The legislative branch of government: Congress

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  • Created on: 23-04-19 11:42

The legislative branch of government: Congress

What are the main principles behind Congress and its structure? 

Congress is a bicameral institution, with power being largely equal between the two chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives. 

The approval of both houses is necessary for bills to get passed - their roles are complementary rather than distinct. This ensures that that the power of Congress is internally checked.

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

A key principle of Congress is that the interests of both small and large states are balanced by virtue by the nature of the composition of each chamber. 

  • Smaller states in terms of population, such as Wyoming and Rhode Island, are over-represented in the Senate as all states are represented by two senators, irrespective of population. 
  • Larger states are better represented in the House where the allocation of congressmen is based on population, with every state having at least one representative. The least populated state, Wyoming, has one congresswoman for its population of around 600,000 while the most popular state, California, has 53 House members for a population of 39 million. 
  • Even this formula means that smaller states are slightly better represented per head of the population compared with the largest. 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

What are the main powers and functions of Congress? 

  • Representative function
  • Legislative function
  • Oversight and scrutiny of the executive
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

The Representative Function

Congress represents geographical areas, so that members represent the citizens and key interests from their state or district. 

Legislators from Iowa or Kansas will defend the interests of farmers and agriculture, while those from Michigan will have a special desire to stand up for the auto industry

Legislators also represent parties so will largely reflect their party's platform and ethos. A Republican member of Congress would defend the rights of gun owners. A democrat would be keen to support anti-discriminatory legislation and tighter environmental controls.

There is a growing case that legislators must take the views of their 'party core' seriously as these are the sort of supporters who are most likely to vote in primaries to select the candidate for each party. As a majority of the states/districts are considered 'safe' for one party, the fear of being 'primaried' is greater than that of being defeated by the other party in the Congressional election. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress


A term to describe an incumbent being challenged for their party's nomination by another candidate from the same party.

Eric Cantor lost a primary challenge in 2014 to a more conservative Republican candidate in his Virginia district. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

The Legislative Function

Bills must be introduced, debated and go through committees in both chambers before they can be sent to the president for either his signature or veto. 

The majority of bills never make it past the committee stage, with a typical Congress seeing anything between 10,000 and 14,000 bills introduced and only 3-5% making it into law. 

There have been numerous important laws passed: 

  • Voting Rights Act (1965) - this sought to end racial discrimination in voting.
  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 2010 (PPACA) - this law brought in Obamacare.
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 (ARRA) - this measure sought to stimulate the economy in the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis and recession. 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

The Legislative Function

Federal law always has supremacy over state law, although federalism ensures that state legislatures are key players in the legislative process, Congress always has the final say if it chooses. 

While all federal legislation must pass through Congress, increasingly Congress is passing fewer pieces of legislation. The least productive Congress in the past 40 years was the 113th (2013-2014), which passed only 61 pieces of major legislation. 

By contrast, the 106th Congress (1999-2000) passed 137 major laws. 

The increasing complexity and length of bills and the growing partisanship in Congress are factors as to why fewer pieces of legislation are passed.

Filibustering occurs when the opposing party can talk out a bill in the Senate, leading to a delay in the time it takes for it to be passed.

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

The Oversight Function 

Another function of Congress is to check and supervise the executive. It does this via committees that carry out investigations into the actions of the president and federal agencies. These committees can summon witnesses to appear before hearings and question them. They then publish reports containing recommendations and points for future action. 

Famous congressional investigations: 

  • Watergate in the 1970s (Nixon) 
  • Whitewater in the 1990s (Clinton) 
  • The Gulf Wars (George H. W. Bush) 
  • Alleged Russian hacking activites following the 2016 presidential election (Mueller Report)
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

The 'nuclear option' with oversight is the impeachment of a president or their officials. 

For this to happen:

1. A simple majority of the House must first vote to proceed with impeachment. 

2. The trial must then be heard by the Senate and a two-thirds supermajority is required to convict. 

3. The closest a modern president has come to being impeached was Bill Clinton in 1998 on charges for perjury, but the Senate failed to convict. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

The power of the purse 

Congress has power over government expenditure and tax-raising powers - 'the power of the purse'.

This is derived from sections in Article 1 of the Constitution. 

Only Congress can vote for new taxes and spending, and it also has to approve annual budget prepared by the president and his team.

This gives Congress a fair amount of leverage with the executive, but can also lead to deadlock. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How is Congress elected and how representative of America is it as a whole?

Both chambers of Congress are elected using FPTP electoral system; there is no proportional representation. 

There are 100 senators who represent the whole of their state.

There are 435 House representatives who are split into 435 single-member districts (similar to constituencies in the UK). 

State boundaries are redrawn every 10 years following a national census. This is known as redistricting and is an opportunity for political parties in each state to manipulate district boundaries in a way that most favours their party, a process called gerrymandering. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How is Congress elected and how representative of America is it as a whole?

Under the terms of the Constitution, senators are elected for six-year terms and members of the House for two years. 

The House is re-elected biennially, while the Senate is elected in thirds every two years - the aim being to provide for greater potential continuity of membership in the Senate. 

Congressional elections held between presidential election years are known as mid-terms.

Incumbents (existing members seeking re-election) enjoy high rates of re-election due to a variety of factors, so a high turnover of members is uncommon.

In the 2016 congressional elections, only 2 Senate seats changed hands and just 12 in the House. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How representative is the US Congress? 

The profile of Congressmen and women does not reflect that of America as a whole. 

The inequalities of the 115th Congress are: 

  • Gender: 19% women (compared to 51% of the US population as a whole).
  • Race: 7% Hispanic and 9% African-American (compared with 14% and 12% respectively of the US population as a whole).
  • Religion: 7% non-Christian - although around 20% of Americans identify as 'No religion' there are hardly any members of Congress that would openly identify as such.
  • Sexuality: there are only 7 LGBT members of Congress. 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How representative is the US Congress? 

Members of both houses are older, wealthier and hold higher educational qualifications than an average American.

Although Democrats are the more diverse of the two parties, there are growing numbers of ethnic minorities among the Republicans:

  • Senator Tim Scott (South Carolina)
  • Congresswoman Mia Love (Utah) 

They both represent white majority electorates.

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How is Congress organised and what role do parties play in its structure? 

Parties and committees are cornerstones of modern congresses. 

Unlike the UK Parliament, the floor of each chamber is unimportant - most of the real work is done in committees. 

Most of its legislative tasks take place in the 41 standing committees and hundreds of sub-committees in both houses. 

Key committees:

  • Appropriations (both houses) - oversees funding allocation for bills.
  • House Rules Committee (HOR) - allocates which committee discusses which bills and rules of debate.
  • Senate Judiciary Committee - holds hearings for Supreme Court nominees.
  • Foreign Relations/Affairs (both houses). 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How is Congress organised and what role do parties play in its structure? 

The majority party in each house will always have a majority on each committee.

Committees are important because:

  • Their permanence and large support staff enable them to build expertise and knowledge to check the executive.
  • They often form strong relationships with federal agencies and insider pressure groups, sometimes leading to accusations of creating 'iron triangles'.
  • They can force witnesses to appear at committee hearings. 
  • Chairing an important congressional committee can often be an important part of career progression for ambitious legislators. 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

Parties in Congress

Levels of party loyalty have soared in recent years, with average rates staying at around 90% for both parties in each chamber. 

There are fewer moderate centrists who are more inclined to switch their votes between parties. The result is a system much like Westminster, with most votes taking place along party lines. 

The powers of party leaders and whips in each chamber are more limited than those of their counterparts in the UK. As party candidates are selected by voters directly via primary elections and not by local parties, there is little incentive to remove the party whip.

The separation of the legislature from the executive means that party leaders cannot offer the 'carrot' of government posts to sway wavering members of Congress, as sometimes happens in Britain. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

Caucuses exist within the parties in Congress.

Fiscally conservative Democrats belong to the Blue Dog Caucus.

The most conservative Republicans can be found in the Freedom Caucus. 

There also cross-party caucuses, such as the Congressional Bike Caucus (to promote cycling) and the Democrat-dominated Congressional Black Caucus. 

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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How well does Congress perform its functions of law-making, representation and overseeing of the executive? 

  • All legislation is thoroughly debated and analysed by specialised and highly experienced committees.
  • The composition of Congress is steadily becoming more diverse. 
  • Congressional investigations and Senate confirmation herings provide an effective check on the executive and can unmask failings and inefficiencies within government. 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

However, critics would argue that:

  • High levels of party unity and partisanship in Congress mean that much scrutiny of the executive is designed to protect or embarras the 'other side' rather than to work objectively in the interests of good and efficient government. 
  • The makeup of Congress still significantly under-represents key social groups. 
  • Congress is passing fewer laws than previous years and is becoming increasingly unproductive. 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

A comparison of the House and the Senate 

Although both houses have equal legislative powers, the Senate is considered to be the more prestigious and desirable of the two chambers.

This is due to: 

  • A longer term (six versus two years) menas less focus on constant campaigning and fundraising for elections.
  • The exclusive power of the Senate in confirming presidential appointments. 
  • Greater exclusivity due to its size: 100 versus 435. 
  • Higher levels of name recognition and a greater state-wide profile. 
  • More opportunities to sit on and chair committees. 
  • The Senate is a greater 'talent pool' for executive office. Many presidents and vice presidents such as Obama and Biden have come from the Senate; hardly any have reached direct office from the House. 
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The legislative branch of government: Congress

How powerful is Congress and how does it relate to the president and the Supreme Court? 

The power of Congress is variable, depending on circumstances and the political climate.

When one party has strong majorities in both chambers and holds the White House, Congress can acheive much that is positive via legislation.

When Congress is divided or another party controls the government, its power is negative for the majority of the time. It can be effective at frustrating a president, such as Obama, who sought unsuccessfully to get Congress to completely close Guantanamo Bay and to pass immigration reform. 

The Supreme Court uses judicial review to affect laws passed by Congress. Efforts to reform campaign finance, such as the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, have been weakened by verdicts such as Citizens United.

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