American Government


By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

1.     Explain the differences between a congress and a parliament and delineate the role that the Framers expected the United States Congress to play.

2.     Pinpoint the significant eras in the evolution of Congress.

3.     Describe the characteristics of members of Congress and outline the process for electing members of Congress.

4.     Identify the functions that party affiliation plays in the organization of Congress.

5.     Describe the formal process by which a bill becomes a law.

6.     Identify the factors that help to explain why a member of Congress votes as he or she does.


Over the last fifty years or so, Congress, especially the House, has evolved through three stages. The Congress is presently an uneasy combination of stages two and three.

During the first stage, which lasted from the end of World War I until the early 1960s, the House was dominated by powerful committee chairs who controlled the agenda, decided which members would get what services for their constituents, and tended to follow the leadership of the Speaker. Newer members were expected to be seen but not heard; power and prominence came only after a long apprenticeship. Congressional staffs were small, and so members dealt with each other face to face. In dealing with other members, it helped to have a southern accent: Half of all committee chairs, in both the House and the Senate, were from the South. Not many laws were passed over their objections.

The second stage emerged in the early 1970s, in part as the result of trends already under way and in part as the result of changes in procedures and organization brought about by younger, especially northern, members. (As an example of continuing trends, consider the steady growth in the number of staffers assigned to each member.) Dissatisfied with southern resistance to civil rights bills and emboldened by a sharp increase in the number of liberals who had been elected in the Johnson landslide of 1964, the House Democratic caucus adopted rules that allowed the caucus to do the following:

·             select committee chairs without regard to seniority;

·             increase the number and staffs of subcommittees;

·             authorize individual committee members (instead of just the committee chair) to choose the subcommittee chairs;

·             ended the ability of chairs to refuse to call meetings; and

·             made it much harder to close meetings to the public.

Also, the installation of electronic voting made it easier to require recorded votes, and so there was a sharp rise in the number of times each member had to go on record. The Rules Committee was instructed to issue more rules that would allow floor amendments.

At the same time, the number of southern Democrats in leadership positions began to decline, while the conservativism of the remaining ones began to lessen. Moreover, northern and southern Democrats began to vote together a bit more frequently, though the conservative Boll Weevils remained a significant—and often swing—group.

These changes created a House ideally suited to serve the reelection needs of its members. Each representative could be an individual political entrepreneur, seeking publicity, claiming credit, introducing bills, holding subcommittee hearings, and assigning staffers to work on constituents’ problems. There was no need to defer to powerful party leaders or committee chairs. But because representatives in each party were becoming more ideologically similar, there was a rise in party voting. Congress became a career attractive to women and men skilled in these techniques. Their skills as members were manifest in the growth of the sophomore surge, the increase in their winning percentage during their first re-election campaign.

Even junior members could now make their mark on legislation. In the House, more floor amendments were offered and passed; in the Senate, filibusters became more commonplace. Owing to multiple referrals and overlapping subcommittee jurisdictions, more members could participate in writing bills and overseeing government agencies.

Lurking within the changes that defined the second stage were others, less noticed at the time, that created the beginnings of a new phase. This third stage was an effort in the House to strengthen and centralize party leadership. The Speaker acquired the power to appoint a majority of the Rules Committee members. That body, worried by the flood of floor amendments, began issuing more restrictive rules. By the mid-1980s, this had reached the point where Republicans were complaining that they were being gagged. The Speaker also got control of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee (which assigns new members to committees) and was given the power to refer bills to several committees simultaneously.

These opportunities for becoming a powerful Speaker were not noticed while Tip O’Neill (D, Massachusetts) held that post. However, Jim Wright (D, Texas), O’Neill’s successor, began to make full use of these powers shortly after he entered office. Perhaps if he had not stumbled over his ethical problems, Wright might have succeeded in becoming the policy leader of the House, setting the agenda and getting much of it adopted. The replacement of Wright by Tom Foley (D, Washington) signaled a return to a more accomodationist leadership style.

The pendulum continued to swing between different leadership styles in the latter half of the 1990s. Foley’s replacement, Republican Newt Gingrich (Georgia), was a more assertive policy leader. The first sitting Speaker to be reprimanded by the House for ethics violations, Gingrich resigned from office after the 1998 elections. He was succeeded by a more moderate speaker, J. Dennis Hastert (R, Illinois). The evolution of the House remains an incomplete story. It is not yet clear whether it will remain in stage two or find some way of moving decisively into stage three. For now, it has elements of both. Meanwhile, the Senate remains as individualistic and as decentralized as ever—a place where it has always been difficult to exercise strong leadership.

Congress is a collection of individual representatives from states and districts who play no role in choosing the president. They are therefore free to serve the interests of their constituents, their personal political views, and (to a limited extent) the demands of congressional leaders. In serving those interests, members of necessity rely on investigating, negotiating, and compromise, all of which may annoy voters who want Congress to be “decisive.” The unpopularity of Congress is made worse by the recent tendency of its members to become ideologically more polarized.

One of the most important changes in the profile of Congressional members is the increased ability of incumbents to get re-elected. This reflects the growth of constituent service, name recognition, and the weakening of party loyalties among voters.

Though its members may complain that Congress is collectively weak, to any visitor from abroad it seems extraordinarily powerful. Congress has always been jealous of its constitutional authority and independence. Three compelling events led to Congress reasserting its authority. These were the war in Vietnam, which became progressively more unpopular; the Watergate scandals, which revealed a White House illegally influencing the electoral process; and the continuance of divided government, with one party in control of the presidency and another in control of Congress.

In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act over a presidential veto, giving it a greater voice in the use of American forces abroad. The following year, it passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which denied the president the right to refuse to spend money appropriated by Congress. This act gave Congress a greater role in the budget process. Congress also passed laws to provide a legislative veto over presidential actions, especially with respect to the sale of arms abroad. Not all these steps have withstood the tests of time or of Supreme Court review, but taken together they indicate a resurgence of congressional authority. They also helped set the stage for sharper conflicts between Congress and the presidency.

Chapter Outline

I.      Congress versus parliament

A.    Comparison with British Parliament

1.     Parliamentary candidates are selected by their party

a)     Become a candidate by persuading your party to place your name on ballot

b)     Voters choose between national parties, not between multiple candidates within a single party

c)     Members of Parliament select prime minister and other leaders

d)     Party members vote together on most issues

e)     Renomination depends on remaining loyal to party

f)      Principal work is debate over national issues

g)     Members have very little actual power, very little pay or staff resources

2.     Congressional candidates run in a primary election, with little party control over their nomination

a)     Vote is for the candidate, not the party

b)     Result is a body of independent representatives of districts or states.

c)     Members do not choose the chief executive—voters elect president

d)     Power is decentralized and members are independent

e)     Party discipline is limited, not enduring (104th Congress, 1995)

f)      Members’ principal work is representation and action

g)     Members have a great deal of power, high pay and significant staff resources

II.     The evolution of Congress

A.    Intent of the Framers

1.     To oppose the concentration of power in a single institution

2.     To balance large and small states: bicameralism

3.     Expected Congress to be the dominant institution

B.     Competing values shape congressional action: centralization vs. decentralization

1.     Centralization

a)     Would allow Congress to act quickly and decisively

b)     Requires strong central leadership, restrictions on debate, little committee interference

2.     Decentralization

a)     Allows for the protection of individual members and their constituencies

b)     Requires weak leadership, rules allowing for delay, and much committee activity

3.     General trend has been toward decentralization, especially since mid-20th century

a)     Trend may not have been inevitable; decentralization has not occurred in state legislatures

b)     Changing organization of the House may have facilitated decentralization

D.    The evolution of the Senate

1.     Escaped many of the tensions encountered by the House

a)     Smaller chamber

b)     In 1800s, balanced between slave and free states

c)     Size precluded need of a Rules Committee

d)     Previous to 1913, Senators were elected by the state legislature, which caused them to focus on jobs and contributions for their states.

2.     Major struggle in the Senate about how its members should be chosen, 17th amendment (1913)

3.     Filibuster another major issue: restricted by Rule 22 (1917), which allows a vote of cloture

III.    Who is in Congress?

A.    The beliefs and interests of members of Congress can affect policy

B.     Sex and race

1.     The House has become less male and less white

2.     Senate has been slower to change

3.     Members of color may gain influence more quickly than women because the former often come from safe districts

4.     Republican control has decreased the influence of all minorities

C.     Incumbency

1.     Membership in Congress became a career: low turnover by 1950s

2.     1992 and 1994 brought many new members to the House

a)     Redistricting after 1990 census put incumbents in new districts they couldn’t carry

b)     Anti-incumbency attitude of voters

c)     Republican victory in 1994, partially due to the South’s shift to the Republican party

d)     Democratic victory in 2008 due to unpopularity of the president and the war

3.     Incumbents still with great electoral advantage

a)     Most House districts safe, not marginal

b)     Senators are less secure as incumbents

4.     Voters may support incumbents for several reasons

a)     Media coverage is higher for incumbents

b)     Incumbents have greater name recognition owing to franking, travel to the district, news coverage

c)     Members secure policies, programs, and funding for voters

IV.   Do members represent their voters?

A.    Members may be devoted to their constituents, their own beliefs, pressure groups, congressional leaders or some other force

B.     Three primary theories of member behavior

1.     Representational view: members vote to please their constituents, in order to secure re-election

a)     Applies when constituents have a clear view and the legislator’s vote is likely to attract attention

2.     Organizational view: where constituency interests are not vitally at stake, members primarily respond to cues from colleagues

a)     Party is the principal cue, with shared ideological ties causing each member to look to specific members for guidance

b)     Party members of the Committee sponsoring the legislation are especially influential

3.     Attitudinal view: the member’s ideology determines her/his vote

a)     House members are ideologically more similar to the “average voter” than are Senators

b)     Senate less in tune with public opinion, more likely to represent different bases of support in each state

D.    Ideology and civility in Congress

1.     Members are increasingly divided by political ideology

a)     Attitudinal explanation of voting is increasingly important

b)     Organizational explanation is of decreasing importance

2.     Polarization among members has led to many more attacks and to less constructive negotiations of bills and policies

V.     The organization of Congress: parties and caucuses

A.    Party organization of the Senate

1.     Vice President presides; President pro tempore is the member with most seniority in majority party (a largely honorific office)

2.     Leaders are the majority leader and the minority leader, elected by their respective party members

a)     Majority leader schedules Senate business, usually in consultation with minority leader

b)     Majority leader who is skilled at political bargaining may acquire substantial influence over the substance of Senate business as well

3.     Party whips: keep leaders informed, round up votes, count noses

4.     Each party has a policy committee: schedules Senate business, prioritizes bills

5.     Committee assignments are handled by a group of Senators, each for their own party

a)     Democratic Steering Committee

b)     Republican Committee on Committees

c)     Assignments are especially important for freshmen

d)     Assignments emphasize ideological and regional balance

e)     Other factors: popularity, effectiveness on television, favors owed

B.     Party structure in the House—House rules give leadership more power

1.     Speaker of the House is leader of majority party and presides over House

a)     Decides who to recognize to speak on the floor

b)     Rules on germaneness of motions

c)     Assigns bills to committees, subject to some rules

d)     Influences which bills are brought up for a vote

e)     Appoints members of special and select committees

f)      Has some informal powers

2.     Majority leader and minority leader: leaders on the floor

3.     Party whip organizations

4.     Committee assignments and legislative schedule are set by each party

a)     Democrats—Steering and Policy Committee

b)     Republicans divide tasks

(1)    Committee on Committees for committee assignments

(2)    Policy Committee to schedule legislation

5.     Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees

C.     The strength of party structures

1.     Loose measure of the strength of party structure is the ability of leaders to get members to vote together to determine party rules and organization

2.     Tested in 104th Congress—Gingrich with party support for reforms and controversial committee assignments

3.     Senate contrasts with the House

a)     Senate has changed through changes in norms, rather than change in rules

b)     Senate now less party-centered and less leader-oriented; more hospitable to freshmen, more heavily staffed, and more subcommittee oriented 

D.    Party unity

1.     Measure party polarization in voting by votes in which a majority of Democrats and Republicans oppose one another

2.     Party voting and cohesion more evident in 1990s than in period from 1960s through 1980s

3.     Today, splits often reflect deep ideological differences between parties or party leaders

a)     In the past, splits were a product of party discipline

b)     Focus was then on winning elections, dispensing patronage, keeping power

4.     Why is there party voting, given party has so little electoral influence?

a)     Ideological orientation is important to members (and may be becoming increasingly important to voters)

b)     Cues given by and taken from fellow party members

c)     Rewards from party leaders go to those who follow the party line

E.     Caucuses

1.     An association of members of Congress created to advocate a political ideology or a regional or economic interest

2.     Republicans passed legislation making caucus operations more difficult in 1995

3.     Types of caucuses

a)     Intra-party caucuses: members share a similar ideology (ex: Democratic Study Group)

b)     Personal interest caucuses: members share an interest in an issue (ex: arts, human rights)

c)     Constituency caucuses: established to represent groups, regions or both (ex: Congressional Black Caucus)

VI.   The organization of Congress: committees

A.    Legislative committees—most important organizational feature of Congress

1.     Consider bills or legislative proposals

2.     Maintain oversight of executive agencies

3.     Conduct investigations

B.     Types of committees

1.     Standing committees: basically permanent bodies with specified legislative responsibilities

2.     Select committees: groups appointed for a limited purpose and limited duration

3.     Joint committees: those on which both representatives and senators serve

4.     Conference committee: a joint committee appointed to resolve differences in Senate and House versions of the same piece of legislation before final passage

VII.  The organization of Congress: staffs and specialized offices

A.    Tasks of staff members

1.     Constituency service is a major task of members’ staff

a)     Approximately one-third of the members’ staff work in the district

b)     Almost all members have at least one full-time district office

2.     Legislative functions of staff include devising proposals, negotiating agreements, organizing hearings, meeting with lobbyists and administrators

3.     Members’ staff consider themselves advocates of their employers—entrepreneurial function (sometimes very independent)

4.     Members of Congress can no longer keep up with increased legislative work and so must rely on staff

5.     Results of a larger member staff:

a)     More legislative work in the chamber

b)     More individualistic Congress—less collegial, less deliberative because members interact through their staff, who become their negotiators

VIII. How a bill becomes law

A.    Bills travel through Congress at different speeds

1.     Bills to spend money or to tax or regulate businesses move slowly

2.     Bills with a clear, appealing idea move fast, especially if they don’t require large expenditures

3.     Complexity of legislative process helps a bill’s opponents


B.     Introducing a bill

1.     Bill must be introduced by a member of Congress

a)     Public bill, pertains to public affairs generally

b)     Private bill, pertains to a particular individual; now rare―matter usually delegated to administrative agencies or courts

c)     Pending legislation does not carry over from one Congress to another; it must be reintroduced

2.     Congress initiates most legislation

3.     Resolutions

a)     Simple resolution: passed by one house and affects that house, not signed by the president; does not have the force of law

b)     Concurrent resolution: passed by both houses and affects both, not signed by the president; does not have the force of law

c)     Joint resolution

(1)    Essentially a law—passed by both houses, signed by president

(2)    If used to propose constitutional amendment, two-thirds vote required in both houses but the president’s signature is unnecessary

C.     Study by committees

1.     Bill is referred to a committee for consideration by either Speaker or presiding officer of the Senate

a)     Chamber rules define each committee’s jurisdiction, but sometimes the Speaker has had to make a choice

b)     Speaker’s decisions can be appealed to the full House

2.     Revenue bills must originate in the House

3.     Most bills die in committee

4.     Bill must be placed on a calendar to come for a vote before either house

5.     House Rules Committee sets the rules for consideration

a)     Closed rule: sets time limit on debate and restricts amendments

b)     Open rule: permits amendments from the floor

c)     Restrictive rule: permits only some amendments

d)     Use of closed and restrictive rules increased from the 1970s to the 1990s; in 1995, Republicans allowed more debate under open rules.

e)     Rules can be bypassed in the House—move to suspend rules; discharge petition; Calendar Wednesday (rarely done)

6.     In Senate, unanimous consent agreements require the majority leader to negotiate the interests of individual senators

D.    Floor debate—the House

1.     Committee of the Whole—procedural device for expediting House consideration of bills; it cannot pass bills

2.     Committee sponsor of bill organizes the discussion

3.     No riders (non-germane amendments) allowed

4.     House usually passes the sponsoring committee’s version of the bill

E.     Floor debate—the Senate

1.     No rule limiting germaneness of amendments, so riders are common

2.     Committee hearing process can be bypassed by a senator with a rider, or if bill already passed in House

3.     Debate can be limited only by a cloture vote

a)     Three-fifths of Senate must vote in favor of ending filibuster

b)     Both filibusters and successful cloture votes becoming more common

(1)    Easier now to stage filibuster

(2)    Roll calls are replacing long speeches

(3)    Filibuster can be curtailed by double-tracking: disputed bill is shelved temporarily so Senate can continue other business

4.     Effectively, neither party controls the Senate unless it has at least 60 votes; otherwise, the Senate must act as a bipartisan majority

F.     Methods of voting

1.     To investigate voting behavior, one must know how a legislator voted on key amendments as well as on the bill itself

2.     Procedures for voting in the House—different procedures are used at the members’ request

a)     Voice vote

b)     Division (standing) vote

c)     Teller vote

d)     Roll-call vote, now electronic

3.     Senate voting is the same except no teller vote and no electronic counters

4.     Differences in Senate and House versions of a bill

a)     If minor, last house to act merely sends bill to the other house, which accepts the changes

b)     If major, a conference committee is appointed

(1)    Decisions are approved by a majority of each delegation

(2)    Conference report often slightly favors the Senate version of the bill

(3)    Conference reports back to each house

(4)    Report can only be accepted or rejected—not amended

(5)    Report accepted, usually, since the alternative is often to have no bill

5.     Bill, in final form, goes to the president

a)     President may sign it

b)     If president vetoes it, it returns to house of origin

c)     Both houses must support the bill, with a two-thirds vote, in order to override the president’s veto

Important Terms

*bicameral legislature

A lawmaking body made up of two chambers or parts.


An informal association of Congressional members created to advance a political ideology or a regional, ethnic, or economic interest.

*closed rule

An order from the House Rules Committee that sets a time limit on debate and forbids a particular bill from being amended on the floor.

*cloture rule

A rule used by the Senate, providing to end or limit debate.

*concurrent resolution

An expression of opinion without the force of law that requires the approval of both the House and the Senate, but not the president.

*conference committee

A joint committee appointed to resolve differences in House and Senate versions of the same bill.


An attempt to defeat a bill in the Senate by talking indefinitely, thus preventing the Senate from taking action on the bill.

*joint committee

Committee on which both representatives and senators serve.

*joint resolution

A formal expression of congressional opinion that must be approved by both houses of Congress and by the president; however, joint resolutions proposing a constitutional amendment need not be signed by the president.

*majority leader

The legislative leader elected by party members holding a majority of seats in the House or the Senate.


*marginal districts

Political districts in which candidates elected to the House of Representatives win in close elections, typically by less than 55 percent of the vote.

*minority leader

The legislative leader elected by party members holding a minority of seats in the House of Representatives or the Senate.

*party polarization

A vote in which a majority of Democratic legislators oppose a majority of Republican legislators.

*pork-barrel legislation

Legislation that gives tangible benefits to constituents in several districts or states in the hopes of winning their votes in return.


The minimum number of members required to be in attendance for Congress to conduct official business.

*quorum call

A calling of the roll in either house of Congress to see whether the number of representatives in attendance meets the minimum number required to conduct business.

*safe district

A House district in which the winner of the general election carries more than 55 percent of the vote.

*select committees

Permanently established legislative committees that consider and are responsible for legislation within a certain subject area.

*standing committees

Permanently established legislative committees that consider and are responsible for legislation within a certain subject area.

*voice vote

A Congressional voting procedure used in both houses in which members vote by shouting yea or nay.


A senator or representative who helps the party leader stay informed about what party members are thinking.