Joel Rivlin, New College, University of Oxford, July 1999
(Note: Joel Rivlin, a third-year student at New College, University of Oxford, is from Leeds, England. Sponsored by the English Speaking Union, he served an internship, Summer, 1999, in the office of Representative Michael Bilirakis, R- Florida. In response to a request from Professor Charles O. Jones, a visiting professor at Oxford, 1998-1999, Rivlin compared his experience on Capitol Hill with that earlier in the House of Commons. Professor Jones reported these reflections to those teachers attending the Dirksen Center “Congress in the Classroom” at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois [Summer, 1999]. While Mr. Rivlin had not seen the ten points “every student should know about Congress,” he nevertheless touched on virtually every one.)
The first point that is important to make and stress over and over and over again, is the huge difference in the sizes of the two governments. This is reflected in so many ways within the institutions, and for good reason. The parliament of the UK has about 650 MP representing 55 million people. The House of Representatives has 435 representing 240 million. To put it bluntly the MP I was working for was serving the interests of about 80,000 people; Representatives seem to typically serve about 600,000 people. Although it would be facile to suggest that this increases their importance ten fold, it has a huge impact on how the different offices operate, something which was apparent as soon as I walked through the doors.
To give you an example. When I was working in the UK, I was part of a staff of two others. Together, we were running TWO MP's offices. I was there for two weeks (and so far from a regular fixture), one girl was an American college student, there for five months and the other (the most permanent) was there for a year taking a break between high school and college (she was going to study History and Hertford College, Oxford). Let me stress that. Two parliamentary offices were being run by three kids, only one of which was on a salary. There was a single constituency office in each of the MP's constituencies, but each had only one full time employee (for MP John Battle, this was his wife) and the rest of the work was done by voluntary staff. These seemed typical (outside the select world of the 'high profile' MP's) and the workload seemed to match the staff need. In addition to this, one of the MP's (who was also then Minister for Energy, Science and Industry in the Labour Government) insisted on seeing every piece of mail that came to the office. Although there was a lot of mail that came in. This was by no means an impossible task.
In contrast, in the one office of Michael Bilirakis (R-Florida), there is one chief of staff, one legislative director, two legislative assistants, one 'press guy', three 'fellows' (two of which, interestingly, are sponsored by the administration), an office manager, an accountant (who works two days a week), a secretary and two or three interns. All of whom are always busy. There are also three constituency offices.
The mail comes three times a day, each bundle bigger than the daily mail for the UK offices and the Congressman doesn't even sign his own name in the outgoing responses, never mind read a tiny fraction of the mail. I have gone into some details here to illustrate my point that there is a huge contrast between the two sets of offices. It is not to the same scale, but being in this system I almost want to suggest that you should be able to distinguish 'the office of a congressman' from 'the congressman' as you might distinguish the 'White House' from the 'President'. This contrast is, however, not necessary in the UK.
I wanted to stress the point about size first because it is certainly the most striking difference, and one that is often overlooked in the books that I have read. In addition to the increased size of constituency is also the far larger budget that Congress has to spend compared to Parliament. This has to elevate the importance of each Representative, and they know it. The UK can almost be looked at as the scale of a very big state government, I'm sure it's GDP is less than California's.
The second aspect that should be noted relates to federalism. Considering what is going on in Scotland at the moment, perhaps I should qualify my statements somewhat, but nevertheless, this is a feature that clearly stands out as a difference. Although I had read about the 'federal nature of the US' and I'm sure I have written about it, I don't think I truly comprehended its meaning until the first hearing I attended. You really get the feeling that Congressmen have come from their states to this place that the people they represent are intensely skeptical of, to fight for the best deal for their district. Although there is some of this feeling in the UK (such as because of social demographic interests in certain regions), there is nothing comparable to the 'state nationalism’ that is evident here. Every time I hear someone from Texas speak I half expect them to declare war on one of their neighbors. Many seem clearly to see themselves as Texan or Floridian first and American second. I suppose that there is some of this in Scotland and Wales, but outside the nationalist parties, such views are seldom aired so strongly in the mainstream parties. From my limited experience of the Senate side (through my meeting with Senator Lugar and occasionally having the debates on the office TV), this is (understandably) even stronger there.
The other striking aspect of federalism, not seen in the UK, is probably more important. There is real respect and acknowledgment of the power of governing bodies outside the beltway. This is of course largely constitutional (there is no governing body in the UK which Westminster can't remove), but also related to the 'state nationalism' and, indeed, the size of the US making it impossible to govern from one place. This is especially shown when asking whether Congress has the authority to legislate in certain areas or how certain legislation would clash with state legislation. Such questions are often asked, openly. As a Briton, this certainly adds a powerful new dimension to the workings of the place.
It is worth mentioning the court here too. In the UK, if the court disagrees with legislation, the court is wrong. Judicial review exists for executive action, but legislation cannot be objected to by the judiciary. This is not the case here, and this is clear. There have been a few occasions when I have heard members openly talk of having to pre-empt judicial decisions when drafting legislation. This notion of the government not being sovereign because of this almost 'divine' constitution is quite a culture shock. The flag burning amendment to the constitution doesn't actually include laws to stop the burning of flags, but instead is designed to pre-empt judicial action over legislation that might be brought in the future.
The next thing that must be noted is the actual legislative role of Congress. The second reason for the staff in chez Bilirakis being so much greater than at chez Battle is that the staff working for Congressman Bilirakis seems to be active legislators. In the UK, legislation comes down from the executive, is analyzed and dissected by Parliament and then passed (this is because of unified government and party discipline). I am really getting the feeling that Congress really has a right to call itself a 'legislature', where as Parliament seems to just be a check on executive legislation and behavior. This is not to say the House of Commons isn't capable of legislating - from my experience, it just didn't. Of course, with split government, Congress is probably more active in this area than it might be under unified government. Nevertheless, the institutions do seem set up to carry out such a function.
This leads nicely to the role of committees and their independence compared to the UK. I remember writing an essay for you about how committee chairs are seen as a source of leadership in Congress and not really believing it. Now I truly do believe it. Although I haven't had chance to see the workings of the Rules, Appropriations or Ways and Means Committees, I have witnessed their impact of their presence shadowing over the House. They are often referred to and their leadership obviously has a high profile on the Hill. Conversations in the office talk of getting things 'through the rules committee', in a way that you would not encounter in the UK. As with everything in Parliament, the committees are organized, largely, through the party hierarchy and so the question would be 'getting something through the party leadership,' not through the committees.
In addition, within the Committees (and this is something I've witnessed a few times), you can see the power of the Chairman. In sub-committees this is particularly interesting as often the full committee chair and sub-committee chairs are present. It is clear how much control these people have, over setting the agenda, deciding on witnesses, creating the legislation that follows. Again, this can be seen as control of the individual committee chair, not just the party in majority, something which I believe is alien to the British system.
The other aspect of the committees is something else that I didn't truly believe from the books. This aspect is the extent that they do see the legislation that they pass to the House floor as 'their own'. I'm sure this point relates to the observation that Congress is truly a legislature and the bills are from its members, rather than the executive. In the British system it will be the relevant member of the executive that will guide a floor debate (following scrutiny and a report by the committee) not the committee chair and ranking member.
The next vitally important feature is the difference in the bicameral nature of the two institutions. (Again because of House of Lords reform this may change, but I believe the Royal Commission's brief was still to design a chamber which would uphold the dominance of the House of Commons). In Parliament, the important things happen in the Commons, with the Lords there as a check. Indeed, the power of the (present) Lords is to only delay a bill's passing by a year, it has no veto. The Salisbury convention prevents the House of Lords from delaying any legislation from the manifesto of the majority party in the House of Commons. This is quite a contrast to the United States. It truly is a wonder to me that any legislation ever passes through Congress. The Senate is as powerful, if not more than the House and it is quite amazing (from a British perspective) how much contact there is between the two chambers. In my first week I was lucky enough to be in a meeting of the GOP steel caucus aides. An LA from Senator Byrd's office was explaining to the people in the House the new strategy that both Houses should adopt following a defeat in the Senate of a bill. Not only was the Senate side informing the House, there was also clearly some negotiation taking place. I'm sure this must occur to an extent in Parliament, but in no way to the extent that it does here.
The other point to make as an outsider looking in is the difference between the House and Senate. To put it bluntly, the Senate is a classier affair. This is understandable, the Senators from California represent more people than do many heads of state, add to this 6 year terms and the right to filibuster and soon you're noticing that these people are pretty important. This difference is visible as soon as you cross onto the Senate side of Congress and even more in the Senate office buildings. In the House of Lords there is a similar difference to the Commons, but for reasons of history and tradition, not because of Lords being more important.
I'm sorry for turning this into a bit of a list, but there are a few aspects of the system that I want to comment on. The next thing is the difference in parties. YES. YES. YES. The US is a 'government of parties' not an example of 'party government'. I came with that in my head and every day it becomes more and more reinforced. I cannot tell you how many Red Roses were in the Parliamentary offices that I worked in. They were everywhere. It makes sense, each candidate gained election because of the parties, not because of themselves and so they may justifiably see their role as being part of the party machine. This is not the case out here. The most I have seen elephants here was at a presentation featuring Bob Barker (apparently he's a game show host) about animal cruelty in India. There is a GOP briefing and Whip notice that comes through the fax machine each morning, but apart from that, there is very little trace of the national party machine,(and this in an office of a member who supports the party position in over 90% of votes).
This, however, does not mean there is no trace of the party. This is why the 'government of parties' is so apt a description. Whilst there is not the party discipline that there is in the UK, there is clearly partisanship, particularly in the rhetoric. Votes do seem to go along partisan lines, but without the feeling that those are whipped votes. Republicans seem to vote with the Republicans because of a feeling of shared interests, rather than because of authority from above. This partisanship from below I believe is different from the centralized parties of the UK.
A word that highlights the party system is one that is heard a lot less in the UK, 'bipartisanship'. I think it is interesting to pick up on this word because the use of it means that it is a surprise, or at least that it is assumed that partisanship is the norm. It is, however, used so frequently that it highlights the lack of party discipline and the amount that individual members do work with those from the other side. I hope that I have explained that point clearly. In the UK the only time you hear the term used is in issues of national defense or N. Ireland, but here, every committee seems to claim some degree of bipartisanship, something they seem extremely proud of. I guess this is the difference between adversarial and consensual systems of government.
A point related to this is the independence of the members. I'm sure that this is even greater in the Senate, but even in the House you feel that people in meetings are trying to persuade each member, that there isn't a central unit to pitch to. This is even clearer because they often try and sell things from the point of view of the member's district. For example, if I am in a meeting and introduce myself as being from Rep Bilirakis' office from Florida, they will immediately start talking about what they are doing in Florida and making sure that I have their card when I leave the room. I'm thinking that you might be surprised that I am surprised at this, but I genuinely am. In the UK, although groups will lobby MPs, it is always their secondary activity and is more to do with educating the MPs of the salience of an issue, rather than persuading them to back a certain position. The power in the UK lies in the center and so it is facile to spend too much time lobbying the infantry. The reverse (or to some extent the reverse) is true in the US. The most striking example of this, which also clarified to me the significance of the separation of powers was when I found myself being brown-nosed by a government agency. Granted, they didn't know I was an intern (I try and hide it wherever possible). Not only was I surprised to see an executive agency (I think it was the Environmental Protection Agency) having to sell itself to the legislature, but further, I was shocked to see that they were clearly trying to persuade each member individually, with personalized information for each district. It is amazing how firmly people will shake you by the hand when you say you are from a Congressman's office; I still am quite shocked at the perception of the power of each of the individual. In the UK only those on the front bench are given such privileges.
Another important difference which I am noticing in content of debate, rather than institutions is clearly a cultural difference between our two countries. If I had a buck for every time I heard 'God' mentioned in debates, I'd have enough money to challenge George W Bush for President. Not only in debates about religion (and there have been plenty of those in the last few weeks), but about almost everything else. I'm sure I've heard the statistics somewhere, I forget them, but America is a far more religious country than the UK and it is clear in its politics. Something that they forget to mention in books is that American interests are not about the melting pots of NY or LA of radicalism and modern thought, America is about Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, traditional places with traditional values. It is amazing how this is reflected in debate. Well, it's amazing to me.
This is linked to another difference which is incredibly clear. The political status-quo here is well to the 'right' of the status-quo in the UK. This isn't just about welfare and health care, but centrist attitudes towards defense, religion, guns, abortion, taxation sound like things that would be uttered only at the fringes of the Conservative party. I'm sure it's the other way round as well and any Republican would be shocked at the welfare provisions in even one of Thatcher's budget (but many people still say that Thatcher wasn't really a Thatcherite).
I think I have gone over many of the major themes that I wanted
to suggest. Reading through I don't think that I mentioned the
separation of powers much, but this is because of my limited
contact with the executive branch. [NOTE: This observation itself
illustrates the separation of powers, as do many of his other
recollections.] Short of seeing mail from Departments and the
meeting that I had with the EPA (which was quite an eye-opener
that they were having to sell themselves), I haven't had enough
contact with the executive side. It’s not really surprising
that the current President is not trying to use his power to
persuade anywhere near Mr Bilirakis.