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Congress 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 Amendment. • 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 years.
Constituencies 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.
Appropriations 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 power.
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
Appointments 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.
Lawmaking 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 appeal. – Marbury v. Madison
Oversight Over time, Congress has asserted its oversight authority to monitor the ways in which the executive branch implements law. • 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 Whips
The Organization of Congress continued • 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.
Subcommittees 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 issues. • Subcommittees can consider legislation, but only the full committee can report a bill to the chamber floor for consideration.
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 filibuster. • 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 1919–2010
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 amendments – 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 cosponsors.
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 committee. • 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 electronically. • 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
Reconciliation 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 reconciliation.
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 overridden).
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 media – 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 directors.
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 activities. • 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?