Part I: the ap united states government course examination

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The elastic (or necessary and proper clause) gives Congress the authority to pass laws it deems necessary and proper to carry out its enumerated functions. Many congressional powers that have evolved over the years are based on this important clause.

Two important evolutionary powers are:

  • Oversight of the budget. Congress reviews and restricts the annual budget prepared by the executive branch. When a law is passed setting up a government program, Congress must pass an authorization bill that states the maximum amount of money available. When the nation’s budget is set, only Congress can set the appropriations the actual amount available in a fiscal year for each program that it has authorized.

  • Investigation. Congress may investigate both issues that warrant study and wrong doings by public officials. Through committee hearings, Congress has examined issues such as crime, consumer safety, health care, and foreign trade. Although Congress must abide by protected individual rights, their committees have examined many allegations against elected officials. Famous recent investigations include the Watergate and the Clinton-Lewinsky hearings.


Political parties are very important in both the House of Representatives and the Senate today. Even though political parties don’t play as big a role in elections as they once did, they still provide the basic organization of leadership in Congress.

After each legislative election the party that wins the most representatives is designated the majority in each house, and the other party is called the minority. Usually, the same party holds both houses, but occasionally they are split. For example, from 1983-85, the House majority was Democratic and the Senate majority was Republican. The split happened again in 2001, when an evenly divided Senate became Democratic when Senator Jim Jeffords dropped his affiliation with the Republican Party to become an independent. These designations are important because the majority party holds the most significant leadership positions.


The Speaker of the House is the most important leadership position in the House. This office is provided for in the Constitution, and even though it says "The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers," in truth the majority party does the choosing. Before each Congress convenes the majority party selects its candidate, who almost always is the person selected. The Speaker typically has held other leadership positions and is a senior member of the party. Around the turn of the century, the Speaker was all powerful, especially under the leadership of Joe Cannon and Thomas Reed. A revolt by the membership in 1910 gave some of the Speaker's powers to committees, but the Speaker still has some important powers:

  • recognizing members who wish to speak

  • ruling on questions of parliamentary procedure

  • appointing members to select and conference committees

  • directs business on the floor

  • exercising political and behind-the-scenes influence

  • appointing members of the committees who appoint members to standing committees

  • exercising substantial control over which bills get assigned to which committees

  • appointing the party's legislative leaders

 The Speaker's most important colleague is the majority leader, whose position is often a stepping-stone to the Speaker's position. The majority leader is responsible for scheduling bills and for rounding up votes for bills the party favors.

 The minority leader is the spokesperson for the minority party, and usually steps into the position of Speaker when and if his or her party gains a majority in the House. Assisting each floor leader are the party whips, who serve as go-betweens for the members and the leadership. They inform members when important bills will come up for a vote, do nose-counts for the leadership, and pressure members to support the leadership.


 The Senate is characterized by its highest positions actually having very little power. By Constitutional provision, the president of the Senate is the vice-president of the United States. A vice-president can vote only in case of a tie and seldom attends Senate sessions. The Senate selects from among the majority party a largely ceremonial president pro tempore, usually the most senior member in the party. The president pro tempore is the official chair, but since the job has no real powers, the job of presiding over the Senate is usually given to a junior senator.

 The real leaders of the Senate are the majority leader and the minority leader. The Senate majority leader is often the most influential person in the Senate, and has the right to be the first senator heard on the floor. The majority leader determines the Senate's agenda and usually has much to say about committee assignments. The majority leader may consult with the minority leader in setting the agenda, but the minority leader generally only has as much say as the majority leader is willing to allow. The Senate also has party whips that serve much the same functions as they serve in the House.


Most of the real work of Congress goes on in committees and subcommittees. Bills are worked out or killed in committees, and committees investigate problems and oversee the executive branch.


There are four types of committees:

  • Standing committees are the most important type because they handle bills in different policy areas, thus shaping legislation it a very critical point. The Senate and the House have separate standing committees: the Senate currently has 16 and the House has 19. The numbers may fluctuate slightly, but they tend to "stand" for a long time.

  • Select committees are formed for specific purposes and are usually temporary. A famous example is the select committee that investigated the Watergate scandal. Other select committees, like the Select Committee on Aging and the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, have existed for a number of years and actually produce legislation. Sometimes long-standing select committees eventually become standing committees.

  • Joint committees have similar purposes to select committees, but they consist of members from both the House and Senate. They are set up to conduct business between the houses and to help focus public attention on major issues. They investigate issues like the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, and they oversee institutions such as the Library of Congress.

  • Conference committees also consist of members from both the House and Senate, but they are formed exclusively to hammer out differences between House and Senate versions of similar bills. A bill goes to a conference committee after it has been approved in separate processes in the two houses, and a compromise bill is sent back to each house for final approval.

Standing Committees of Congress

House Committees

Senate Committees


Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry



Armed Services

Armed Services


Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs

Education and the Workforce


Energy and Commerce

Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Financial Service

Energy and Natural Resources

Government Reform

Environment and Public Works

House Administration


International Relations

Foreign Relations


Governmental Affairs


Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions




Rules and Administration

Small Business

Small Business and Entrepreneurship

Standards of Official Conduct

Veterans Affairs

Transportation and Infrastructure


Veterans Affairs


Ways and Means




More than 11,000 bills are introduced in the House and Senate over the two-year life span of a Congress, and all of them cannot possibly be considered by the full memberships. Each bill is submitted to a committee that has life or death control over its future. The majority of bills are pigeonholed, or forgotten for weeks or forever, and never make it out of committee. They are submitted to a subcommittee that will discuss them and possibly hold hearings for them. About 3000 staff assist the various committees and subcommittees, conducting research and administrative and clerical work. Supporters and critics of the bill appear at the hearings and are questioned by subcommittee members.

The bills that survive this far into the process are then marked up (changed or rewritten) and returned to the full committee where they may be altered further. If the committee approves a bill, it will then be sent first to the Rules Committee in the House, and then to the floor. The bill is sent directly to the floor in the Senate


Committee membership is controlled by the parties, primarily by the majority party. The chairman and a majority of each standing committee come from the majority party. The remaining committee members are from the minority party, but they are always a minority on the committee. In the House of Representatives, a Committee on Committees places Republicans on committees, and the Steering and Policy Committee selects the Democrats. In the Senate, each party has a small Steering Committee that makes committee assignments. Assignments are based on the personal and political qualities of the member, his or her region, and whether the assignment will help reelect the member.

Getting on the right committee is very important to most members of Congress. A member from a "safe" district whose reelection is secure may want to serve on an important committee that promotes a power base in Washington. On the other hand, a member who has few ambitions beyond his or her current position and whose reelection is less secure may want to serve on a committee that suits the needs of constituents. For example, a less secure representative from rural Kansas may prefer to serve on the Agriculture Committee.


Committee chairmen are the most important shapers of the committee agenda. Their positions were made more powerful in the House by the 1910 revolt which transferred power from the Speaker to the chairmen. From 1910 until the early 1970s, chairmen were strictly chosen by the seniority system, in which the member with the longest continuous service on the committee was placed automatically in the chairmanship. In the early 1970s, the House decided to elect committee chairmen by secret ballots from all the majority members. As a result, several committee chairmen were removed, and although most chairmen still get their positions through seniority, it is possible to be removed or overlooked.


The Rules Committee in the House of Representatives plays a key role in shaping legislation because it sets very important rules for debate when the bill is presented to the House after it leaves the committee.

  • A closed rule (sometimes called a gag rule) sets strict time limits on debates and forbids amendments from the floor, except those from the presenting committee. Under closed rule, members not on the committee have little choice but to vote for or against the bill as it is.

  • An open rule permits amendments and often has less strict time limits, allowing for input from other members. The Rules Committee is controlled by the Speaker, and in recent years, has put more and more restrictions on bills, giving Rules even more power.


Although Congress is organized formally through its party leadership and committee system, equally important is the informal network of caucuses, groupings of members of Congress sharing the same interests or points of view. There are currently more than seventy of these groups, and their goal is to shape the agenda of Congress, which they do by elevating their issues or interests to a prominent place in the daily workings of Congress.

Some caucuses are regionally based, such as the Conservative Democratic Forum (also known as the Boll Weevils because they are mostly from the South), the Sunbelt Caucus, and the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition. Others share racial, ethnic, or gender characteristics, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, or the Women’s Caucus. One of the oldest is the Democratic Study Group, which encourages unity among liberal Democrats. Others share specialized interests, such as the Steel Caucus and the Mushroom Caucus.

Within Congress caucuses press for committees to hold hearings, and they organize votes on bills they favor. Caucuses also pressure agencies within the bureaucracy to act according to the interest of the caucus.


More than 30,000 people work in paid bureaucratic positions for Congress. About half of them serve as personal staff for members of Congress or as committee staff members. The personal staff includes professionals that manage the member’s time, draft legislation, and deal with media and constituents. Staffers also must maintain local offices in the member’s home district or state. The average Senate office employs about thirty staff members, but senators from the most populous states commonly employ more. House office staffs are usually about half as large as those of the Senate. Overall, the number of staff members has increased dramatically since 1960.

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