Chapter Study Outline


Established in Article I, the U.S. Congress is the Constitution’s “first branch” of government, being endowed with significant powers that make it both a prominent (formerly, the predominant) player in American national politics. Moreover, Congress is atypically strong, perhaps unique, among the world’s legislatures in terms of its ability. Possessing more than merely the power to legitimate or affirm policies made by the executive, Congress actually governs in the realms of domestic policy and, albeit to a lesser extent, foreign policy.

Inasmuch as these are the formal and traditional powers of Congress, modern presidents are more powerful than were nineteenth-century presidents and have gained a great deal of power over domestic and foreign policy making that had belonged to Congress. As contemporary legislators struggle with presidents, Congress seeks both to represent important groups and forces in American society and to exercise its power to the extent possible given the current political context.

1. Representation

How well do House members and senators represent their constituents? And, by extension, how well does Congress represent the American people?

  • Members of Congress might be thought of as “agents” who are selected (“hired”) to represent the interests of their constituencies and who also are subject to removal in subsequent elections (“firing”) should the constituency feel that its agent has failed to adequately represent its interests in Congress.
  • As agents, members of Congress adopt different styles of representation, giving varying weight to the interests and views of their constituents as opposed to their own personal views and priorities. Members who follow constituent views closely are said to adopt the style of a delegate, whereas members who are apt to substitute their own judgment are said to act as trustees.
  • The framers’ choice of bicameralism was, in part, a choice to leverage two different representational schemes. The House of Representatives, with relatively small districts and two-year terms, was to be closer to the people, whereas the Senate, with statewide constituencies and six-year terms, was to be somewhat removed, or filtered, from popular influence. Indeed, at the time of the founding and until 1913, senators were selected, not directly in popular elections, but indirectly by state legislatures.
  • Because the electoral system is the chief mechanism by which congressional representatives are held accountable to their constituents, the quality of congressional representation is subject to key elements of the electoral system, including who runs for office, the advantages of incumbency (due to tools such as franking and casework), and the level of competitiveness for House and Senate seats, as well as, for the House, the apportionment and re-drawing of congressional district lines.

2. Problems of Legislative Organization

How might Congress be an example of the problems associated with achieving collective action? What are the basic problems associated with achieving cooperation in Congress?

  • In order to legislate, Congress must overcome the obstacles to achieving collective action. Perhaps most prominently, Congress consists of a heterogeneous group of legislators who represent multiple and often competing interests in society and who have diverse legislative priorities and policy preferences.
  • Legislators have only one vote on any given issue regardless of how important it is to them. One task of legislatures is to distribute benefits to various constituency interests fairly and efficiently. Frustrations and concerns over “earmarked” funds are based, in part, on the perceived justice and wisdom of the choices Congress makes and the disproportionate influence some legislators enjoy.
  • Legislatures are also organized to provide legislators with information regarding the likely effects of the policy choices they make.
  • Another problem of legislative organization pertains to whether Congress can get judges, executives, and bureaucrats to interpret and implement policies as Congress intended. Given that all of these actors have sometimes competing political goals, Congress must also invest organizational resources in overseeing those who implement its policies.

3. The Organization of Congress

What are the major elements of congressional organization and what are their sources of influence?

  • Party organizations are the fundamental building blocks of coalition building in Congress; they foster cooperation, coalitions, and compromise.
    • Every two years at the beginning of a Congress, all four legislative parties (Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate) gather to elect their top leaders. The elected leader of the House majority party is automatically elected Speaker of the House; in addition to this post, all four legislative parties also elect floor leaders, whips, and other leaders.
    • Party leaders in Congress exercise important internal influence, especially by setting the legislative agenda, as well as external influence as major fund-raisers for their parties.
    • Some political scientists argue that members give power and influence to party leaders primarily so that those leaders can advance members’ individual and collective goals and that, as members of a party become more cohesive, they are more likely to yield additional power to their party leaders.
  • The committee system, the core of Congress’ organization, consists of standing committees, each of which has its own policy jurisdiction, membership, and authority to act.
    • Committees’ policy jurisdictions provide legislators who are members of those committees disproportionate influence on the policies that matter most to them and their constituents.
    • Considered as agents of the overall House or Senate chamber, committees are delegated, first, the authority to act as gatekeepers to determine what policies will be considered, and second, the after-the-fact authority to follow up on the fate of policy proposals by serving on conference committees and, subsequently, overseeing the policy’s implementation. Still, like any agent, a committee must be monitored by the full chamber, its principal.
    • The committee system is organized hierarchically: committee chairs are vested with considerable influence, and an elaborate organization of subcommittees work under and for (though with authority of their own) full standing committees.
  • Congressional organization is also supported by staff, agencies, and special interest caucuses.
    • Both individual members and committees hire professional staffs to help them meet their representative and legislative duties.
    • Staff agencies including the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office also help Congress gather expert information and oversee the executive branch.
    • Legislative service organizations, or congressional caucuses, sometimes play important informal roles in advancing particular interests otherwise not represented (or underrepresented) in Congress.

4. Rules of Lawmaking: How a Bill Becomes a Law

How does the legislative process work? And how do the rules and procedures governing that process affect legislative outcomes?

  • Once legislation is introduced by a senator or representative, that bill is referred to the appropriate committee (and possibly a subcommittee) for deliberation. Committees and subcommittees may hold hearings, amend the legislation, and either recommend it to the chamber or allow the bill to “die in committee.”
  • In the House, legislation recommended by the committee of jurisdiction is then sent to the House Committee on Rules, which determines the rules (including the timing of the debate and the potential for the bill to be amended) under which the bill will be considered by the full House.
  • In the House, floor debate is limited in time and tightly controlled by bill sponsors and chief opponents (typically from the committee of jurisdiction). In the Senate, floor debate is less limited and less controllable; and there is the potential for a bill’s opponents to filibuster (that is continue to debate a bill until it is set aside or until three-fifths of the Senate votes to invoke “cloture” and close debate).
  • The House and Senate must pass identical versions of bills. Although sometimes the House will vote to adopt the Senate’s version or vice versa, differences in the two chambers’ versions of a bill may need to be reconciled in a conference committee. Bills reconciled in conference must be sent back to both chambers for an up-or-down vote on agreement.
  • The president is also part of the legislative process. Although presidents sometimes participate and wield influence throughout, their most important role is played in deciding to sign or veto a bill. If a bill is signed, it becomes law. If it is vetoed, it takes a two-thirds vote in each chamber to override the veto.
  • The rules of lawmaking are consequential for policy and other political outcomes. Legislators sometimes make creative use of existing rules and procedures to advance their policy and political goals, and the broadly participatory nature of the complex legislative process produces a “distributive tendency,” whereby Congress is likely to spread the legislative benefits of a policy over a wide range of members’ districts and states.

5. How Congress Decides

What political pressures influence how Congress makes policy decisions?

  • Because of their representational roles and their goals to be re-elected, constituency influence is an important determinant of how members of Congress decide policy.
  • Interest group pressure is also key to legislative decision making, particularly because interest groups pay more attention to legislative matters and they can deliver campaign contributions and other sources of political support.
  • By influencing members’ committee assignments and access to floor debates as well as by exerting political influence through the whip system and facilitating logroll compromises, party leaders have a good deal of influence in members’ legislative decisions; and key indicators of “party discipline,” including the percentage of party votes, have increased considerably in recent decades.
  • A difficult part of the job of being a member of Congress is weighing the importance (and political influence) of these diverse interests and pressures.

6. Beyond Legislation: Additional Congressional Powers

Besides legislating, what else does Congress do to participate in American national government and the separation of powers?

  • A potential check on presidential power, the Senate provides “advice and consent” to executive, ambassadorial, and judicial appointments, occasionally leading to high-profile confrontations between the two branches.
  • Senatorial advice and consent are also required for the ratification of treaties, although presidents often resort to “executive agreements” when they anticipate conflict with the Senate.
  • Perhaps Congress’s most potent weapon in separation of powers conflict is its power to impeach the president, vice president, other executive officials, and federal justices and judges. Still, this is a power that has rarely been used. Only two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached by the House, and neither was removed by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned amid impeachment proceedings in the House, forestalling the process altogether.

7. Power and Representation

Congress was designed to be the “first branch” and is unique among world legislatures in its potential for power, but its power has fluctuated over time. What determines the ebb and flow of congressional power throughout American political history?

  • Congressional power is, in part, a function of its capacity to effectively represent important groups and constituencies in society, but its position and power have suffered as presidents came increasingly to be seen as representatives of popular interests.
  • In response to some decline in its power vis-à-vis the presidency, and particularly when divided government raises the political stakes of inter-branch conflict, Congress has reform1ed internal institutions and otherwise sought to compete better.