Congressional elections - overview


house membership

  • 435 members 
  • each state has a certain number of memebers proportional to the pop of the state
  • members elected for 2 year terms and have to be 
  • 25yrs old; a US citizen for 7 years; a resident of the state in which your district is situated

113th Congress:

78 women 

41 AA's

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senate membership

  • 100 members
  • each state - has 2 senators 
  • elected for 6 year terms 
  • 1/3 of senate up for re-election every 2 years 
  • const states that to be a senator: 30 years; been a US citizen for 9 years; be a resident of the state you represent

113th Congress 

20 women

1 AA

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powers of congress - exclusive powers

  • HofR has 3 exclusive powers: 1- to begin consideration of money bills 2-impeach any member of the exec of judicial branches of fed gov 3-elect the pres if EC is deadlocked 
  • FF's gave HofR the power to begin consideration of money bills b/c it was the only directly elected chamber at the time
  • 1998, HofR impeached Clinton of 2 counts, perjury & obstruction of Justice 
  • other to be impeached: 1 senator, 1 cabinet minist, 1 SC justice, 14 other fed judges 
  • 3rd power - to relieve EC deadlock, almost redundant, not used since 1824

senates exclusive powers:

  • 1-ratify all treaties
  • 2-confirm many appointments made by pres - simple majority
  • 3-try cases of impeachment - 2/3 majority required 
  • 4-elect the V.Pres is EC deadlocked 
  • first 2 powers that make it most powerful chamber 
  • only senate has the power to ratify treaties & confirm appointments, yet pres will only submit treaties and appointments knowing the Senate will approve 
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joint powers

1-to pass legislation, including the budget

2-to conduct investigations regarding the actions of the exec branch

3-to initiate const amendments 

4-to declare war

5-to confirm newly appointed v.pres 

  • important that they share the most important power of passing legislation, they have equal legislative power seen by:

1-all legislation passing through all stages in both houses

2-both houses conduct detailed scruitny of legislation in committee

3-both house have full power of amendment over all bills, 2 differevent versions of the same bill once it has gone through both houses

4-conference committees - set up to reconilce the 2 diff version of the same bill 

5-takes a 2/3 majority in both houses to override a pres veto 

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joint powers 2

  • both houses have standing committees which conduct investigations of the work of the exec branch 
  • both houses can also establish select committees to perform the same function 
  • in order to propose an amendment to the Const, a 2/3 majority is required in both houses
  • joint power to declare war redundant, not used since dec 1941 - pearl harbour attack:
  • war of 1812 - against GBR
  • Mexican war 1846
  • Spanish-American war 1898
  • WWI 1917
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comparisons between the house and senate

Senate as the more prestigious power:

  • senators rep an entire state, not just part of it
  • senators serve 6 year terms 
  • as a senator, 1/100 rather than 1/435
  • senators likely to chair committees much sooner than house members 
  • senators enjoy greater name recognition 
  • house members seek election to the senate; the reverse is unknown
  • senators more frequently thought of as likely pres candidates
  • senators more frequently nominated as v.pres running mates
  • senators have exclusive powers, inlcuding ratification of treaties & confirmation of appointments, which are agreed to be more significant than the exclusive powers of the House

Senate & House members equal:

  • all bills must pass all stages in both the House and Senate
  • both houses have powerful standing committees that conduct separate hearings @ committee stages
  • at the conference comittee stage, members of both houses are represented
  • both houses must agree to compromise reached at the conference committee
  • to override a pres veto, a 2/3 majority in both houses is required
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summary of house and senate

Senate exclusive powers:

  • ratify treaties
  • confirm appointments
  • try cases of impeachment
  • elect V.pres if EC is deadlocked 

House exclusive powers:

  • initiate money bills
  • impeachment
  • elect Pres is EC is deadlocked

Joint powers:

  • legislation
  • declare war
  • initiate constitional amendments 
  • confirm newly appoint V.Pres 
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distribution of power in cong- speaker of house

  • elected by the entire house at the beginnging of each new congress - 2years
  • usually the nominee of the majority party in the House at the time
  • not required by the Const to be a serving member of the House, although all speakers have been
  • next in line to pres after v.pres
  • in essence, the speaker of the house is the leader of the majority party in the House

speakers powers & functions:

  • acts as presiding officer in the House
  • interprets and enforces the rules of the House, and decides points of order
  • refers bills to committees
  • appoints select and conference committee chairs 
  • appoints majority party members of the House Rules Committee
  • may excercise considerable influence in the flow of legislation through the House, as well as in committee assignments for majority party members and selection of House standing committee chairs
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majority & minority leaders

  • feature in both chambers, elected to represent their respective party in each house
  • act as day-by-day 'directors of operations' on the floor of their respective houses
  • hold press briefings to talk about their party's policy agenda
  • act as liason between the House/Senate and the White House 

-in the Senate they make unanimous consent agreements to bring bills for debate on the Senate floor

-in the House, the Majority leader plays a 'number two' role to the Speaker

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standing committee

exist in both chambers:

  • permanent, policy specialist committees
  • there are 16 in Senate and 17 in the House
  • most have subcommittees
  • typical size is around 18 members in Senate and 45-50 in House committees
  • party balance in each committee is in the same proportion as that which exists within the chmaber as a whole
  • chairmen are always drawn from the chamber's majority party 
  • most chairmen, are chosen through the seniority rule - chairman of a standing committee will be the member of the majority party with the longest continuous service on that committee


1-to conduct the committee stage of the legislative process 

2-to conduct investigations within the committee's policy area - fulfilling Cong's role of oversight

3-to beging the confirmation process of numerous presidential appointments to both the exec & judicial branches of the fed gov

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house rules committee

officially the standing committee of the House & nearly all bills pass through it:

  • it timetables bills for consideration on the floor of the House
  • it deals w/getting bills from the committee stage to the second reading
  • it prioritises the most important bills, giving them quick passage to the House floor
  • it gives a 'Rule' to each bill passing on to the floor for its 2nd reading, the 'Rule' sets out the rules of debating by stating if any amendments  can be made to the bill at this stage
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conference committees

conference committees are required b/c of 2 important characteristics:

1-both houses have equal power

2-bills pass through both houses at the same time 

  • as a consequence, 2 versions of each bill and the versions are likely to be v.different
  • if the differences between the bills cannot be sorted out, the CC is then set up 

conference committees:

  • ad hoc - set up to consider a particular bill and then disbanded
  • contain members of both houses
  • have 1 function - to reconcile the difference between the 2 versions of the same bill 

this agreed version of each bill then has to be agreed on each floor of both the houses

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legislative process

1-1st reading - formally introduced

2-committee stage - may be 'pigeon holed', committee holds a mark-up session before reporting out the bill - they are regarded as policy specialists - far as most bills get - full power of amend


4-2nd reading - 1st opp for most members to debate the bill, in the House, most bills debated in the Committee of the Whole House - in the Senate can be subject to filibuster- simple maj 

5-3rd reading - final opp to debate the bill - vote taken at the end

6-conference committee - optional stage - if the versions cannot be reconciled it is called 

7-pres action - 1:sign bill into law 2:leave bill on his desk, they become law 3:veto the bill, returns the bill to cong 4:pocket veto, while bill is waiting pres action, the cong session ends, the bill is lost

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voting in cong - pol party

1- pol parties in the USA are less centralised and ideologically cohesive than in UK

2-US pol parties do not have 'sticks & carrots' that UK does

3-constituents control the selection of candidates - through congressional primaries: H&S memebers have to be far more mindful of constituents' views than of party view

4-house members are subject to elections every 2 years - increasing reliance on constituent views

5-exec branch does not depend for it existence on getting its policies through the legislature

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voting in cong - consitutents

1- consitution states that H&S memebers must be residents of the state they represent, giving them an understanding of the people they rep

2-some states go further by insisting that House members reside in the actual district they represent

3-many H&S members will have been born & educated, lived & worked in the state/district they represent 

4-House memebers are especially careful about consitutents views as they face election every 2 years

methods of communication w/consitituents:

  • visits
  • phone calls, letters, faxes, emails
  • keeping in constant touch w/ their offices in the state/district
  • reading the newspaper from state/district
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constituents 2

once in their state district, h&s memeber will:

  • hold party meetings
  • conduct 'surgeries' w/ individ constituents
  • make visits around the state/district
  • appear on local radio phone in programmes
  • be interviewed by reps of local media
  • address various groups, chambers of commers, prof groups & round table lunches 
  • visist local schools, hospitals & businesses

these help to fulfil their role as representatives

1-except on some exceptional issues, local opinion likely to be divided

2-through consitituency mail & visits, the H/S memeber is more likely to hear form discontented than contented

3-a member of cong is meant to be more than a mere 'delegate'  of their consitutents

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voting in cong - the administration

members of the exec branch, pres and members of the cabinet, they are involved in the passage of legislation by:

  • initiating legislation
  • making contact w/members of cong via phone calls visits etc
  • making contact w/senior members of congressional staff

often the White House gets involved. by a Congressional Liason Officer of directly by the pres himself trying to persuade members of cong to support his legislation, nominations & treaties. such persuasion needs to be 1-regular 2- 2,way street 3-bipartisan

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voting in cong - pressure groups

PG influence on voting in cong:

  • making contact w/senior members of cong staff
  • making contact w/members of cong
  • attempting to generate public support favourable to their position
  • providing evidence to relevant committee hearings to support their position
  • organising rallies & demonstrations - both in W.DC & around the country 
  • organising petition drives 
  • money raising to fund politicans who support their cause & seek to defeat those who do not 
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is congress effective? gridlock

  • 20% said they approved of the job cong was doing in 2011
  • 73% disapproving, saying congress is often beset by gridlock

factors leading to gridlock:

  • a complicated and lengthy legislative process in which those who want to pass bills must win @ every stage
  • divided gov 
  • divided cong 
  • use of filibuster
  • need for super-majorities 
  • lack of strict party-discipline 
  • 2-year terms of office for the House - short time to get things done 
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ineffectiveness & scandals

examples of ineffectiveness:

  • the recent over-politicisation of the Senate's confirmation of SC justices
  • lack of effective oversight of the exec branch under united gov

system was created by founding fathers to provide limited gov

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