Chapter Review

Congress was designed in a way that conflicts and compromise are common. National and local conflicts are inherent to the system—members of Congress are called to be responsible for the nation as a whole while also being responsive to their constituents.

Congress' Place in Our Constitutional System

Congressional structure and power are established in the Constitution. Enumerated congressional powers are supplemented by vast implicit powers stemming from the elastic clause. Congress has more constitutionally bestowed power than either the Presidency or the courts.

  • Congress is composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Senators serve longer terms and have larger constituencies than do members of the House, largely in an attempt to make Representatives responsive to local interests. Senators, on the other hand, are to be responsive to national interests.

Congress and the People

  • Representation and the Constituency

    To understand congressional behavior, it is important to understand the two characteristics of the relationship between a member of Congress and her constituency.

    • Descriptive representation asks, "Does my member of Congress look like me?" Descriptive representation can build trust in the government among traditionally underrepresented groups.
    • Substantive representation asks, "Does my member of Congress reflect my interests?" Depending on whether a legislator is more concerned with doing what is in their constituents best interests, or if they do what their constituents want, their form of substantive representation is classified as trustee (responsible), delegate (responsive), or politico (balance between responsibility and responsiveness).
    • Even though voters are typically unaware of congressional activity, members of Congress behave as if their constituency are watching. They do this because they know that when elections approach they will be more likely to lose if they are caught failing to uphold their district's interest.
    • Representing the district's interests can be quite difficult. Where districts are heterogeneous, members of Congress can have a tough time appealing to all their subconstituencies. As such, legislators generally represent the central ideological tendencies of their districts, so as to not alienate too many voters.
  • The Electoral Connection

    The key to understanding the behavior of legislators is to recognize that re-election is their primary interest. Without getting elected, legislators would be unable to enact policy change or represent their constituents.

    • Members of Congress improve their chances for re-election by relating to their constituents through advertising, credit claiming, and position taking.
  • Redistricting
    • To help maintain electoral equality, districts are redrawn in a process called apportionment. States gain or lose seats every ten years based on the most recent census.
    • Redrawing district lines can have significant implications for members of Congress. Using the redistricting process to gain a political advantage is called gerrymandering. Even if neutral authorities are in charge of the redistricting, the new lines have important implications for whoever wins in elections.
  • Congress' Image Problem

    Despite all the work that members of Congress do to cultivate support in their district, Congress has very low approval ratings.

  • Congressional scandals, though rare, get widespread attention. While media coverage of policy stories has declined, stories of Congressional scandals have increased dramatically.
  • The American public has a hard time appreciating the difficulties in reconciling competing interests, especially when that reconciliation takes time. Compromise is popularly portrayed as partisanship and gridlock. Congress was designed to process legislation slowly and deliberately. The inherent conflict between local and national interests requires members of Congress to balance their responsiveness to local interests with their responsibilities to the larger national interest.

The Incumbency Advantage and Its Sources

Despite the low approval for Congress as a whole, individual members of Congress rarely get defeated when they run for re-election, with a re-election rate round 93–98 percent, depending on the year. This growth in incumbency advantage has a number of sources (beyond what was discussed above in the Electoral Connection section).

  • In the district, members try to find a way to relate to their district and present themselves carefully to appear like their constituents.
  • Incumbents raise money, quite a bit of money, for their political campaigns, which makes it difficult for challengers to compete.
  • Incumbents "work their districts" by meeting with constituents and working with federal agencies and programs to help constituents get their appropriate benefits. Most House members perform constituency casework as often as possible, preferring it to many other activities. By helping solve a constituent's problems, members are more likely to get that person's support in the upcoming election.

The Structure of Congress

Congress has a number of rules and norms. Norms are not official rules, but are informal agreements commonly held by legislators.

  • Informal Structures
    • Universalism is the norm where benefits are divided up among districts, members of Congress generally try to benefit as many states and districts as possible.
    • Similarly, members of Congress often practice reciprocity, wherein they support another member's bills in order to get support for their own.
    • The seniority norm awards powerful positions to legislators based on the length of time they have been in office.
    • Specialization demands that members of Congress (particularly Representatives) become experts on a small subset of issues allowing them to develop knowledge and build support back home.
  • Formal Structures

    In addition to these informal norms, Congress also has a long list of formal structures.

    • The majority party in the House of Representatives is led by the Speaker, who chooses the party strategy and committee assignments.
    • Both the majority and minority party have party leaders who manage their parties' day-to-day Congressional activity; and whips, who gather and share information, count votes, and build coalitions.
    • The leadership structure of the Senate is similar to that of the House, though Senate leaders are not as powerful. Both the majority and minority party have a leader, assistant leader, and whip.
    • Unlike their counterparts overseas, the Congressional party leaders do not have much power over their members and are unable to force a member of Congress to vote a certain way.
    • Committees divide up much of the work that Congress does, allowing for members of Congress to develop expertise and reinforce norms of reciprocity and universalism.
    • There are four kinds of committees:
      • Standing committees are the most common, and do the most work. They are relatively permanent, draft legislation, and have wide jurisdiction.
      • Select committees address specific topics for one or two terms, and are then disbanded.
      • Joint committees are composed of members from both the House and Senate, and they gather information, but rarely have legislative authority.
      • Conference committees are formed between House and Senate members to reconcile the differences between bills passed by the House and Senate.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

There are two general tracks for how bills become law.

  • In the "textbook" version:
    1. Once a member introduces a bill, it is sent to the relevant committee in the first chamber (House or Senate), where the committee chair sends it to the relevant subcommittee.
    2. The subcommittee goes over the bill, holds hearings and rewrites it, sometimes adding amendments. The subcommittee then decides whether or not to pass the bill on to the full committee.
    3. If the bill goes on to the full committee, committee members have the opportunity to add amendments, vote on it as-is, or table it (effectively killing it).
    4. If the bill gets passed on by the committee, it goes to the floor. There, it goes through another round of debate and amending, whereupon it is up for a vote.
    5. If the House and Senate pass bills that are not identical, the differences are often resolved in a conference committee, where members from both the House and Senate meet.
    6. If the conference committee can agree on all the changes, the final version is sent back to each of the two chambers for a majority vote.
    7. If the bill passes each of these chambers, it is sent to the President, who can either sign it into law or veto it. If the President vetoes it, the bill can still become a law if both chambers pass the bill with a two-thirds majority. Otherwise, the bill dies.
  • Deviations from the "Textbook" Process

    Rather than bringing up legislation in this "textbook" process, party leaders often deviate from this textbook process when major legislation comes up, and there are several ways that party leaders can do this.

    • They can choose to hold summit meetings
    • Remove a bill from its assigned committee
    • Rewrite the bill after committee mark-up
    • Sponsor omnibus legislation, or large bills that cover lots of topics
  • Differences in the House and Senate Legislative Processes

    The House and Senate have very different rules structuring the legislative process, which can lead to very different outcomes for bills.

  • For example, the House has very specific rules for when a bill can be voted on by the floor, how long debate can go on, what types of amendments can be offered, and so on.
    • The House Rules Committee exerts lots of control on the legislative process, particularly on major bills. They can pass special rules that govern how a particular bill is considered:
      • Closed rules do not allow any amendments to the bill
      • Open rules allow only germane amendments
      • Modified rules allow some types of amendments, but not others
  • By contrast, the Senate has far fewer rules, with no limits on when the majority leader can bring a bill to the floor or the types of amendments that can be offered for a specific bill.
    • Also, the Senate has no limit on how long debate can last. Debate can only be cut off by invoking cloture, which requires that sixty senators vote to end debate.
    • The practice of talking a bill to death is called the filibuster, and it gives the minority party in the Senate a significant advantage in controlling what the majority party passes


Once a bill becomes a law, Congress has the responsibility of making sure that it is implemented well by the bureaucracy.

  • They do so in a number of ways: by controlling budgets, by holding hearings and conducting investigation, or by overturning bureaucratic decisions.
  • Congress may use legislative vetoes, overturning bureaucratic decisions it disagrees with.
  • In addition, the Senate can make use of its power to provide "advice and consent" to the President on appointments and treaties.
  • Lastly, Congress has the power to impeach the President, Vice President, federal judges, or other civil officers.