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The United States Legislature


I. Structure
A. Organized in Article I of the US Constitution…the founding fathers thought that the
legislature should be the center of policymaking in the national government.
B. Bicameral
i. Created under the “Great Compromise” aka Connecticut Compromise
1. Virginia Plan wanted bicameral Congress with representation based on
population or money each state gave to the Union
2. New Jersey Plan wanted a unicameral legislature with equal representation
among the states
ii. House of Representatives
1. elected directly by the people (never changed)
2. membership based on population of the states (larger states have more
3. original number of reps. was 65…number was limited to 435 members in 1911
4. representatives are reapportioned every ten years after the decennial census
as a result of the Reapportionment Act of 1929
iii. Senate
1. equal representation among the states
2. each state has 2 Senators
3. originally, Senators were elected by the State Legislatures from the state that
they represented
4. 17th Amendment in 1913 provided for the direct election of Senators by the
people of the states
C. Constitutional Requirements
i. Representatives
1. 25 years old
2. seven years as a citizen of the United States
3. citizen of the state that they represent
4. 2 year terms
ii. Senators
1. 30 years old
2. nine years as a citizen of the United States
3. citizen of the state that they represent
4. 6 year terms
a. only one-third of the Senate is ever up for election at the same time
b. every two years, a third of Senate is voted in or out of office
II. Powers
A. Article I, Section 8 sets up the “enumerated powers”
i. Power to tax (major weakness of the Articles of Confederation is that Congress had
no power to collect taxes from the states)
ii. Borrow money
iii. Regulate commerce with foreign nations and between the states
iv. Establish rules for naturalization and bankruptcy
v. Coin money
vi. Fix the standard of weights and measures
vii. Establish a post office
viii. Issue patents and copyrights
ix. To create “inferior” courts (those below the S.C.)
x. Define and punish piracies
xi. Declare war
xii. Raise and support an army and navy
xiii. Provide for a militia
xiv. Exercise legislative powers over D.C. and other federal facilities
B. Article I, Section 8, clause 18 is the “elastic clause”
i. Also known as the “necessary and proper clause”
ii. Allows the government to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for
carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this
Constitution in the government of the United States.”
iii. Most widely used by Congress…and most widely debated
C. Special powers of each house
i. The United States Senate
1. MUST confirm most presidential appointments
2. MUST approve treaties made with foreign nations (2/3 vote needed)
3. has the SOLE power to try impeached officials
ii. House of Representatives
1. Bills dealing with raising money (revenue bills) MUST originate in the House of
Representatives. However, the Senate has been able to amend drastically,
giving them power dealing with money.
2. Has the SOLE power to bring articles of impeachment against officials
III. Organization (Leaders)
A. House and Senate are organized differently than the other
i. The House is four times larger than the Senate
ii. House members are limited in how long they can speak and debate may be stopped
by a majority vote
iii. The House also has special committees that help regulate its business (to be
discussed later)
B. The House of Representatives
i. Speaker of the House
1. most important leadership position in the House
2. Office is provided for in the Constitution (“The House of Representatives shall
choose their Speaker and other Officers.”)
3. Majority party actually does the choosing
4. usually a senior member of the majority party that has held leadership
positions previously
5. Although some of the Speakers’ powers were taken away in a House “revolt”
in 1910, they still have some very important powers
a. Recognizing members who wish to speak
b. Rules on questions of parliamentary procedure
c. Appoints members to select and conference committees
d. Directs business on the floor
e. Exercises political influence
f. Appoints members of the committees who appoint members to
standing committees
g. Practically decides which bills get assigned to which committees
h. Appoints the (his) party’s legislative leaders
6. Current Speaker of the House – Nancy Pelosi (D) – Calif.
ii. Majority leader
1. second in command to the Speaker
2. often a stepping-stone to the Speaker of the House
3. responsible for scheduling bills for vote and rounding up votes for bills the
party favors
iii. Minority leader
1. usually steps into the Speakership when his/her party becomes the majority
2. is the “face” of the minority party in the H.O.R
3. Rounds up votes for bills that the party favors
iv. Party whips
1. each party has a “whip”
2. these people act as a “go-between” for the members of the party and their
3. they inform members when important bills will go up for a vote
4. they do “nose-counts” for the leadership (i.e. finding out how many in the
party support a bill)
5. they pressure members of the party to support their leadership
6. the name comes from the fact that they are the ones that “whip” the
members of the party into line
C. The United States Senate
i. President of the Senate
1. Vice-President of the United States
2. can vote ONLY in the case of a tie
3. seldom attends Senate sessions
ii. President Pro Tempore
1. temporary presiding officer when the President of the Senate is not present
2. selected by the Senate from among the majority party
iii. Majority leader
1. leader of the party with the most seats in the Senate
2. often the most influential person in the Senate
3. has the right to be the first senator heard on the floor
4. determines the Senate’s agenda
5. usually has much to say about committee assignments
iv. Minority leader
1. leader of the minority party in the Senate
2. is sometimes consulted by the Majority Leader in setting the agenda
v. Party Whips
1. each party has a “whip”
2. these people act as a “go-between” for the members of the party and their
3. they inform members when important bills will go up for a vote
4. they do “nose-counts” for the leadership (i.e. finding out how many in the
party support a bill)
5. they pressure members of the party to support their leadership
IV. Committees and Subcommittees
A. Much of the real work done in Congress doesn’t actually take place on the floor, but behind
closed doors in committees and subcommittees
B. Committees
i. Bills are worked out or killed in committees
ii. Committees also investigate problems and oversee the actions of the executive
branch (checks and balances)
iii. Types of committees
1. standing committees
a. the most important of the committees because they handle bills in
different policy areas
i. Agriculture
ii. Armed Services
iii. Appropriations (Ways and Means)
iv. Judiciary
b. separate standing committees in the House and Senate
i. House has 22 (with 140 subcommittees)
ii. Senate has 16 (with 86 subcommittees)
2. joint committees
a. consist of members from both houses of Congress
b. investigate issues like the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s
c. oversee institutions such as the Library of Congress
d. have a power that is often known as “Congressional Oversight”
i. gathering information useful for the formation of legislation
ii. review the operations and budgets of executive departments
and independent regulatory agencies
iii. conduct investigations through committee hearings
iv. bring to the public’s attention the need for public policy
3. conference committees
a. consist of members from both houses of Congress
b. formed exclusively to hammer out any differences between House and
Senate versions of similar bills
c. will create a “compromise” bill that is sent back to each house for
4. select committees
a. formed for specific purposes
b. usually temporary
c. most famous examples are the Watergate Committee and the
Whitewater Committee
C. Subcommittees
i. Most of the work done by committees is actually done by subcommittees
ii. These subcommittees can deal with ultra-specific issues that the committee, as a
whole, may not be able to address
D. The work of Committees
i. Over the two year lifetime of a Congress, over 11,000 bills are introduced, and there
is no way that all of them can be examined by the full membership
ii. Each bill is submitted to a committee that has “life or death” control over its future
1. the majority of bills are “pigeonholed” – forgotten for weeks or forever – and
never make it back to the floor for debate
2. each bill is submitted to a subcommittee that will discuss its merits and
possibly hold hearings on the bill
a. about 3000 staff members assist by conducting research and
administrative and clerical work
b. supporters and critics of the bill show up and are questioned by
subcommittee members
3. if a bill makes it out of subcommittee, it is “marked up” – changed or rewritten
– and returned to the full committee for further changes
4. if approved by the committee, it is sent to the floor for debate (through
committee in House; directly in the Senate)
E. Committee membership
i. Controlled by the parties, primarily the majority party
ii. Chairman and majority of each committee comes from the majority party (rest from
minority party)
iii. House of Representatives
1. Committee on Committees places Republicans on committees
2. Steering and Policy Committee selects the Democrats
iv. The United States Senate – each party has a small Steering Committee that makes
committee assignments
v. Assignments are based on numerous attributes
1. personal and political qualities of the member
2. his or her region
3. whether the assignment will help reelect the member
vi. Getting on the right committee is very important to most members of Congress
1. member from a “safe” district may want on a committee that promotes a
power base in Washington
2. member whose reelection is less secure may want to serve on a committee
that suits the needs of their constituents
F. Committee chairmen
i. Most important shapers of the committee agenda
ii. Positions were made more powerful in the House by the 1910 revolt that transferred
much power from the Speaker to the chairmen
iii. 1910 to the early 1970s, chairmen were chosen by the “seniority system” – member
with the longest continuous service on the committee would be automatically placed
in the chairmanship (regardless of party affiliation)
iv. in the early 1970s, the House decided to elect committee chairmen through secret
ballots of the majority members
G. The House Rules Committee
i. Most important of committees in the House of Representatives
ii. Sets very important rules for debate when the bill reaches the floor of the house
iii. Two major types of rules
1. open rule
a. permits amendments to be placed on the bill from the floor of the
b. no strict time limits for debate, allowing for more input from other
2. closed rule
a. forbids amendments to the bill, except those from the committee that
presents the bill for action
b. sets very strict time limits for debate
c. under the closed rule, members not on the presenting committee have
little choice but to vote for or against the bill as it is
iv. House Rules Committee is controlled by the Speaker of the House, and in recent
years, has put more and more restrictions on bills, giving the committee even more
H. Caucuses
i. Informal groupings of Congressmen who share the same interests or points of view
ii. Currently, there are more than 70 caucuses in Congress, and their goal is to shape
the agenda of Congress
iii. They elevate their issues or interests to a prominent place in the daily workings of
iv. Some are regionally based
1. Conservative Democratic Forum (mostly from the South – aka the Boll
2. Sunbelt Caucus
3. Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition
v. Some share racial, ethnic, or gender characteristics
1. Congressional Black Caucus
2. numerous caucuses for women and Hispanics
vi. others share specialized interests
1. Steel Caucus
2. Mushroom Caucus
V. Who is in Congress?
A. 85% male
B. most are well-educated
C. most are from upper-middle or upper income backgrounds
D. most are Protestant, although in recent years, a more proportional number have been
Catholic and Jewish
E. most are white, with only a handful of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and
Native Americans
F. the average age of senators is 58; representatives is 51
G. 40% are lawyers; others are businessmen, professors and teachers, clergy, and farmers
H. The fact that members of Congress represent privileged Americans is very controversial,
and leads to many believing the elitist theory of American politics
I. Changes
i. Congress has gradually become less male and less white
ii. Between 1950 and 2006, the number of female senators rose from 2 to 14;
representatives from 10 to 70
iii. 40 black representatives in the 109th Congress, as opposed to 2 in the 82nd (1951-52);
One senator as opposed to none in the 82nd Congress
J. Incumbents
i. During the 1800s, most members served only one term in office; 20th Century, it has
become a career…and the number of incumbents has increased dramatically
ii. Incumbency is the number one advantage for trying to get elected to Congress
iii. Scholars don’t know exactly why incumbency has grown
1. some feel it is because people are less attached to political parties, and vote
for the individual rather than the party
2. incumbents have more name recognition than a challenger
3. incumbents enjoy free mailing (known as “franking”)…except for up to 60
days before an election
4. incumbents have more experience with campaigning
5. incumbents have greater access to media
6. incumbents can raise money much more easily than challengers ($8 of every
$10 PAC dollars is given to incumbents)
VI. Representation
A. For many years, any state with more than one representative has elected a representative
from single-member districts
B. Two problems emerged from single-member districting
i. Bad Apportionment
1. districts of unequal sizes and populations
2. addressed in 1964 in the landmark Supreme Court case Wesberry v. Sanders
a. Supreme Court ordered districts to be drawn so that one person’s vote
would be worth as much as another’s
b. Fairly effective in controlling inequality in representation
c. Extended the ruling made in 1962 in Baker v. Carr, which set up “one
person, one vote” in STATE legislature districting
ii. Gerrymandering
1. term derived from the original gerrymanderer, Eldrige Gerry, who had a
Massachusetts district drawn in the shape of a salamander to ensure the
election of a Republican
2. gerrymandering continues to be an issue, but these days the argument is
usually over racial divides more than anything (see Shaw v. Reno)

The United States Legislature


VII. Roles that Congressmen play

A. Delegate
i. Someone that votes the way people back home would want them to vote.
B. Trustee
i. Someone that votes in the best interests of the people back home, regardless of their
beliefs or party affiliation.
C. Politico
i. Most politicians in Congress follow this method of voting…one that combines the
delegate and trustee.
VIII. How a Bill Becomes a Law
A. Types of legislation
i. Distributive legislation
1. results in the distribution of goods and/or services to the general population
2. i.e. highway construction, health research, defense appropriations
ii. Redistributive legislation
1. involves taking money from one segment of the population through taxes and
giving it to another segment through entitlements such as welfare
2. recipients must demonstrate a need, and Congress determines the criteria for
these programs
iii. Regulatory legislation
1. sets limits on groups and individuals
2. i.e. The Clean Air and Water Act – Congress sets requirements for industry and
for states for the purpose of protecting the environment
B. Introduction of a Bill
i. Each bill must be introduced in the House and Senate by a member of that body
1. in the House, a proposed bill is dropped in a “hopper” or handed to a clerk
2. in the Senate, the presiding officer must recognize the member and announce
the bill’s introduction
ii. House bills bear the prefix “H.R.” and Senate bills bear the prefix “S”
C. Bills in Committee
i. After introduction, the bill is referred to committee
1. bills are sent to committee with specific power over the subject being
2. most bills die in committee through pigeonholing
a. if it dies in a Senate committee, that is it…dead
b. it can be resurrected in the House through the use of a “discharge
petition” – petition signed by 218 members of the House to bring it out
for debate (this RARELY happens)
3. For a bill to come before either house, it must be placed on a calendar : five in
the House, two in the Senate
a. House
i. Union Calendar – bills to raise revenue or spend money
ii. House Calendar – Non-money bills of MAJOR importance
iii. Private Calendar – private bills that do not affect the general
welfare (commemorative bills)
iv. Consent Calendar – non-controversial bills
v. Discharge Calendar – Discharge petitions
b. Senate
i. Executive Calendar – Presidential nominations and proposed
ii. Calendar of Business – all legislation
4. In the House of Representatives, the bills are sent to the House Rules
Committee to determine limits on amendments and debate
D. Floor Debate
i. House of Representatives
1. important bills in the House, including all bills of revenue, must first be
referred to a Committee of the Whole
a. sits on the floor of the House, not behind closed doors
b. directed not by the Speaker, but by the chairman of the sponsoring
c. quorum for business is not the normal 218 (needed for action by the
full House), but is 100
d. debate is conducted by the sponsoring committee
2. After the Committee of the Whole, the bill goes to the full floor
a. Speaker presides
b. Debate is guided by formal rules of parliamentary procedure
c. Bills are usually not drastically changed, because many are debated
under “closed rules” (see Rules Committee)
d. If amendments are allowed, they must be relevant to the topic of the
ii. The United States Senate
1. bills in the Senate go directly to the floor out of committee
2. debate rules are much less formal than in the House
a. Senators can speak for as long as they wish, which often leads to a
filibuster (talking a bill to death by either making people grow
disinterested with the bill OR trying to lose a quorum)
i. Filibusters do not happen very often
ii. Most famous was Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour plus speech trying
to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1957
iii. A filibuster may be stopped by a “cloture” – 3/5 of the ENTIRE
membership of the Senate must vote to stop debate
b. There are no limits on amendments on Senate bills
i. Riders, or non-topical amendments are often added
ii. Bills with many riders are often known as “Christmas-tree Bills”
iii. Usually occur when individual senators are trying to attach their
favorite ideas or benefits to their states
E. Voting
i. Numerous ways to vote
1. teller vote – members file past the clerk, first the “yeas” and then the “nays”
2. voice vote – simply shouting out “yea” or “nay”
3. division vote – members stand to be counted
4. roll call vote – people answering “yea” or “nay” to their names – can be called
for by 1/5 of the House membership
5. electronic voting – each member inserts a plastic card into a slot to record his
or her vote – most common type of House voting today
ii. The Senate uses all of the above EXCEPT electronic voting
F. Conference Action
i. If a bill is passed by one house and not the other, it dies
ii. If a bill is not approved by both houses of Congress before the end of a session, it
must begin all over again in the next Congress if it is to be passed at all
iii. When a similar bill is passed by both houses of Congress, they go to a conference
1. made of members from both houses
2. hammer out differences and create a unified bill to be sent back to each
house for final approval
G. Presidential Action
i. A bill approved by Congress is sent to the President for action
1. sign it into law
2. veto the bill (which can be overridden by 2/3 of BOTH houses)
ii. the President has 10 days to act on a piece of legislation
1. if he does not act in 10 days, it becomes law
2. if he receives it within 10 days of the adjournment of Congress, he may simply
not respond and the bill will die (this is a “pocket veto”)
IX. Criticisms of Congress
A. Pork-barrel Legislation
i. Refers to the benefits that legislation can provide to a Congressman’s home district,
as opposed to the general welfare
ii. Term comes from the pre-Civil War South when salted pork was distributed among
the slaves…who would rush to the barrels
iii. Critics point out that pork-barrel legislation does not insure that federal money goes
to the places where it is most needed, but to districts whose representatives are most
aggressive or most in need of votes
B. Logrolling
i. Logrolling occurs when a member of Congress supports another member’s pet
project in order to gain support for his or her own project
ii. Term originated in the pioneer days when neighbors would get together to roll logs
from recently cleared property to make way for building houses
iii. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”
A. Revolving Door
iv. One major criticism of Congress
v. The controversial practice of legislators and government bureaucrats leaving their
jobs in Congress for jobs with business or public interest groups that have a
relationship with Congress.
C. Debate Over Term-Limits
i. The Constitution provides no limits for the number of terms that members of
Congress can serve
ii. Many propose that an amendment, similar to the 22nd Amendment
iii. Supporters of term limits believe that popular control of Congress has weakened and
that incumbency causes members to become dictatorial or unresponsive to their
iv. Others believe that the most experienced members would be forced to leave when
their terms expire, leaving Congress without their expertise
v. In recent years, the public outcry for term limits has increased, but Congress has yet
to respond.
D. Congress doesn’t pay enough attention to the important problems
i. Much of the time, Congressmen are engaged in “constituent services” or “casework”–
performing tasks to help out one or a few of their constituents instead of the entire
ii. People have also suggested that with the advent of the Information Superhighway,
Congressmen should get more input from their constituents before voting
E. Constant fighting between the parties causes “gridlock”
i. There actually is some fighting within the party as well.
ii. Members of parties are most cohesive with each other when it comes to choosing
their official leaders.
F. Representatives take advantage of their perks
i. Congressmen have many, many perks (perquisites) of the job
1. free office space in Washington and in their home district
2. travel allowance to and from their home district
3. a good salary
4. free mailings (franking)
ii. The number of representatives taking money from PACs has grown
G. Even though there are many criticisms of Congress…they actually are overworked,
underpaid, honest, and VERY effective (for the most part)