Chapter Study Outline

Congress: Representing the American People

  1. Congress is the most important representative institution in American government. Each member’s primary responsibility is to the district―that is, to his or her constituency (the people in the district from which an official is elected).

  2. The House and Senate play different roles in the legislative process. The Senate is more deliberative, whereas the House is characterized by greater centralization and organization.
  3. House members are more attuned to localized narrow interests in society, whereas senators are more able than House members to represent statewide or national interests.
  4. In recent years, the House has exhibited more partisanship and ideological division than the Senate.
  5. Sociological representation is when representatives have the same racial, gender, ethnic, religious, or educational backgrounds as their constituents. It is based on the principle that if two individuals are similar in background, character, interests, and perspectives then one could correctly represent the other’s views.
  6. Agency representation is the sort of representation that takes place when constituents have the power to hire and fire their representatives. This is incentive for good representation when the personal backgrounds, views, and interests of the representative differ from those of his or her constituency.
  7. Congress is not a sociological microcosm of American society.
  8. Members of Congress frequently communicate with constituents and devote a great deal of staff time to constituency service.
  9. Electoral motivations have a strong impact on both sociological and agency representation in Congress.
  10. Incumbency affords members of Congress resources such as constituency service and mailing to help secure re-election. Incumbency can help a candidate by scaring off potential challengers. The overwhelming percentage of incumbents who run are re-elected.
  11. In recent years, turnover rates in Congress have increased, although this is due more to incumbent retirement than to the defeat of incumbents in elections.
  12. Supporters of term limits (legally prescribed limits on the number of terms an elected official can serve) argue that such limits are the only way to get new faces into Congress.
  13. Apportionment and redistricting affect who wins seats in Congress. The manipulation of electoral districts to serve the interests of a particular group is known as gerrymandering.
  14. Members of Congress often have an opportunity to provide direct benefits, or patronage, for their constituents. Members of Congress can supply benefits to constituents by passing pork-barrel legislation. Members of Congress exchange pork-barrel votes for votes on other issues.

The Organization of Congress

  1. At the beginning of each Congress, Democrats and Republicans gather to select their leaders. The leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives is elected Speaker of the House by a strict party vote.
  2. In the Senate, the president pro tempore is the presiding officer, although the majority and minority leaders control the calendar and agenda of the Senate.
  3. The committee system provides Congress with a second organizational structure that is more a division of labor than the party-based hierarchies of power.
  4. With specific jurisdiction over certain policy areas and the task of processing proposals of legislation into bills for floor consideration, standing committees are the most important arenas of congressional policy making.
  5. Power within committees is based on seniority, although the seniority principle is not absolute.
  6. During the 1970s, reforms fragmented power in Congress—the committee system, specifically—by increasing both the number of subcommittees and the autonomy of subcommittee chairpersons.
  7. Each member of Congress has a personal staff that deals with constituency requests and, increasingly, with the details of legislative and administrative oversight.
  8. Groups of senators or representatives who share certain opinions, interests, or social characteristics form informal organizations called caucuses.

Rules of Lawmaking: How a Bill Becomes a Law

  1. Committee deliberation is necessary before floor action on any bill.
  2. Many bills receive little or no committee or subcommittee action; they are allowed to “die in committee.”
  3. Bills presented out of committee in the House must go through the House Rules Committee before they can be debated on the floor. The Rules Committee allots the time for floor debate on a bill and the conditions under which a bill may (or may not) be amended.
  4. In the Senate, rules of debate are much less rigid. In fact, senators may delay Senate action on legislation by refusing to yield the floor; this is known as a filibuster.
  5. Conference committees are often required to reconcile House and Senate versions of bills that began with similar provisions but emerged with significant differences.
  6. After being adopted by the House and the Senate, a bill is sent to the president, who may choose to sign the bill or veto it. Congress can override a president’s veto by two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate.

How Congress Decides

  1. Creating a legislative agenda, drawing up a list of possible measures, and deciding among them is a complex process in which a variety of influences from inside and outside government play important roles.
  2. Interest groups can influence congressional decision making by mobilizing followers in congressional districts, setting the agenda, or writing legislative language.
  3. Party discipline is still an important factor in congressional voting, despite its decline throughout the twentieth century. Among the resources that party leaders have at their disposal are (1) leadership PACs, (2) committee assignments, (3) access to the floor, (4) the whip system, (5) logrolling, and (6) the presidency. Party leaders regularly use these resources, which are often effective in securing the support of party members.
  4. Party unity is typically greater in the House than in the Senate. Party unity on roll-call votes has increased in recent sessions of Congress.
  5. Party unity is a result of a combination of the ideology and background of individual members and the resources party leaders have at their disposal.
  6. The influence of the presidency is probably the most important of all the resources that maintain party discipline in Congress.

Beyond Legislation: Other Congressional Powers

  1. Congress has increasingly relied on legislative oversight of administrators. Oversight is carried out by committees or subcommittees of the Senate or the House, which conduct hearings and investigations to analyze and evaluate bureaucratic agencies and the effectiveness of their programs.
  2. The Senate, through the constitutional power of advice and consent, approves or rejects presidential treaties and appointments.
  3. Congress has the power to impeach executive officials.

Thinking Critically about Congress and Democracy

  1. Congressional reforms of the 1970s fragmented power in Congress and made it more open to special interests.
  2. For the Founders, Congress was the national institution that best embodied the ideals of representative democracy.
  3. A member of Congress can represent his or her constituency as a delegate or as a trustee.
  4. Most members of Congress take the threat of re-election seriously and try to anticipate the wishes of their constituents.
  5. What the public dislikes most about Congress stems from suspicions that Congress does not act as a trustee or as a delegate of any broad interest but that it is swayed by narrow special interests with money.