economic regulatory policy and entitlement programs, that tend to crystallize ideological differences between the parties, as the health care bill did. But often, partisan votes are politically motivated, plain and simple. One of the most partisan votes on record in Congress was the 1998 vote on whether President Bill Clinton should be impeached. In that vote, 98 percent of all members of Congress voted the party line—Republicans for impeachment, Democrats against.
Scholars believe that changes in how congressional district maps are drawn partly explains increased partisan voting in the House of Representatives. In earlier times, redistricting occurred through a simple redrawing of the lines of a congressional district to accommodate population changes. But today, with the widespread use of computer-driven mapmaking technology, congressional seats can be configured to ensure a “safe seat”—one in which the party identification of the majority of a district’s voters makes it likely that a candidate from a given party will win election. Sometimes, for example, more than 60 percent of a district’s population identifies with one political party. A House member holding a safe seat generally can be partisan with immunity because his or her constituency often agrees with the representative’s partisan stance. In contrast, when congressional districts were more competitive, a House member typically would have to temper partisan impulses to placate the sizeable proportion of his or her constituency that identified with the opposing party. Today, that is no longer the case, and it appears that Republicans in the House of Representatives have become more conservative and their Democratic counterparts have become increasingly liberal. Consequently, House members are less likely to compromise or to be moderate in their positions in negotiating issues with the opposition.
Many scholars assert that a similar bifurcation of political ideology has not occurred in the Senate. They claim that because state populations as a whole tend to be more ideologically diverse and less homogeneous than House districts, U.S. senators often must temper their views to reflect the wider range of their constituents’ perspectives. Thus senators tend to be more willing to compromise and to take a more moderate stance in negotiating with the opposing party than their House counterparts. Nonetheless, on some issues, other scholars note that the Senate is increasingly dividing along strongly partisan lines.33 In the 2006 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, Democrats opposed Alito’s nomination, fearing that the conservative judge would provide the swing vote to overturn the landmark Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States. In the Senate’s vote to confirm Alito, forty out of forty-four Democratic senators voted against Alito’s confirmation, whereas all but one of the fifty-four Republicans (Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee) voted for Alito’s confirmation.

Figure 11.2 final

Figure 11.3 final


Congressional colleagues provide cues for members of the House and the Senate in their decision making over whether to vote for a pending piece of legislation. Members may seek the opinions of like-minded colleagues in determining how to vote on a proposed bill. In addition, legislators may consult with peers who are policy experts, such as Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), both of whom are recognized as health care policy experts.
Members of Congress also engage in logrolling, the practice of trading votes between members. Logrolling is a reciprocal tactic by which a member agrees to vote on one piece of legislation in exchange for a colleague’s vote on another.
In addition, House and Senate members rely on their staffs to inform their decision making on legislation. Staff members frequently have policy expertise that can guide a legislator’s decision on an upcoming vote. They also figure in the legislative voting process by communicating with legislators about the desires of constituents and interest groups with respect to a pending piece of legislation.


In various ways, interest groups also influence congressional elections. They can affect electoral outcomes, for example, through an endorsement process by which a group notifies its members that it backs a certain candidate in the hope that members get on the bandwagon and express their support at the polls. In addition, through their political action committees, interest groups make financial contributions to congressional campaigns. And interest groups whose memberships are mobilized to support or oppose a candidate often provide grassroots activists to political campaigns. Interest groups also shape the legislative process. They make their mark by influencing congressional campaigns, by providing information to members of Congress as they try to decide whether to vote for a particular piece of legislation, and by lobbying members of Congress to support or oppose legislation.


As we have seen, the president determines whether to sign or to veto legislation that reaches his desk. But often, before a bill reaches the signing stage, the president’s position on it carries enough influence to sway members of Congress, particularly members of his political party, to vote for or against the proposed legislation.
The president can compel congressional action on an issue. Consider, for example, the issue of health care. President Obama challenged the Congress in 2009 to reform the nation’s health care system, and it was this initiative that spurred Congress to consider overhauling this structure.


Of all the players with a voice in the legislative process, congressional constituents—the people whom the members of Congress represent—wield perhaps the strongest, if indirect, influence with respect to congressional decision making. Most members of Congress want to be reelected, and representing constituents’ views (and being able to convince voters that their views are represented well) is a major avenue to reelection to Congress. Thus constituents influence the legislative process by ensuring that their representatives in Congress work hard to represent their perspectives and policy interests, whether those concerns are over environmental pollution, crime, or the soaring cost of higher education.
In fact, some research shows that the public’s “potential preferences” can motivate legislators to espouse a policy position likely to be embraced by constituents.37 But other research shows that most voters are not especially vigilant when it comes to monitoring their elected officials in Congress. In fact, only a very small percentage of voters, sometimes called the attentive public, pay careful attention to the public policies being debated by Congress and to the votes cast by their representatives and senators. But the fact that the attentive public is a relatively small minority does not mean that votes taken in Congress are insignificant as far as constituents’ opinions go. Indeed, if a member of Congress should disregard constituents’ views in voting on a major issue, it is quite likely that an opposing candidate or political party will bring this misstep to the public’s attention during the individual’s next congressional campaign.


Although members of Congress may make it a priority to represent the viewpoints and interests of their constituents, demographically speaking, they do not represent the American public at large. As Table 11.5 shows, Congress, especially the Senate, is older, whiter, more educated, and more likely to be male than the population as a whole. That said, Congress is not designed to be a perfect sampling of American demographics.38 It is logical that the leaders of government would more closely resemble individuals who have achieved leadership positions in other realms, such as the corporate world and academia.
Yet importantly, Congress is more diverse today than at any other point in history. Figure 11.4 shows that most states have women as part of their congressional delegation. But the proportion of women in Congress is not nearly equal to their proportion in the national population. In 2010, at least 70 women were elected to the House of Representatives (with the races of four additional women too close to call at press time), including 12 new women. Despite this upward trend, the United States lags behind many industrialized democracies with respect to the proportion of women serving in the national legislature.
Similarly, African Americans have historically been underrepresented in Congress. To date, only five African Americans have served in the Senate, including two, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, who served during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War. After Bruce left the Senate in 1881, no other African American would be elected to the Senate until 1967, when Senator Edward Brooke (R-Massachusetts) was elected for one term. More recently, Senator Carol Moseley Braun (DIllinois) was elected in 1992 and served for one term, and Barack Obama was elected from the state of Illinois in 2004. Today, the only African American in the U.S. Senate is Senator Roland Burris (D-Illinois). Burris’s controversial appointment to the Senate seat, formerly held by Barack Obama, came in the wake of a major corruption scandal involving the man who appointed Burris to the seat, then Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.
Figure 11.5 traces the increasing success of African Americans in getting elected to the House of Representatives. The figure shows that as in the Senate, African Americans’ initial service in the House came about in the Reconstruction period. But the successes of that era were short-lived, and the numbers of African Americans in Congress would not match those of the immediate post-Reconstruction period until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Today, as in the case of women, more African Americans serve in Congress than at any other point in U.S. history.
Latinos’ success at winning election to Congress still drastically lags behind their proportion of the population, with Latinos constituting nearly 14 percent of the population but just 6 percent of the members of the House of Representatives and 1 percent of the Senate. But many states, including New Mexico, California, Texas, and Arizona, are seeing rising numbers of Latinos elected to state legislatures, providing a pool of candidates who could move on to run for Congress. As women, African Americans, and ethnic minorities take up an increasing proportion of the eligibility pool—the group of people deemed qualified for office—diversity in Congress is sure to grow. Congress is an ever-evolving institution. The national legislature is shaped by the framers’ vision that created it; by the groups and individuals that seek to, and do, influence it; and by the broader electorate who vote for the representatives who serve in it. The Constitution’s framers ingeniously created a strong legislative system designed to dominate the national government. In doing so, they simultaneously—and significantly—checked the power of the executive. Do the checks the framers created enable Congress to constrain presidential action today?
The framers ensured that the legislative branch of the federal government would be responsive to changing times. Today, Congress is more demographically diverse than ever before in history. It has also responded to modern challenges by exercising a wider scope of powers, concerned with issues that were unimaginable even two decades ago, let alone more than two centuries ago. Congressional decision making today is influenced by shifting constituencies in a country that is rapidly growing more diverse. How will continued increasing diversity affect congressional decision making in the future?
With Congress well structured to respond to constituents’ needs, ongoing technological advances and the spread of cheap technology to more and more citizens mean that members of Congress and their staffs should be increasingly accessible to the people. And representatives’ district offices will continue to provide constituents another easily accessed channel through which to convey their needs and interests to their representatives—and through which their representatives, in turn, can monitor the opinions of their constituents so that they may better represent them.
Congress has proved itself to be a remarkably flexible institution, responding to changes in society, shifting constituencies, and increasingly diverse members, particularly in recent times. That Congress will become even more diverse is relatively assured.

table 11.5

Figure 11.4 final

Figure 11.5 final