Part I: the ap united states government course examination

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Members of Congress are far from typical Americans, but they have a number of characteristics in common:

  • 90% are male.

  • Most are well educated.

  • Most are from upper-middle or upper income backgrounds.

  • Most are Protestants, although in recent years, a more proportional number have been Roman Catholic and Jewish.

  • Most are white, with only a handful of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans

  • The average age of senators is about 60; representative average about 55.

  • 40% are lawyers; others are business owners or officers, professors and teachers, clergy, and farmers.

The fact that members of Congress represent privileged Americans is controversial. Some argue that the composition of Congress does not provide adequate representation for ordinary Americans. Others believe that a group of demographically average Americans would have difficulty making major policy decisions and that elites can represent people who have different personal characteristics from themselves.

It is important to note that Congress has gradually become less male and less white. Between 1950 and 2005 the number of women senators rose from 2 to 14, and female representatives have increased from 10 to 68. There were 40 black representatives in the 109th Congress, as compared to 2 in the 82nd (1951-52). Although there is only one black senator in the 109th Congress, there were none in the 82nd Congress. Today, the House has 23 Hispanics, and the Senate has 2. The 109th Congress also has 5 Asian Representatives and 2 Asian senators.  


During the 1800s most members of Congress served only one term, returning home to their careers when they completed their service. During the 20th century, serving in Congress has become a lifetime career for most members, and the number of incumbents, or those who already hold the office, with secure seats, has increased dramatically.

Scholars do not agree on all the reasons for the incumbency trend. Some believe that with fewer voters strongly attached to parties, people are voting for individuals, not for candidates because they are Democrats or Republicans. Incumbents have more name recognition than challengers; therefore are more likely to be elected. Incumbents enjoy free mailings (called the franking privilege), more experience with campaigning, and greater access to the media. They also raise campaign money more easily than challengers, because lobbyists and political action committees seek their favors. Today $8 of every $10 of PAC money is given to incumbents.


For many years, any state with more than one representative has elected their representatives from single-member districts. Two problems emerged from single-member districting:

  • malapportionment- For many years states often drew districts of unequal sizes and populations. As a result, some citizens had better access to their representatives than other did. The problem was addressed by the Supreme Court in the 1964 case, Wesberry v. Sanders, in which the Court ordered that districts be drawn so that one person's vote would be as equal as possible to another (the "one man one vote" decision).

  • gerrymandering- This common practice was originally meant to give one political party an advantage over the other. District boundaries are drawn in strange ways in order to make it easy for the candidate of one party to win election in that district). The term "gerrymandering" is derived from the original gerrymanderer, Eldrige Gerry, who had a Massachusetts district drawn in the shape of a salamander, to ensure the election of a Republican. Over the years both parties were accused of manipulating districts in order to gain an advantage in membership in the House.


Gerrymandering continues to be an issue today. A more recent form that appeared shortly after the 1990 census is minority/majority districting, or rearranging districts to allow a minority representative to be elected, is just as controversial as the old style party gerrymandering. The Justice Department ordered North Carolina’s 12th district to redraw their proposed boundaries in order to allow for the election of one more black representative. This action resulted in a Supreme Court case, Shaw v. Reno, which the plaintiffs charging the Justice Department with reverse discrimination based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court ruled narrowly, but allowed the district lines to be redrawn according to Justice Department standards.

During the 1990s several cases were brought to the Supreme Court regarding racial gerrymandering. The Court ruled in Easley v. Cromartie (2001) that race may be a factor in redistricting, but not the dominant and controlling one. An important result of the various decisions has been a substantial increase in the number of black and Latino representatives in the House.


Creating legislation is what the business of Congress is all about. Ideas for laws come from many places ö ordinary citizens, the President, offices of the executive branch, state legislatures and governors, congressional staff, and of course the members of Congress themselves. Constitutional provisions, whose primary purposes are to create obstacles, govern the process that a bill goes through before it becomes law. The founders believed that efficiency was the hallmark of oppressive government, and they wanted to be sure that laws that actually passed all the hurdles were the well-considered result of inspection by many eyes.

Similar versions of bills often are introduced in the House and the Senate at approximately the same time, especially if the issues they address are considered to be important. The vast majority of bills never make it out of committee, and those that survive have a complex obstacle course to run before they become laws.  


Every bill must be introduced in the House and Senate by a member of that body. Any member of the House simply may hand a bill to a clerk or drop it in a "hopper". In the Senate the presiding officer must recognize the member and announce the bill's introduction. House bills bear the prefix "H.R.", and Senate bills begin with the prefix "S." If a bill is not passed by both houses and signed by the president within the life of one Congress, it is dead and must by president again during the next Congress.

In addition to bills Congress can pass resolutions, which come in several types:

  • A simple resolution is passed by either the House or the Senate, and usually establishes rules, regulations, or practices that do not have the force of law. For example, a resolution may be passed congratulating a staff member for doing a good job or having an anniversary. Sometimes simple resolutions set the rules under which each body operates.

  • A concurrent resolution comes from both houses, and often settles housekeeping and procedural matters that affect both houses. Simple and concurrent resolutions are not signed by the president and do not have the force of law.

  • A joint resolution requires the approval of both houses and the signature of the president, and is essentially the same as a law. Joint resolutions are sometimes passed when the houses of Congress react to an important issue that needs immediate attention. For example, after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, Congress passed a joint resolution condemning the attacks and authorizing President George. W. Bush to take preliminary military actions.


After introduction, a bill is referred to committee, whether in the House or the Senate. The Constitution requires that "all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representative," but the Senate can amend bills almost beyond recognition. However, because of this special power, the committee in the House that handles revenue legislation - the Ways and Means - is particularly powerful.

Most bills die in committee, especially if they are only introduced to satisfy constituents or get publicity for the member of Congress that introduces it. In the House a discharge petition may be signed by 218 members to bring it to the floor, but the vast majority of bills are referred to the floor only after committee recommendation.  


For a bill to come before either house, it must first be placed on a calendar: five in the House, and two in the Senate.

 The Congressional Calendars are as follows:


  • Union Calendar - Bills to raise revenue of spend money

  • House Calendar – Non money bills of major importance

  • Private Calendar - private bills that do not affect the general welfare

  • Consent Calendar - Noncontroversial bills

  • Discharge Calendar - Discharge petitions


  • Executive calendar - Presidential nominations, proposed treaties

  • Calendar of Business - all legislation

Before a bill can go to the floor in the House of Representatives, it must first go to the Rules Committee that sets time limits and amendment regulations for the debate. Bills in the Senate go straight from committee to the floor.


Important bills in the House, including all bills of revenue, must first be referred to a Committee of the Whole that sits on the floor, but is directed by the chairman of the sponsoring committee. The quorum is not the usual 218 members, but 100 members, and the debate is conducted by the committee chairman. Sometimes bills are significantly altered, but usually the bill goes to the full floor, where the Speaker presides, and debate is guided by more formal rules. The bills are not changed drastically, largely because many are debated under closed rules. If amendments are allowed, they must be germane, or relevant to the topic of the bill.

Bills in the Senate go directly to the floor where they are debated much less formally than in the House. Senators may speak for as long as they wish, which leads more and more frequently to a filibuster, the practice of talking a bill to death. Although one-man filibusters are dramatic, usually several senators who oppose a bill will agree together to block legislation through delay tactics, such as having the roll called over and over again. A filibuster may be stopped by a cloture, in which three-fifths of the entire Senate membership must vote to stop debate. For example, Democratic senators have filibustered several of Republican President George W. Bush’s nominees to the judiciary, resulting in those judgeships going unfilled. No limit exists on amendments, so riders, or nongermane provisions, or often added to bills from the floor. A bill with many riders is known as a Christmas-tree bill, and usually occurs because individual senators are trying to attach their favorite ideas or benefits to their states.


Voting is also more formal in the House than in the Senate. House members may vote according to several procedures:

  • teller vote, in which members file past the clerk, first the "yeas" and then the "nays"

  • voice vote, in which they simply shout "yea" or "nay".

  • division vote, in which members stand to be counted

  • roll call vote which consists of people answering "yea" or "nay" to their names. A roll call vote can be called for by one-fifth of the House membership.

  • electronic voting, that permits each members to insert a plastic card in a slot to record his or her vote. This form is the most commonly one today.

The Senate basically votes in the same ways, but it does not have an electronic voting system.


If a bill is passed by one House and not the other, it dies. If a bill is not approved by both houses before the end of a Congress, it must begin all over again in the next Congress if it is to be passed at all. When the House and the Senate cannot resolve similar bills through informal agreements, the two versions of the bill must go to conference committee, whose members are selected from both the House and the Senate. Compromise versions are sent back to each chamber for final approval.


A bill approved by both houses is sent to the president who can either sign it or veto it. If the president vetoes it, the veto may be overridden by two-thirds of both houses. The president has ten days to act on a proposed piece of legislation. If he receives a bill within ten days of the adjournment of the Congress, he may simply not respond and the bill will die. This practice is called a pocket veto.

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