10 mark Questions/Answers (US Congress)

Explain the advice & consent powers of the Senate.

  • The US Constitution described a number of functions/powers exlusive to the Senate; in Article II, Section 2, a number of presidential powers are described as being subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.
  • Presidential appointments (to the Cabinet, Supreme Court and other federal branches) are subject to confirmation in the Senate, in which a simple majority is needed for an appointment to be confirmed; for exmaple, Robert Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court was blocked by the Senate 1987.
  • Also, international treaties (negotiated by the President; Article II of the Constitution gives the President power to sign such treaties) - the Senate is given the power to ratify or reject such treaties - without ratification the treaty cannot be properly incorporated into US law. In the 20th century, the Senate rejected 7 treaties; they rejected an early draft of the Treaty of Versailles in 1920, and rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.
  • These powers are significant as they limit the president, as seen through the examples in which the Senate has been able to block appointments and treaties. Some presidents have circumvented the treaties issue by instead signing executive agreements with the heads of foreign governments which do not require the consent of the Senate. Though in practice there are few appointments that are blocked, this is most likely because the President will choose officials who are unlikely to be controversial to the Senators.
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Explain the importance/practice of filibusters.

  • A filibuster is a method of delaying/preventing a vote in the legislature (occurs mostly in the Senate because only 13 state legislatures allow filibusters).
  • Once a Senator begins speaking on the floor of the Senate they have the right to continue without interruption, so in order to delay the vote the Senator simply must hold the floor.
  • The record for the longest filibuster in US history is held by Democrat Strom Thurmond who argued against the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes. More recently, Ted Cruz filibustered against Obamacare in 2013 for 21 hours and 19 minutes.
  • Filibusters can be significant as they can take up a considerable amount of time in the Senate that should be used for effectively debating bills (undemocratic?) - this can be good or bad; for example  in 2013 Wendy Davis spoke for over 10 hours against a bill to restrict access to abortions which was an important issue, but often Senators just waste time by reading out the Constitution, extracts from childrens books and even food recipes. This waste of time means that legislation takes longer to pass and the legislature becomes less efficient. 
  • Filibusters can be ended by closure motions which requires 3/5ths of the Senators to vote in favour of it - this limits the remaining time for debate on an issue to 30 hours. Alternatively, the bill could be abandoned altogether.
  • The 3/5ths rule means that if one political party wins more than 60 seats in the Senate it should be able to prevent successful filibusters.
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Examine the roles of standing committees.

  • Standing committees exist in both houses of Congress and are permanent policy-specialist committees. Their membership reflects the party proportions in the chamber.
  • Standing committees have three main roles: to conduct the committee stage of bills in the legislative process, to conduct investigations within their specific policy areas, and to begin the confirmation process of presidential appointments.
  • Scrutinising bills is their most common function and involves holding hearings where witnessess appear; the length of questioning depends on the importance of the bill (e.g. Clinton's Healthcare Reform Bill hearing lasted over a year). This is where most legislation tends to fail - shows the significance of the committees in shaping policy.
  • They conduct investigations in their policy areas to understand why certian bills have been passed and to determine if the current legislation is effective or if new legislation is needed.
  • The Senate's Judiciary Committee holds hearings on all judicial appointments, and the Foreign Relations Committee holds hearings on ambassadorial appointments. They then vote; the vote is not decisive but is rarely overturned.
  • There are differences between committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate; they tend to be larger in the House, and much more work is carried out on the floor of the Senate than the House, where the committees have a more significant role. The House Rules Committee is one of importance, and standing committees in general are significant as they have considerable powers that allow checks and balances to be carried out.
  • US standing committees have a greater role in government and legislation than UK standing committees.
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Explain the importance of pork-barrel politics.

  • Used to describe the manner in which congressional politicians may offer their political support in exchange for benefits for their local areas; 'pork' involves funding for government programmes - members of Congress expect government resources to be made available for infrastructure and other projects in return for their support.
  • In the legislation process, members of Congress can make amendements to bills that allow money to go to their state, therefore the member can claim to have helped their state by securing funding for whatever reason/cause.
  • This then helps them get re-elected as incumbents (over new runners) because they have a record of doing things in Congress for their states - therefore many Congress members like to pork-barrel to increase their appeal at election time. (links to the phrase 'bringing home the bacon')
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Consider the arguments for bicameralism.

  • Bicameralism means a legislature made up of 2 chambers, as is found in countries such as the UK and the USA.
  • In the US this is done through the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • The two different branches have different roles and responsbilities; for example, the House has the exclusive powers of considering money bills, impeaching members of the executive and judiciary, and electing the President if the electoral college is grilocked. The Senate has the powers of ratifying treaties, confirming presidential appointments, trying cases of impeachment, and electing the Vice President if the electoral college is gridlocked. BUT they also have shared powers such as passing legislation, conducting investigations through committees, initiating amendments to the constitution, declaring war and confirming a newly-appointed Vice President.
  • An advantage of bicamerlism is that it allows for more efficient scrutiny of each branch and of the gover (checks and balances) and that it allows more effective scrutiny of legislation, with bills being considered in both the Senate and the House of Representatives before they are passed into law. It also allows better representation as the Senate represents all states equally and the House represents districts, so can reflect popular feeling more directly. Contrast to the UK as the upper house (of Lords) remains unelected.
  • A disadvantage is that it can be very costly to run both chambers and it can lead to gridlock which reduces the efficiency of the legislature, and the Senate could be argued to be less representative as the members are typically older - but with this comes greater expertise allowing more effective scrutiny. 
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Explain the significance of gridlock.

  • Gridlock refers to breakdown in working relations between two or more branches of federal government, or within Congress. 
  • It can occur when there are two different parties in each branch of Congress (e.g. if there is a Democratic majority in the Senate but a Republican majority in the House of Representatives), but gridlock can also occure if Congress is controlled by one party and the presidency is controlled by another; this is the more common cause. 
  • Gridlock leads to difficulties in passing legislation as well as it being difficult to pass policies or appointments, especially in the judicial branch.
  • There are advantages to gridlock as it can increase checks and balances between the different branches of government (e.g. through the presidential veto, or the Senate's use of fillibusters) - Framers didn't want it unchecked.
  • Midterms can also lead to gridlock.
  • There has been increased hyper-partisanship between the Republicans and Democrats since the 1990's; so gridlock has occured since then, from 2006 (Bush and the Senate) to 2010 (Obama and the House). Could argue that 'advice and consent' has now become 'search and destroy'. Older example: FDR and the Supreme Court, 1930's.
  • UK doesn't experience gridlock, executive defeats in the legislature are rare under governments with working majorities.
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