I. Now & Then:The U.S. Senate Plays the Role of Disloyal Opposition
Lower court judicial nominations during the George W. Bush presidency and international peace treaties during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency are examples of very different issues debated at different moments in the nation’s history. Yet, both issues are very similar in illustrating the effectiveness of Senate resistance in opposing the president. Senators with considerable power in their branch of government dug in, used Senate Committee and floor procedures to their own benefit, and then let the slow pace of the Senate work its will to frustrate the chief executive.
This chapter discusses the complex organization, structure, and processes of both houses of Congress that underlie the often slow and difficult manner in which this important institution does its work. It shows how particular members achieve disproportionate power and influence in the legislative process and offers the rationale for why Congress plays such a central role in the dealing with issues of paramount importance to the nation.
II. Article I and the Creation of Congress A. Congress is noted in the Article I of the Constitution and was meant to be the most important branch of government. It has ultimate authority for making laws, and thus was the main focus of the Founders.
B. The examples of various “congresses” in colonial history made clear that some form of legislature would be the center of the government. Today, Congress remains a complex, paradoxical institution. While freely elected by the people, it is often responsive to narrow concerns and special interests. While often criticized, it has high re-election rates. While normally slow to act, it can also respond quickly at times.
Congress is the branch that ensures popular representation through direct election of House and (more recently) Senate members. With 535 members in total, today’s Congress includes women and many minorities.
III. The Structure and Organization of Congress The structure of Congress is organized over two governing bodies, so it has a bicameral legislature, split between the Senate and House of Representatives. This structure allowed for a compromise between those who wanted population-based representation, and those who wanted equal votes for each state. The “Great Compromise” gave equal representation in the Senate and population-based representation in the House. The two chambers have shared legislative responsibility since 1789.
Unlike many other bicameral systems, the House and Senate are roughly equal in power. (Many nations also have one-chamber, or unicameral, systems.) Bicameralism also makes it harder to pass laws, which was intended as an additional “check” that would cause Congress to move slowly and thoughtfully.
A. The House of Representatives: The “People’s House” 1. The House was intended to be responsive to ordinary people. At first, it was the only branch of federal government that was directly elected. Responsiveness was also encouraged by short, two-year terms that would keep representatives attuned to the people’s wishes.
2. The House also reflects popular will in being proportional to population. More populous states have more representation than less populous ones. The original relation was one representative for every 30,000 voters, and the House grew until it was capped at 435 members in 1913.
3. Today, the House is governed by a “one man, one vote” principle that requires the 435 congressional districts to be roughly equal (around 650,000 voters). Exceptions include smaller states with fewer voters overall.
4. Assignment, or “reapportionment,” is based on each decade’s census, which means that states may gain or lose seats depending on population shifts.
5. States are responsible for drawing up their own districts in ways that comport with federal law. Redistricting refers to the states’ responsibility to redraw congressional boundaries to keep all congressional districts equal. “Gerrymandering” such districts (favoring one party over another when identifying the geographical boundaries) is a common practice used to maximize partisan advantage.
6. Article I requires that a House member be at least twenty-five years old, a U.S. citizen for seven years, and live in the relevant state.
B. The Senate: A Stabilizing Factor 1. The Senate was designed to represent the states, with two votes per state (equal representation). The Constitution originally directed that Senators be chosen by state legislatures. This changed to direct popular elections in 1913 (Seventeenth Amendment).
2. The Senate was designed to be a brake on radical change, and a check on the more democratic House (and the “tyranny of the masses”), as it was less influenced by democratic pressure. The Senate was thus designed to foster more thoughtful, gradual change.
3. Senators have six-year terms, giving them more space from popular pressure. Terms are staggered, with one-third up for reelection every two years. (The entire House can change every two years, but only one-third of the Senate can change.)
4. Senate requirements include being at least thirty years old, a resident in the relevant state, and a U.S. citizen for nine years.
5. Today, with fifty states, there are only one hundred senators, making their situation more collegial than that of the House.
C. Leadership in Congress 1. No one person leads Congress, and leadership is distinct in each chamber. Yet, both chambers must work together to pass laws.
2. The party system, though not mentioned in the Constitution, drives congressional leadership. Usually, one of the two major parties has a majority in each chamber. The majority party elects leaders and controls the chamber, with the size and unity of the majority determining its strength. Members of the party with the majority of seats in the chamber make up the majority caucus, while those in the party with fewer seats make up the minority caucus.
3. From 1954 to 1980, the Democrats controlled the Senate. The Republicans took control in 1980, but the Democrats regained it from 1986 to 1994. The Republicans mainly controlled it from 1994 to 2006, when the Democrats reclaimed it (with the help of two independents.) However, control now hinges on one seat changing hands. As a result of the 2008 elections, the Democratic majority achieved a filibuster-proof 60-40 margin in the Senate. The January 2010 special election in Massachusetts, however, reduced the large Democratic margin to a near-filibuster proof majority.
4. The Democrats controlled the House from 1954 to 1994. The Republicans took control in 1994, but the Democrats reclaimed it in 2006. The Democrats further increased their majority in the House as a result of the 2008 elections.
D. Leadership in the House of Representatives 1. The Speaker of the House is the House leader. The full House votes on the position every two years, but the majority party ultimately has control, given its greater numbers, and its members meet beforehand to determine the Speaker.
2. Today, the Speaker is the most powerful member of the House (a trend that began with Joe Cannon in 1903). This continued power is due to the fact the speaker controls assignment of bills to committees; recognizes members to speak in chamber; interprets House Rules, which helps control much of the House agenda and legislative process; appoints members to various committees; and schedules full House votes on bills, effecting whether they will pass.
5. Partisan control of the House determines its organization. The majority party controls the legislative agenda through both the Speaker and committee chairs. The current Speaker is Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California.
6. The majority party also selects a House majority leader, while the minority party selects a minority leader. These leaders develop party platforms and maintain party unity. Majority and minority whips further encourage unity in voting.
E. Leadership in the Senate 1. The vice president serves as the “president of the Senate,” which really just gives the authorization to vote in case of ties. The actual presiding office is the “president pro tempore,” filled by the senior senator from the majority party, but this is largely ceremonial.
2. As in the House, the majority party runs things by controlling the agenda and mobilizing majority votes. The parties also elect majority and minority leaders, who lead by drafting party platforms and proposing new laws. The majority leader appoints committee chairs in the Senate as well.
3. The Senate also has majority and minority whips, who encourage party unity on votes.
4. Senate leaders have less power than House leaders, as the Senate provides for more individual independence.
IV. The Committee System Congress members have four main tasks: 1) running for re-election, 2) serving constituents, 3) working on legislation, and 4) overseeing federal agencies. Legislation involves two steps—working on proposed laws (bills) in committee, and voting on bills.
Most legislative work and agency oversight occurs in committee. The committee system helps manage the workload of thousands of bills in both chambers. Each member is assigned to a few, and becomes an expert in that area. Most of the members’ legislative work focuses on those committees. Committees also have subcommittees providing for even more specialization (with more than ninety in the House alone). Each has a chair, so many members chair a committee or subcommittee, especially in the Senate.
The committee system is important because Congress generally defers to the judgment of each committee in its respective area.
A. Types of Committees in Congress 1. Standing committees: These are permanent committees in both chambers, mostly focusing on specific areas of public policy. Their power of “reporting legislation” means the chamber cannot vote on a bill unless the committee first approves it. Standing committees have existed since the early 1800s, and most include subcommittees to further divide labor and ensure specialization. Bills must usually go through both committee and subcommittee approval, creating many chances for delay or stoppage.
2. Select committees: These are established to examine specific issues of concern. They cannot report legislation and are not permanent. (Examples: illegal immigration and drugs)
3. Conference committees: These consist of members of both chambers who work together to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill.
4. Joint committees: These consist of members from both chambers. They are usually permanent and focus on issues of general concern, such as executive oversight.
B. Leadership of Congressional Committees Most leadership in Congress occurs at the committee level, where all chairs are members of the majority party. Committees provide the place where work gets done, and chairs determine what gets done and when. Chair selection is usually based on seniority, with the Speaker and Senate majority leader making final determinations.
C. Partisan Nature of the Committee System To ensure control of the process, the majority party maintains a majority in every committee and controls the chair. A “supermajority” is usually maintained in more powerful committees.
D. Congressional Staffing A large professional staff assists Congress, conducting background research, generating new ideas, providing constituent services, and helping oversee executive agencies. They include:
1. Personal staff: These assistants, assigned to each member, help with legislative support, public relations, and constituent contact.
2. Congressional agencies: Much congressional authority is delegated to executive agencies, such as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). To ensure greater oversight, Congress created the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to report directly to Congress. Other congressional agencies similarly monitor the executive branch and provide other services.
3. Congressional committee staff: These staff members are assigned to all standing committees. Many are policy or legal experts in the relevant area.
V. How a Bill Becomes a Law The process of becoming a law is difficult, and bills can be “killed” by the Speaker, Senate majority leader, or president, as well as through other ways. Only 5 to 10 percent of bills become laws, and most are changed or influenced along the way.
A. Step 1: A Bill Is Introduced 1. Tax/revenue billsmust start in the House, due to its popular representation and the concept of “no taxation without representation.” All other bills can start in either chamber, and must be introduced by a member. Ideas for bills can come from anywhere, including presidents, lobbyists, and regular citizens.
2. Members must first submit the bill to the House/Senate clerk, who gives it a unique number. It is then forwarded to the speaker or Senate majority leader.
B. Step 2: The Bill Is Sent to a Standing Committee for Action 1. Bills are then sent to the standing committee with policy jurisdiction. Most bills die quickly in committee, either by chair neglect or committee vote. If not, the bill is often sent to a subcommittee that studies it, may amend it, and returns it to the full committee.
2. The full committee may then conduct more hearings, debate, and discussion, concluding with a “markup” (final version) of the bill. If a majority of the committee then votes to support it, it proceeds.
C. Step 3: The Bill Goes to the Full House and Senate for Consideration 1. In the House, the bill is assigned to the Rules Committee, which decides how and when the bill will be debated/amended.
2. In the Senate, there are no set rules on debate. This allows for “filibusters”—one or more senators blocking bill passage by refusing to end discussion. However, today a “cloture” vote of sixty senators will end such debate. (A loophole still exists for individual senators.)
3. At the end of debate/amendment, the chambers vote, and the bill needs a majority of members present in both chambers to proceed. Factors that may affect individual votes include the following:
a. Personal opinion and judgment (strong feelings on issues)
b. Constituent opinion (need to be liked and re-elected by voters)
c. Interest groups and lobbying (contributions, campaign support, arguments)
d. Political parties (voting along party lines is rewarded with funding and assignments)
e. The president (exerts information on his/her own and opposing party through “bully pulpit)
f. Logrolling (agreements to vote on one bill in exchange for a member’s vote on another bill)
D. Step 4: Conference Committee Action
Differences between House/Senate bill versions must be resolved before final passage. Usually, such differences are addressed informally. However, when versions are far apart, a conference committee is selected to resolve them.
E. Step 5: Presidential Action 1. Informally, the president plays an important role by proposing and lobbying for new laws. The president also plays the final formal role in the process. Once both chambers have agreed on a bill, it is sent to the president for approval. The president can 1) sign it into law, 2) veto or block the bill, or 3) do nothing.
2. If the president vetoes the bill, Congress can override the presidential veto with a two-thirds vote in both chambers. If the president does nothing, it automatically becomes a law within ten days, unless the congressional session ends before then (pocket veto).
VI. Oversight and Personnel Functions of Congress A. Congressional Oversight Because of the complexity and political sensitivity of many issues, Congress delegates much legislative (rule-making) authority to executive agencies. (One such example is the Federal Reserve, which regulates the economy through money supply control.) However, it monitors the agencies through congressional oversight (holding hearings, approving appointments, etc.). This allows agencies to take credit for problem solving while blaming the executive branch for problems.
Delegation of congressional power refers to those instances in which Congress transfers its lawmaking authority to the executive branch, a tendency that is becoming more frequent as American society becomes more complex.
B. Confirmation of Presidential Nominations and Approval of Treaties 1. The Senate (alone) is authorized, by majority vote, to approve appointments of Cabinet officers, agency heads, federal judges, and foreign ambassadors. (The president appoints them, but they are subject to Senate confirmation.) This mainly occurs at the beginning of each administration. When government is divided, the risk of rejection is higher.
2. Supreme Court appointments are especially noteworthy. Democrats tried to block Clarence Thomas in 1991 (unsuccessfully) and Robert Bork in 1987 (successfully).
3. Congress selects the president (in the House) and vice president (in the Senate) when no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes. This occurred in 1801, 1825, and 1877. Today, both chambers must also approve vice presidential replacements, as in 1973 and 1974.
4. The Senate has approval power over foreign treaties, which requires a two-thirds supermajority vote. Usually, they pass because of presidential consideration of Senate opinion when forming them. The Treaty of Versailles (1919, 1920) is one notable exception.
C. Impeachment and Removal of Federal Judges and High Executives 1. Congress can impeach and remove federal judges, Cabinet officers, the president, and other officials. This requires impeachment by the House and trial in the Senate.
2. Impeachment in the House (by majority vote) simply raises a charge
(article of impeachment) against the person in question. The person then stands trial in the Senate, with select House members acting as prosecutors/managers. Only two presidents (Andrew Johnson in 1867 and Bill Clinton in 1998) have been impeached, and neither was actually removed from office.
3. With presidential impeachments, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides; otherwise, the vice president or president pro tem presides. A two-thirds vote of the full Senate is required for removal.
VII. Constituent Service: Helping People Back Home A. Direct assistance provided to constituents, community groups, or local/state officials is called “casework.” This includes providing information about federal programs, helping people receive federal benefits, and visiting or talking with groups about the political system or specific issues.
B. Casework gives members of Congress an advantage over challengers. (Congress has a more than 90 percent reelection rate.) It also reflects the responsibility of members to help their voters navigate the bureaucracy with regard to programs such as the Workforce Development Act, which assists displaced workers.
C. Casework also provides a direct link between members and their voters, keeping them in touch through speeches and ceremonial appearances, and thus keeping Congress members apprised of their voters’ needs.
D. Finally, “pork barrel” politics/legislation, which involves federal spending on local projects, is an important part of constituent service. This relates to members “bringing home the bacon,” and while often criticized as unfair or wasteful, is a long-established practice that will likely continue.
VIII. Now & Then: Making the Connection This chapter began with two examples of the Senate moving at a glacial pace, frustrating an impatient president at every turn. These examples offer a lot of insight into how Congress, and the Senate in particular, tend to work. First, when Congress is dealing with major problems, the process of creating new laws, approving new treaties and approving presidential appointments can be very slow. Congress’s actions are slow and deliberate; there are many points at which the process may be halted, and many actors with the capacity to hinder progress. Second, the compromises necessary to achieve success in Congress rarely prove entirely satisfactory to everyone involved. Third, both conflicts described at the beginning of the chapter highlight the power and significance of individual actors in the legislative process – those in leadership positions, with special communication skills, and/or highly informed on a particular issue can exert a disproportionate influence on the process.
IX. Chapter Summary Article I and the Creation of Congress A. Congress was the country’s central institution at its founding, and the only one that ensured popular representation (first through the House, and later through the Senate). Congress was made bicameral, with House seats based on population and Senate seats based on equal state representation. Both chambers received roughly equal power.
B. House districts must be roughly equal in population (“one man, one vote”). Parties seek advantage by “gerrymandering” (rigging district lines). House members serve two-year terms.
C. The Senate was designed to slow down change. Today, its members are directly elected in staggered six-year terms.
The Structure and Organization of Congress
Majority dominance in the chambers determines leadership and control. The Speaker of the House is the primary leader there, assigning bills and recognizing members to speak. The vice president is the presiding officer in the Senate, which means that he/she can vote in case of ties. When out, the vice president is replaced by the “president pro tempore.” The Senate majority leader is the true head of the Senate.
The Committee System A. Committees and subcommittees are important aspects of legislation. They include standing (permanent), select (temporary, specific issues), conference (reconciling House/Senate versions of bills), and joint (investigative, bicameral) committees. Leaders choose committee chairs, with seniority an important factor. Congresspersons, agencies, and committees all have support staff.
How a Bill Becomes Law A. Lawmaking is often slow, with major revisions. Bills are introduced by members, sent to committee, and then, if approved, go on to the full House/Senate for vote. If endorsed by majorities in both, a conference committee reconciles differences in versions, and the bill then goes to the president for signature. If the president vetoes, Congress can override with a two-thirds vote in both houses.
Oversight and Personnel Functions of Congress A. Congress may delegate legislative authority to the executive branch due to lack of expertise or desire to avoid responsibility. However, it may still exercise oversight in such cases. The Senate must approve all Cabinet heads, federal judges, and other executive officials. Supreme Court confirmations may be especially controversial. If a majority in the House impeaches a president, judge, or other executive official, a two-thirds vote in the Senate is then needed for removal.
Constituency Service: Helping People Back Home
A. Congress members also perform casework for constituents, whether by assisting them in getting federal benefits, educating them on policy issues, or performing some other service on their behalf. This provides a direct connection between members and voters.