A2 Government & Politics Unit:4a, Topic:2 (Legislative Branch)

My revision notes will now be written largely in short-hand. They should however still be readable. I hope that they help you with your studies. 


General Comments

  • Article I of constitution 
  • All legislative power 
  • Tends to follow a presidential agenda 
  • Congress is located in Capitol building in Washington D.C. 
  • Most powerful leg. in the world 
  • 'Congress shall make no law as befits the framers' desire for limited gov't' 
  • Policy-making rather than policy-influencing 
  • It is independent 
  • Not dominated by party - contrast to UK 
  • Representative assembly - voice of the people
  • many enumerate and implied powers 
  • two diff. but equally powerful houses - contrast to UK (Commons>Lords) 
1 of 13


  • House represents the districts - 435 
  • California (53 districts), South Dakota (1) 
  • Can gain districts in re-districting (also can be used for Gerrymandering) 
  • Senate represents the states (2 per state) - 100 
  • Represent the states - because of Connecticut Compromise 1787 - equal representation of the states 
  • 17th Amendment - Senators directly elected by the ppl. 1913 
  • more democratic legitimacy to role 
  • representation has been criticised - e.g. Wyoming (<500,000 pop) and California (37 mil ppl) have same representation 
2 of 13

Terms of office

  • Reps - 2 year terms. Need to concentrate on 'folks back home' as up for election so often 
  • Highly responsive to wishes of the people 
  • Most house members 'vote etheir district' 
  • Senators 6 yr terms, 1/3 up for re-election every 2 yrs.  gradual change in members 

Is the Senate more prestigious than the House? 

  • Less senators - more well-known
  • Serve longer terms 
  • Higher wages - Senator - $2.7 mil, Rep (D) = $1.4mil, Rep (R) = $1mil. 50% of all Congressmen are millionaires 
  • If you are a Senator - more likely to be Pres. "Washington Insider" - e.g. Obama 
  • More bargaining power 
  • Unlimited debate power - filibustering 
3 of 13

Constitutional powers of House and Senate

  • BOTH: 
  • Leg. power - can override pres. veto 
  • Role if the Electoral College is deadlocked
  • Oversight 
  • Power of the purse
  • Power to declare war - last time 1941
  • Power to propose/pass const. amend. w/ 2/3 maj. 
  • Impeachment process - e.g. Clinton found not guilty at impeachment in '98 + Nixon resigned before indefinite impeachment in 1974 over Watergate 
  • HOUSE: 
  • House has the power to set financial agenda
  • SENATE: 
  • Advice + consent - Nixon: "always seemed the Senate gave a lot more advice than consent" 
  • Confirmation - e.g. rejection of Robert Bork in 1987
  • Ratification - has rejected several negotiated treaties, e.g. Versailles in 1919 and SALT II in '79 
4 of 13

Internal workings of houses

  • House chaired by Speaker - John Boehner (R) 
  • Rules and limits on debate
  • Senate chaired by VP Joe Biden (D) 
  • Informal and less rule-bound, trad. of unlimited debate - filibustering 
  • Committees/subcommittees, both ad-hoc and permanent 
  • pork barrelling 'brining home the bacon' (adding riders)
  • ('log-rolling' (vote trading) 
  • Coalition building - gaining maj. of votes
  • Caucuses e.g. Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, Tea Party Caucus (2009) 
  • Obstacle course
  • Often seen as negative - 'block', 'pigeon-hole', 'veto' 
  • Only less than 10% of bills passed 
  • Failure often unrelated to merits - e.g. Civil Rights in 1950s, vulnerable to defeat if controversial or opposed by powerful special interests 
  • Can be so sign. amend. here - become unrecognisable 
  • However, bills can pass easily if big event - e.g. Patriot Act 2001 - after 9/11 
5 of 13


  • Initiated by mem. of Congress 
  • Most leg. originates from pres. agenda - outlined in pres' State of the Union Address in Jan 
  • 'The president proposes, Congress disposes' 
  • If the houses have dif. party maj.s can be no guarantee in how leg. will be reacted to, e.g. 2006 and 2010 w/ poor pres-congress relations 
  • First - House standing committee stage - can be pigeon-holed here by chair 
  • House subcommittee stage - examined in detail - lobbyist interest or exec. branch official interest - can be sign. amend. - pork+riders  bill can fail at this stage 
  • House Rules Committee - seen as gate-keeping "traffic-cop of Congress' - if time on floor is not given to bill - bill dies 
  • Floor debate - log rolling here maybe, relatively little party discipline - may fail here
  • To Senate - may fail due to filibustering (longest fili. 24hrs Strom Thurmond 1957) Fili can be ended w/ 3/5 supermaj. (60 votes) after 2013 - Democrat's wishes (Repubs. angry)
  • Different bill sent back - need to reach a consensus - if not bill dies 
  • Back to both chambers for final vote - if not - bill dies 
  • President - can veto, no line-item veto after 1998(Clinton), pocket veto (ignore), or sign. Can fail in veto - through congressional override 2/3 maj. in both houses - Clinton only had 2 of his 36 vetos overridden 
6 of 13

Congressional Committees

  • "Little fiefdoms" - Fenno + "major obstacles" 
  • deal with 11,000 bills each year 
  • Oversight! 
  • Increase in them is a result of Nixon scandal 
  • About 200 Committees/sub-committees 
  • Woodrow Wilson - "Congress in its commitee rooms is Congress at work" - 1884 
  • Can pigeon-hole, amend, block leg. 
  • Permanence, expertise
  • Conduct public hearings, extensive oversight 
  • Close links w/ fed. departs. 
  • Iron triangles (congress, interest groups and bureaucracy) 
  • 'blue ribbon' committees are imp. 
  • E.g. Taxation (Ways and Means), spending (Appropriations or Senate Rinance) + House Rules Committee blocking leg. 
  • party committees - membership is according to party strength 
7 of 13

How important is the role of party in Congress

  • UK - Disraeli "Damn your principles and stick to your party" 
  • US - Would be - "Damn your party and stick to your district" 
  • Rare independents (but one - Bernie Sanders from Vermont) - many people are not voted as representing their party, but for themselves - no aid from party
  • 'Independent political entrepreneurs' 
  • Congress memebrs have their own ideological views - can be seen in the past in cons Democrats - Blue Dog Democrats and moderate Republicans - "Rockefeller Republicans" or RINOs (Repub. in name only) 
  • Some degree of party unity but not to the levels found in UK Parl. 
  • Whips who try and achieve party cohesion whip in House = Kevin McCarthy, Senate = Richard Durbin 
  • No carrots to offer or sticks to threaten with - so limited whips 
  • Leg. success can depend on persuasion skills of party power brokers e.g. 'Johnson Treatment' 
  • Most votes are bipartisan, and there are 'shifting coaltions' Many Blue Dog Democrats today, hardly any Rockefeller Repubs. e.g. Susan Collins 
8 of 13

Growing party cohesion/partisanship in Congress

  • Evidence of growing party cohesion since Reagan 
  • Since capture of the House in 2010 under the influence of the Tea Party, Repubs. have become more conservative and very cohesive in voting against Obama - espec. on tax cuts and spending+reducing the deficit 
  • "Broken Congress"  - transition between two parties who are 'tweedledee and tweedledum' - Anthony Bennett 
  • Democrats more ideologically cohesive and lib as a result of Nancy Pelosi 


House maj. leader - Eric Cantor (R)

House min. leader - Nancy Pelosi (D) 

Senate maj. leader - Harry Reid (D) 

Senate min. leader - Mitch McConnell (R) 

President pro Tempore of Senate - Patrick Leahy 

9 of 13


  • + lobbyists seek access to members of Congress and become active on issues affecting them
  • e.g. NRA (National Rifle Association) or AARP (American Association of Retired Association) 
  • Don't want to get on the bad site of these groups
  • Can be used to persuade others - esp. Chief of Staff 
  • Pres. like Obama "Washington Insiders" can use their knowledge of Congress to aid this 
  • Yet if there are external factors that cause problems with this there is nothing to be done, e.g. Obama after Repub. take over of the House in 2011 
  • E.g. Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, Tea Party Caucus (2009) 
  • Vote and act together 
10 of 13

Representation/ Re-Election of incumbents

  • Usually a very high re-election rate - 
  • House - av. 93%, 2012 - 91% 
  • Senate - av. 85%, 2012 - 91% 
  • Robert Byrd longest serving Senator 51 yrs 
  • Have huge resources 
  • Already well-known - high visibility rates
  • Brought home the bacon well
  • Hug campaign war chests from special interests 
  • Gerrymandering 
  • 2010 Tea Party influence, or if they are unpopular or if a huge war chest has been used to defeat the incumbent 

Split districts from 32% in 1980 to 5% in 2012 

11 of 13

Congress members

  • Trustees for the whole nation, not as mere delegates of their constituents 
  • Should not appear too concerned with providing benefits to home state/district 
  • Re-Election is the 'true test of democracy' 
  • Burke - narrow constituency interests is not doing what a representative assembly should be doing 
  • it is more diverse now than in the past 
  • Changing the role of women generally - growth of political action committees 
  • (PACs) supporting women - e.g. Emily's List 
  • Currently a number of 102 women in Congress from 16 in 1980 
  • White people heavily over-rep. in Congress - 96% of Senate = white 
  • No one under the age of 40 in the Senate 
  • An openly homosexual Repub. has never been elected into Congress, first openly homosexual person to win a non-incumbent election = Tammy Baldwin (D) 
  • 'Ordinary people' scared of running, or not enough money, not a political dynasty e.g. Bushes 
12 of 13

More comments or facts

  • Congress 9% approval rating, made worse by Congressmen making comments such as "we're not going to be disrespected" Marlin Stutzman 
  • Expressed power - lay and collect taxes, implied - use tax revenue for welfare and punish tax evaders 
  • Select committees - ad hoc particular interest
  • Conference - snr members to resolve issue
  • Joint - Joint interest
  • Standing - permanent 
13 of 13


No comments have yet been made

Similar Government & Politics resources:

See all Government & Politics resources »See all The legislative branch of the US government resources »