chapter 12

The Framers of the Constitution designed Congress to be the
legislative branch of the federal government, and they gave it
broad powers to enact laws.
• Congress is bicameral, that is, it is divided into two separate
chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
– The House of Representatives would be a large body that
reflected population size within states and was directly
elected frequently .
– The Senate would be an elite chamber, with two senators
for every state regardless of population size and elected by
state legislatures every six years.
Comparison of
House and Senate Service
The Demographics of the
111th Congress
Mode of Election
House members are elected directly by citizens.
• The House was supposed to be more immediately
responsive to the opinions of the people. Senators are elected
directly as well, but that is a more recent development.
• From 1789 to 1914, the mode of election for the Senate was
indirect: citizens voted for members of their state legislatures,
who then selected the U.S. senators.
• The Senate was meant to insulate senators from the direct
voice of the people, in other words, to make them less directly
responsive to the people.
The Seventeenth Amendment
The mode of election for the Senate was changed from indirect
to direct in 1913, with the ratification of the Seventeenth
• The change to direct elections opened up a much more direct
gateway of influence for constituents over their U.S. senators.
Terms of Office
A term of office is the length of time that an elected official
serves before facing the voters again in an election.
• The term of office for House members is two years.
– In any given election year, the entire membership of the
House of Representatives must face the voters.
• The term of office for U.S. senators is six years.
- Only one-third of senators stand for reelection every two
A constituency is the set of people that officially elects the
House or Senate member; in the United States, constituency
is defined geographically.
• For the House of Representatives, each member represents a
congressional district that has established geographic
boundaries within each state.
– Today, a House district has about 640,000 people.
• For the Senate, each U.S. senator represents an entire state,
and two U.S. senators are elected from each state.
The Powers of Congress
Congress has the power “to lay and collect taxes.”
• The Constitution states that all bills for raising revenue
should originate in the House of Representatives, but the
Senate “may propose or concur with Amendments, as on
other Bills.”
• With the Sixteenth Amendment, passed in 1913, Congress
gained the power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes,”
whatever the source.
Congress also has the power to spend—“to pay the Debts and
to provide for the common Defense and general Welfare.”
• Congress appropriates (or allocates) federal monies on
programs it authorizes (or creates) through its lawmaking
War Powers
The Constitution gives Congress authority to “provide for the
common Defense.”
• Congress has the sole power to declare war, but this power is
typically only used after the president has requested a
declaration of war.
• Congress has the authority to fund or refuse to fund those
military operations.
Regulation of Commerce
The Constitution gave Congress the power “to regulate
Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,
and with the Indian Tribes.”
• Commerce Clause
- In time, this authority to regulate interstate commerce has
allowed Congress to expand its power to the point that
almost no economic activity is beyond its reach.
- Wickard v. Filburn
- Katzenbach v. McClung
In recognition of the Senate’s perceived wisdom and stability, the
Framers gave the Senate, and not the House, the power of
advice and consent.
• The Senate must confirm high-level executive branch
appointments like cabinet members and ambassadors.
• The Senate must confirm all federal judges.
Impeachment and Censure
Congress’s ultimate check on the executive and judicial
branches is its power to remove officials and judges from
office by impeachment and censure.
Congress, as the legislative branch, is responsible for lawmaking.
• Section 8 gives Congress broad the authority “to make all laws
which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution
the foregoing Powers.”
• In combination with the general welfare clause and the
commerce clause, this necessary and proper clause allows
Congress a great deal of leeway to carry out its responsibilities
Authorizing the Courts
The Constitution gave Congress the authority to “ordain and
establish” courts at levels lower than the Supreme Court.
• In 1789, Congress used this power to pass the Judiciary Act,
which established federal district courts and circuit courts of
– Marbury v. Madison
Over time, Congress has asserted its oversight authority to
monitor the ways in which the executive branch implements
• Congress constantly exercises this power, but less so under
unified government, when the same party controls Congress
and the White House, than under divided government.
– Hearings
– Public feedback
– Reports from executive agencies
– Special committees/investigations
The Organization of Congress
Speaker of the House
Majority Leader
Minority leader
The Organization of Congress
• The Senate
– President Pro Tempore
– Majority Leader
– Minority Leader
– Whips
The Committee System
Almost all legislation that passes the House or Senate goes
through a committee.
• Whichever party has the majority in the entire House or
Senate also has the majority of seats on each committee, and
the committee chair is chosen from the majority party, with
the approval of the party caucus.
– Based on seniority and members’ “wish lists.”
Types of Committees
The House and Senate each have several types of committees.
• A standing committee is a permanent committee with the power
to write legislation and report it to the full chamber.
• Select committees, joint committees, and special committees are
usually focused on a more narrow set of issues, such as aging or tax
policy, but none has the same legislative clout and authority of a
standing committee.
• A conference committee is convened to create one bill after
changes have been made in either the House or the Senate version.
Procedures in Committee
During committee hearings, committee members literally “hear”
testimony on the content and impact of a bill.
• Five main purposes of hearings:
– Draw attention to a current problem or issue
– Inform the committee members about the consequences
of passing a specific bill
– Convey constituents’ questions and concerns on an issue
– Exert oversight of the executive branch to determine
whether congressional intent is being honored
– Provide an arena where individual members make
speeches to attract media attention.
Committee Chairs
Committee chairs decide which bills receive hearings and which
go on to markup, a meeting in which committee members
write the version of the bill that they send to the entire
chamber for a vote.
• Preference is given to the majority party’s interests.
• Committee chairs have powerful roles. They are typically the
majority party member who has the most seniority (longest
time) on the committee.
• The minority party leader on a committee is called the ranking
member and is the member of the committee from the
minority party with the greatest seniority.
In general, when a bill is referred to a committee, it is
assigned to a subcommittee, a smaller group of committee
members who focus on a specific subset of the committee’s
• Subcommittees can consider legislation, but only the full
committee can report a bill to the chamber floor for
Advocacy Caucuses
In addition to committees in the House and Senate, there are
also advocacy caucuses, groups whose members have a
common interest and work together to promote it.
• Nearly 300 caucuses exist in Congress
– Congressional Black Caucus
– Women’s Caucus
– Senate Steel Caucus
The Lawmaking Process
To proceed from committee to the House floor, all bills must pass
through the House Rules Committee.
• The Rules Committee maintains control before the bill goes to
the floor by issuing a rule dictating the length of debate and
how many amendments may be considered.
– A closed rule means no amendments may be offered at all.
– A modified closed rule allows a few amendments.
– An open rule allows any number of amendments.
• The majority party uses its numerical advantage to
structure floor debate to limit the minority party’s
opportunity to amend or change a bill.
Agenda Setting Tools in the Senate
The Senate does not have a gatekeeper committee like the
Committee on Rules in the House, and all senators have the
power to try to amend legislation on the floor.
• This allows a Senator to filibuster or “talk a bill to death”,
although a Senator no longer needs to hold the floor to
• The only way to stop a filibuster is by invoking cloture.
– 16 Senators must sign the Motion of Cloture
– 60 must vote in favor of Cloture
– The debate is limited to 30 more hours
Senate Action on Cloture Motions
Senate Rules
Although the Senate doesn’t have an official rules committee like
the House, unanimous consent still allows for rules to be
placed on legislation.
• Senators strike a deal as to how a bill will be debated on the
Senate floor, including:
– How and when amendments will be offered
– How much time will be allocated to debate and vote on
– A time and date for the final vote on the complete bill
The Hold
A senator can object to a unanimous consent request to bring a
bill to the Senate floor, in a practice known as a hold.
• A hold is a less drastic measure than a filibuster, but it still can
be used by any senator to delay a bill for twenty-four hours.
• If a senator wants to block the bill for longer than that, he
must request a hold every twenty-four hours.
– Typically senators hold up a bill to extract concessions from
Senate leaders, or from the administration.
Legislative Proposals
The lawmaking process starts with an idea.
• When an idea is agreed upon, the House or Senate member’s
staff consults with the Office of Legislative Counsel, which
turns the general outlines of a bill into the technical language
that will alter the U.S. Code, the set of federal laws that
governs the United States.
• After approving the final legal language of a bill, the member
introduces the bill into the respective chamber (House or
Senate), an action known as bill sponsorship.
• Once a bill is introduced, other members can sign on to be
Legislative Proposals continued
Omnibus Bills
• Many freestanding bills that are introduced separately are
later incorporated into larger omnibus bills that are passed
by Congress.
• These big bills allow Congress to pass numerous provisions
that might not pass if each were presented separately.
Legislative Proposals continued
After a member introduces a bill, it is referred to the
committee(s) or subcommittee(s) that have jurisdiction over
its subject matter.
• In general, a committee tends to act first on bills that are
sponsored by the chair of the committee, then the
subcommittee chairs, and lastly, regular members of the
• After a bill has been the subject of hearings, the committee
may move to the markup phase, where committee members
write the version of the bill that will be reported to the full
House or Senate.
Legislative Proposals continued
When a bill is sent to the full House or Senate, it is commonly
known as “going to the floor”.
• Debate in the House is heavily structured and most
members are allowed no more than five minutes to speak on
a measure, leaving almost no time for actual deliberation
among members.
• In the Senate there are few limits on the time allowed
to members to speak on an issue on the floor.
Legislative Proposals continued
During a roll call vote, the clerks of the House or Senate call
the names of each member, who registers his or her vote
• Most votes in the House and Senate are party-line votes, in
which a majority of one party votes yes on a bill and a
majority of the other party votes no.
The Conference Committee
For a bill to become law, the House and Senate have to pass
an identically worded version of it to send to the president for
his signature.
• The last stage in the congressional legislative process is
when the House and Senate meet in conference committee to
resolve any differences that exist in the versions that passed
each chamber.
– The Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader
typically appoint the chairs and ranking members from the
committees that originated the bills, and other members
who have been active on the bill.
The Conference Committee continued
If the conferees are successful, then the conference committee
issues a conference report that must be voted on by the entire
House and Senate.
• Must be approved on an “up or down” vote in both Houses.
• In the past two decades, however, Congress has also used
alternative ways of constructing a compromise between versions
of House and Senate bills.
- Party leaders have sometimes chosen not to form an official
conference committee but instead take on the responsibility
for producing a final bill themselves.
The Budget Process
The federal government usually runs a budget deficit, which
requires it to borrow money to meet all of its obligations.
• This means that the federal government pays interest on
outstanding loans, and the loans and interest that accumulate
over time constitute the national debt.
• The modern Congress operates under a budget process
created in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment
Control Act of 1974, which was enacted to give Congress more
power over the federal budget.
The National Debt, 1970–2009
The Budget Process continued
The key aspect of the budget process is that the congressional
budget, known as the concurrent budget resolution, is
supposed to be approved by both chambers by April 15, but
because it does not have the force of law, it is not sent to the
president for his signature.
• Acts as a set of guidelines.
• If Congress and the president fail to agree on any one of the
twelve appropriations bills, a continuing resolution is enacted
that funds the government temporarily while disagreements
about spending can be worked.
Federal Budget Timeline
The 1974 Budget Act also created a parallel budget bill, known as
reconciliation, which does require the president’s signature.
• Reconciliation was specifically designed as umbrella legislation to
bring all bills that contain changes in the tax code or entitlement
programs in line with the congressional budget.
• This type of bill has special procedural protections in the Senate,
where it cannot be filibustered and can be debated for no more
than twenty hours.
– In 1985 the budget process was modified to include the Byrd
rule, which required that reconciliation be used only to reduce
the federal deficit, which at the time was $212.3 billion.
Reconciliation continued
Despite the Byrd Rule, Congress has found ways to use the
reconciliation process to pass controversial legislation.
• Comprehensive Health Care Reform was passed through
The Role of the President
The last step in the legislative process is sending a bill to the
president for his approval or disapproval.
• Approval – the bill becomes law.
• Veto – the bill must be approved by 2/3 of both houses of
Congress to become law.
• Pocket Veto – the president can wait for Congress to go out
of session and simply not sign a bill (the veto cannot be
Offices and Staff
For all newly elected members in the House and Senate, the
first steps are to set up an office and hire staff members.
• A member of Congress’s Washington office has:
– A chief of staff who oversees the entire office
– A scheduler who makes the member’s appointments
– A press secretary who handles all interactions with the
– A legislative director who oversees the member’s
legislative work
Offices and Staff continued
House and Senate members aim to be responsive to
constituents, and that means providing prompt and extensive
constituent services.
• To do so, they establish district offices—in the congressional
district, or for senators, in the state—which are run by district
Legislative Responsibilities
A successful legislator typically fulfills four responsibilities:
• Securing desired committee assignments and performing
committee work
• Sponsoring and cosponsoring bills
• Casting votes
• Obtaining federal funds for the district or state (earmarks)
Communication With Constituents
Congressional representation depends on good
communication between constituents and their
representatives and senators.
• Before e-mail and the Internet, members used the franking
privilege, which is free mail service, to respond to constituent
letters and to send quarterly newsletters as updates on their
• To help members stay in touch with their constituents, the
federal government pays for House and Senate members to
return home to their districts or states approximately thirtythree times a year.
The Next Election
Members of Congress look to the next election.
• The fact is that most incumbents in the House and Senate
get re-elected when they seek re-election.
• Reelection is far from automatic, however.
- In 1994 and 2006 large numbers of incumbents from each
major party lost their seats in the House and Senate, and
party control of the chambers changed hands as a result;
in 2010, Democrats lost a number of seats but did not
lose control of the Congress.
Focus Questions
• How are members of Congress held accountable, both individually and for
the collective output of Congress as a whole?
• In what ways is Congress responsive as a decision-making body? How does
Congress address the pressing needs of the American people?
• What opportunities are there for the average person to influence the
policy process in Congress? Is Congress accessible to citizens equally?
• How do the institutional structures in the House of Representatives and in
the Senate work each work as a gate blocking the enactment of
legislation? Are there any gateways in these chambers that can help
overcome these obstacles? Why did the Framers set up the legislative
branch this way?
• Is Congress a gate, or a gateway, to democracy?
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