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11.1 The Institutional Design of Congress

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation convinced the member states to send delegates to a new convention to revise them. What emerged from the debates and compromises of the convention was instead a new and stronger constitution. The Constitution established a bicameral legislature, with a Senate composed of two members from each state and a House of Representatives composed of members drawn from each state in proportion to its population. Today’s Senate has one hundred members representing fifty states, while membership in the House of Representatives has been capped at 435 since 1929. Apportionment in the House is based on population data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Constitution empowers Congress with enumerated, implied, and inherent powers. Enumerated powers are specifically addressed in the text of the Constitution. Implied powers are not explicitly called out but are inferred as necessary to achieve the objectives of the national goverment. Inherent powers are assumed to exist by virtue of the fact that the country exists. The power of Congress to regulate interstate and intrastate commerce has generally increased, while its power to control foreign policy has declined over the course of the twentieth century.

11.2 Congressional Elections

Since the House is closest to its constituents because reelection is so frequent a need, it tends to be more easily led by fleeting public desires. In contrast, the Senate’s distance from its constituents allows it to act more deliberately. Each type of representative, however, must raise considerable sums of money in order to stay in office. Attempts by Congress to rein in campaign spending have largely failed. Nevertheless, incumbents tend to have the easiest time funding campaigns and retaining their seats. They also benefit from the way parties organize primary elections, which are designed to promote incumbency.

11.3 Congressional Representation

Some representatives follow the delegate model of representation, acting on the expressed wishes of their constituents, whereas others take a trustee model approach, acting on what they believe is in their constituents’ best interests. However, most representatives combine the two approaches and apply each as political circumstances demand. The standard method by which representatives have shown their fidelity to their constituents, namely “bringing home the bacon” of favorable budget allocations, has come to be interpreted as a form of corruption, or pork-barrel politics.

Representation can also be considered in other ways. Descriptive representation is the level at which Congress reflects the nation’s constituents in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. Collective representation is the extent to which the institutional body of Congress represents the population as a whole. Despite the incumbency advantage and high opinion many hold of their own legislators, Congress rarely earns an approval rating above 40 percent, and for a number of years the rating has been well below 20 percent.

11.4 House and Senate Organizations

The leader of the House is the Speaker, who also typically the leader of the majority party. In the Senate, the leader is called the majority leader. The minorities in each chamber also have leaders who help create and act on party strategies. The majority leadership in each chamber controls the important committees where legislature is written, amended, and prepared for the floor.

11.5 The Legislative Process

In the classic legislative process, bills are introduced and sent to the appropriate committee. Within the committees, hearings are held and the bill is debated and ultimately sent to the floor of the chamber. On the floor, the bill is debated and amended until passed or voted down. If passed, it moves to the second chamber where the debating and amending begins anew. Eventually, if the bill makes it that far, the two chambers meet in a joint committee to reconcile what are now two different bills. Over the last few decades, however, Congress has adopted a very different process whereby large pieces of legislation covering many different items are passed through the budgeting process. This method has had the effect of further empowering the leadership, to the detriment of the committees. The modern legislative process has also been affected by the increasing number of filibuster threats in the Senate and the use of cloture to forestall them.

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