Congress v. Parliament

Selection of members:

Parliament – party nominates someone; people vote for the party, and vote for someone who will support the national party agenda; vote in the body on the behalf of their party

Congress – Runs in primary election, with little party control. People vote for the man, not the party; vote in the body on behalf of their constituents

Differences with government

Parliament – members can decide whether or not to support "the government". If they don’t, they might not get nominated by the party in the next election.

Congress – because they don’t select the president, they are more powerful, as they are free from the fears of Members of Parliament, and they can vote on legislation as they see fit. Congress has independent powers


Parliament – main daily work is debate; have no power and as a result, they are shat upon

Congress – can initiate, modify, approve, or reject legislation. Thus are powerful, well-paid, and get big offices with filing cabinets and attractive secretaries.

Enumerated Powers of Congress


The Evolution of Congress

Phase One: The powerful House

During the first three administrations, congressional leadership was supplied by the president

House of representatives became the preeminant institution, overshadowing the senate

Henry Clay was the leader

Caucus system resulted in congress nominating presidential candidates, and thus made the president worry about the whims of congress

Phase Two: A divide House

1820s – power of house waned, as Jackson vetoed legislation

party unity necessary for leadership was shattered by the issue of slavery

since the south wasn’t present during or after the civil war, the Radical Republicans could easily gain majority necessary to pass south-punishing legislation

Power shifts to the senate, where the states are still evenly divided.

As a result, the vice president casts the deciding vote

Great orators move to the senate.

Voted to impeach Johonson, senate failed to convict

Even as things cooled down, house leadership remained weak

Phase Three: The Rise of A Powerful Speaker

End of 19th century, speaker gained power. Thomas Reed of Maine gained more support than any of his predecessors

The size of the house is enlarging at this time, thus the speakers argue that they are necessary to restore order, thus by establishing a hierarchy of house rules

Could select chairmen and members of committees

Could decide what business would come before the body

Joseph Cannon became speaker in 1899, but was too conservative, leading to Republican revolt

Phase Four: The Revolt against the speaker

1910-11: House voted to strip Cannon of ability to appoint committee members, and his place on Rules committee. Power flowed to other sources

Party caucus – gradually waned

Rules committee was very powerful, esp. without the speaker, since it could decide which bills came up for a vote

Power of chairmen on individual committees rose

Phase Five: The Empowerment of Individual Members

1960s and 70s saw a revolt against nearly all forms of leadership

Civil rights was defining issue

1974 had a very high turnover, like 70 members, even though the democrats were majority

Democrats changed rules because the powerful committee chairmen from the south had held up civil rights legislation

Committee chairmen were no longer selected on basis of seniority – they had to be elected by majority party.

Individuals could introduce bills, and half of all majority party members were chairmen of at least one committee or subcommittee

Members staffs were enlarged; committee leaders had to call meetings

Phase Six: The Return of Leadership

Since every member had power, process was cumbersome

1970s and 80s saw the speaker gain the power to choose the majority of members on the rules committee

1974: 70 freshmen elected to congress as a result of the watergate backlash

1994 republicans added measures to ensure more open debate

Only way to do this is re-empower leadership

Speaker set the agenda for the house


1913 – 17th amendment – popular election


Member Demographics

Typically white male Protestant lawyer

Gender and Race

Body has become more diverse

1992 was a big increase; originally was mostly democrats

Senate still fairly old-school

Reason certain groups might not get committee positions: they come from risky districts, so the others have greater seniority


IN 19th century, majority of congressmen served only one term. Why?

Federal government wasn’t important, DC sucked, job didn’t pay well

Many districts were highly competitive

1950s saw development of career politicians (92% incumbents)

People proposed term limits; were struck down – 1992&4 elections essentially did the same thing

Safe district: winner gets >55% Marginal Districts: winner gets <55%


Most are more wealthy, (a lot is inherited)


Most have college degrees, more than half have advanced college degrees


Most are lawyers, some have been medical practitioners, professors, etc.


Most are older

Democrats and electoral success

Democrats tend to do better in low-turnout districts

Maybe democrats win because they can better synthesize support from various interst groups?

Why lose in the later part of this century?

Anti-incumbent mentality disliked the mess in washington

Malapportionment and Gerrymandering

Malapportionment: districts of very different sizes result in individuals votes having different strength (i.e. district A is 2 time the size of district B, therefor a voter in B’s vote has 2x as much power as one in A).

Supreme court ruled (Shaw v. Reno) against it in 1964, claiming that "one person, one vote"

Still leaves many questions unanswered. How much is balanced?

Gerrymandering: districts are drawn so that it is easier for a particular party to win in that district.

Problems in deciding who gets represented in house

    1. House size
    2. Allocating house seats among states
    3. Determining size of congressional districts within states
    4. Determining shape of those districts

Majority-minority districts: districts designed to make it easier for minority citizens to elect minority representatives.

Types of representation:

Descriptive: representatives look like constitutions

Substantive : representatives hold views like constituents

How to get elected

Many uses offices to send personal rather than party mail

Get your office to do as much as possible for people back home

Get on committees where you can give constituents pork

Senate Organization

President pro tempore: chosen by majority of party to be president when VP (the real president) is gone. Actually, quite boring, don’t have any real power, so it is usually assigned to some junior senator

Majority leader: schedules business of the senate; is recognized first in debate

Minority leader: helps majority leader

Whip (one per party) : helps party leader stay informed about what members are thinking ; gets members of a party to vote party line

Policy committee (committee chosen by each party) : made of about a dozen senators, help party leader decide what legislation to consider.

Group that assigns senators to standing committees:

Steering committee for democrats

Committee on Committees for Republicans

House Organization

Because of house rules, the house leadership has more power (house is big and thus must schedule affairs and debate with care)

Speaker of the house: most important position, presides over all meetings.

When acting as speaker, is supposed to be non-partisan

Decides who should be recognized to speak

Rules whether or not motions are relevant

Decides to which committees new bills go

Appoints members to certain committees

Controls patronage for some capital jobs; assigns extra office space

Majority leader, minority leader, whips

Parties showing their strength

The strength of a party is demonstrated by how well it can get its members to tow the party line.

Party unity vote: a majority of democrats vote against a majority of republicans



Caucus: an association of congressional members created to lobby for a particular interest

Caucus benefits for members: gaining information, identification as a leader, symbolically showing they care about an issue of concern to their constituents.

Republicans said that all aides working on caucus material had to be housed in member’s offices

Coordination thus becomes more difficult

Six Caucus Types:

Intraparty caucus: members share a similar ideology

Personal interest caucus: members have a common interest in an issue (environment, arts, etc.)

Constituency caucuses: represent some group of the constituency

-national, regional, state/district, industry




Purpose of committees is to distribute workload of congress.

Three Types:

Standing: permanent, most important because generally the only ones that can recommend bills

Select : appointed for a limited purpose; don’t last long

Joint: both senators and representatives serve

Joint conference: hammering out bill differences between house and senate

Ratio of democrats to republicans on a committee roughly parallels the ratio in the full body.

The 1974 congress greatly expanded the number of subcommittees. Results:

Congress is not more efficient --- work just piles up even more

Most bills are attached to large spending bills

Because of increase in committees, the leadership has less influence with committees

1995 congress begins a process of reducing the number of sub-committees – succeeds in reducing by 20%

To reduce the number of people on committees, reduce the number of committees that an individual can be part of

Way the senate does it – each member can be a member of one standing committee and two sub-committees


Congressional Staff

1994: Average representative had 17 staff members, senator had 40

staff spends most of time servicing constituent requests

maybe this "army" is part of the reason that it is so hard to defeat an incumbent

Staff also has legislative function: read bills, organize things, write questions for members to ask, etc.

Staff sometimes take advocacy role

Greater staff means there is more work to be done – it becomes much more managerial work

Staff agencies

Congressional Research Services : responds to congressional requests for information; politically neutral body

General Accounting Office: once performed general audits, now investigates agencies and policies and makes recommendations on almost every aspect of government. Lead by Comptroller General

Congressional Budget Office: advices congress on the potential costs of legislation; looks at economic effect of spending programs.


How a Bill Becomes Law

Introducing a Bill:

any member may introduce bill; bills can be public (pertaining to the whole public) or private (impacting just one person)—not very common anymore. Pending legislation does not carry over. Theoretically, the president introduces a bill – but in reality, this is not very common. Other forms:

simple resolution (passed by either body): used for establishing rules under which the body will operate

concurrent resolution (passed by both): matters that affect both houses.

Joint resolution (passed by both, signed by president): essentially the same as a law; used to propose constitutional amendments.

Study by committee:

bill is referred by either speaker of the house or presiding officer of the senate. Ways and Means Committee is very powerful because house has power of the purse. Most bills die in committee – were only introduced for bragging rights by legislator. Hearings are used on important bills to gather evidence. Committees refer out bills. Must be placed on calendar, which even then doesn’t mean it will be considered.

Multiple referral: process by which a bill may be referred to several committees. Abolished in 1995.

Sequential referral : speaker can send bill to a new committee after the first is done.

Discharge petition: petition that can request a bill come befoe the whole house – rarely used.

House Rules Committee reviews most bills and decides how they will be considered

Closed rule: sets time limits, forbids amendments from floor

Open rule: allows floor amendments

Restrictive rule: permits some amendments, not others.

Floor Debate: House

Committee of the whole is often used for debate, as it has a quorum of only 100 (as opposed to the 218 for the whole congress).

Generally shapes bill, but cannot pass it.

Quorum call: good delay tactic (a Tom Delay tactic? J )

Floor Debate: The Senate

Much looser restrictions; members can speak for as long as they want; matter need not be pertinent.

Amendments need not be germane to bill’s purpose

A senate filibuster is tough to break

Cloture rule requires sixteen signatures for petition, passage by 3/5 of membership.

Double-tracking: disputed bill is shelved temporarily so that senate can get on with other business.

Methods of Voting

No record of who voted how:

Voice vote: members shout "yea" or "nay"

Division vote: stand up to be counted


Teller vote: pass between two tellers

Role-call vote: people say "yea" or "nay" after they have been called; can be called for by 20%



Representational – immediate effects on ones constituents

Organizational – maintain support of party members

Attitudinal – no clear direction, personal honor or ideology – conflicting messages


Representative vs. Direct Democracy

Framers felt that congressmen were not necessarily to directly reflect wishes of the majority.

Madison felt that they were to be the "proper guardians of the public weal, who served the great and aggregate interests of the country."


Reducing Powers and Perks

Pork-barrel legislation: bills that give tangible benefits to constituents with the idea of winning votes.

Spending on pork, however, is a microscopic fraction of congressional spending

One person’s pork is another’s necessity

Representational voting necessitates that pork will always exist.

Reducing chance of bribery:

1995 law prohibits lawmakers from accepting any gifts except those from family and friends; no personal travel paying. Still some avenues, however: can accept campaign donations and all- expense paid trips for fact-finding expeditions

Franking: Members can send things through the mail for free.

Most members use it to distribute campaign literature—thus use soars in months before election.

Some feel franking is taxpayer subsidization of members’ campaigns.

Placing Congress Under the law

Congress originally claimed that it couldn’t be subject to laws that would be enforced by the executive branch because it would represent a violation of separation of powers

Congress created the Independent Office of Compliance;

Now it must comply with Civil Rights Act, etc.

Potential areas of ethical challenge:

How can members look out for their constituents


Eric Jonas's 1998-1999 AP American Government Notes
This material copyright Eric Jonas, 1999.
These notes have been taken from American Government, 7th edition, by Wilson and DiIulio, and from in-class lecture by Mr. Greg Sandmeyer at Timberline High School.