Item 1: The United States Congress represents the diverse interests . . . .
Item 2: The people are represented in two ways . . . .
Item 3: The one hundred senators are elected for six years . . . .
Item 4: Different forms of representation affect how the House and Senate legislate . . . .
Item 5: Lawmaking is a primary responsibility of Congress . . . .
Item 6: Political parties organize both houses of Congress . . . .
Item 7: Committees are important in both chambers for preparing bills . . . .
Item 8: The president has a vital role in the lawmaking process . . . .
Item 9: The Supreme Court has the power of "judicial review" . . . .
Item 10: The costs of winning a Senate or House election have increased dramatically . .
Suppose you had fifteen minutes to describe the ten most important features of the U.S. Congress - could you do it? What would appear on your list?
Judging by most opinion polls and survey results, few Americans could pull it off. The Congress is complex and often mysterious. People don’t generally pay much attention to it except in times of crisis or when they have something personal at stake. Politics seem to bore people, or worse yet, infuriate them.
But knowledge about government is fundamental to responsible citizenship. And Congress has substantial powers to act under Article I of the Constitution, making it, perhaps, the most powerful legislative body in the world.
So The Dirksen Congressional Center asked leading American political scientist Charles O. Jones to identify the ten most important points that a high school student should know about Congress. Following is Professor Jones’s list, along with activities that can be used in the classroom to illustrate his points.
The key concept is representation. But representation of what? Most students (and most Americans) do not fully appreciate the scope and variety of interests encompassed by our citizens. Yet it is the Congress’s job to represent and reconcile these interests. The process of doing that often leads to the compromising, negotiating, and bargaining that is not only the essence of legislative activity but also is the source of much of the public cynicism about Congress. Understanding what it is that representatives and senators represent will yield a more realistic appreciation of what is possible for Congress to achieve.
1. Students research their Congress member's positions on selected issues. What percentage of issues did you and your representative agree upon? On what issues did you agree? Disagree? What percentage of agreement was there between the representative and other students in the class? Based on this information, do you think your Congress member represents your district well? Do you think it is fair to make such a judgment based on this information? Why or why not? What other information is necessary to make a more fair judgment?
2. Students gather information on Members of Congress - race, religion, gender, income, political party, marital status, views on three or four major issues- then gather the same information for the population of the United States. Students then compare the information. Based on the collected data, how well does Congress as a whole represent the U.S. population as a whole? What percentage of women make up the U.S. population; what percentage in Congress? Minorities? How have these percentages changed since 1950? Might we have better representation if the two sets of data were more similar?
3. Students research the demographics of their district or state and research the political views and voting records of their representative or senator. Based on this information, what characteristics made the candidate attractive to the voters and, considering the voting record, do you think that your congressman will be reelected?
Every citizen is represented in Congress in two ways by three people. Each citizen has two U.S. senators who represent them as residents of a state. Each citizen also has one U.S. representative who speaks for them as a resident of a congressional district. Senators and representatives thus face different challenges, yet they must somehow reach agreement from these different perspectives. The system as a whole is designed for stability rather than quick change, a fact that sometimes frustrates people.
1. Students read the following from Article 1 of the Constitution: Section 2, Clause 3 and Section 3, Clause 1
2. Students research the New Jersey Plan, Virginia Plan, and Connecticut Compromise. How did each contribute to our present form of representation through Congress?
3. Students research the political party preference and election records of their state and district in the past 25 years. Has the state/district been traditionally made up of Democrat or Republican voters? Has this changed over time? Did the state/district traditionally vote for the Democrat or the Republican candidate in congressional races? During which elections did the political preference of the state/district not match with the political party of the elected candidate? What may have accounted for this?
4. Choose a state and district from a region other than your own and compare it with your own state and district. In what ways are they the same or different?
#3 The one hundred senators are elected for six years, with one-third of the Senate elected every second year; the 435 representatives are elected every second year from districts drawn up by state legislatures after each decennial census
Students should know that their representatives in Congress are elected at different times for different length terms. These procedures prevent wholesale changes in the membership of the House and Senate on the one hand and, on the other, permit voters to express their opinions at the ballot box at different times. That senators have six-year terms, for example, may help them vote more independently than House members, who have to run for re-election every two years.
1. What are the advantages and disadvantages (in terms of campaigning and legislating) of
Having a six year term?
Having a two year term?
Working with 99 other Members?
Working with 434 other Members?
2. Did your state gain or lose any representatives after the last census? How many? If there was a change, why did it occur?
3. What happens if a Member’s seat is vacated during his/her term?
4. What qualifications are necessary to be a member of the House? The Senate?
5. How many senators were representatives at one time? Select one such senator and make comparisons in the number of people represented, the number of staff members, committees served on, and voting records.
6. Terms to know and define: reapportionment, redistricting, one person-one vote
The basic point is that the two chambers approach their law-making responsibilities differently. The larger House, with 435 members, is more formal and structured than the Senate, with 100 members. Sheer size makes it impossible to run the House like the Senate. Because House members’ terms are shorter at two years, they are more attuned to their constituents, too, and that has implications for law-making. One can see the difference, for example, by watching debates - House debate is more constrained by rules. Contrasts in the books of rules for the two chambers also prove the point.
1. Students research the key differences between the House and Senate. How are their terms different? How are the leadership structures different? How do the responsibilities of the two bodies differ? How do their rules differ?
2. How do the differences between the two bodies affect the way they conduct business together? How do the similarities help them to work together?
3. Students take a virtual tour of the Capitol through the Architect of the Capitol’s web site. What are the differences between the House and Senate chambers? Similarities? What can you tell about the differences in the two bodies by looking at the differences in the two rooms?
The Legislative Process: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/lawsmade.toc.html and http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/uscongress/a/legprocess.htm
Perhaps this point states the obvious. But any understanding of Congress must start with its primary responsibility: to make laws. Article I of the Constitution grants such important powers to Congress that it is likely the most powerful legislature in the world. The process of how laws are made is important to know, as well. Often the procedure is depicted in a "How a Bill Becomes Law" chart. While this approach has merit, many educators today look for ways to convey the "messiness of democracy" – the bargaining, compromising, and arguing, – that is inherent in law-making.
1. Students find four news articles which document Congress using its Constitutional powers. Which power is being used in each case, and what part of the Constitution gives Congress this power?
2. How many bills have been introduced to date in the present Congress? What percentage have made it to a vote by the full Congress? How many were passed? Defeated? Where and why do most bills die?
3. Students choose a bill which has been passed into law and list the steps which the bill passed through. Compare the student charts to the typical, textbook "How a Bill Becomes a Law" chart. What steps has the text left out?
The Legislative Process: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/lawsmade.toc.html and http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/uscongress/a/legprocess.htm
The two major political parties organize the two chambers, choose their leaders, and develop the legislative agenda. Although both the House and the Senate are characterized by a good deal of individualism and decentralization, the parties and leaders serve a unifying function. Members of the majority party (having at least 51 senators or 218 representatives) chair the committees, hire the staff, schedule the chambers’ business, and determine the pace of work. Parties also provide an element of cohesion during votes.
1. Which party holds the majority in the House? The Senate? By how many?
2. During how many Congresses has the same political party held the majority in both the House and the Senate? What are some advantages to this situation? Disadvantages?
3. Students will examine the votes on five bills. Did members seem to vote along party lines? If not, what may have accounted for the split(s)?
4. Are there any Independents in the House or Senate? If so, how many are in each body? Do they tend to vote along with one political party the majority of the time?
5. Terms to know and define: Democrat, Independent, Majority Leader, majority party, Minority Leader, minority party, political party, President of the Senate, President Pro Tempore, Republican, Speaker of the House
It is in committees and subcommittees that legislators craft the bills that eventually become law. Committees gather information, hold hearings, and bargain over the details of bills and resolutions before the entire membership votes on measures. Most proposed bills die in committee – they are never reported out. Among the various types of committees, standing committees are probably the most important. They deal with most major policies, such as banking, commerce, public works, education, foreign policy, and general governmental affairs. Committee assignments are often the key to a lawmaker’s career, too. Members seek assignments that they believe will help them win reelection, exert influence within the chamber, and affect the nature of legislation.
1. Students examine four letters from the Michel collection relating to committee requests. (The Dirksen Center will put these documents online.) Why would the representatives request the committees that they did? Why did they ask not to be placed on certain committees? Were the requests of the representatives granted?
2. Students examine the make up of a sought after committee. What type of work does this committee do? Why is this committee popular? What is the average number of years served in Congress for the committee members? Pick five members and state why each of the members may have been chosen to serve on the committee (geography, experience, political party, etc.). Do the members share any similar characteristics?
3. Who makes the committee assignments? Who leads the committee? How do political parties play a part in committee assignment and make up?
4. On how many committees does a representative serve? A senator? What percentage of time does a congressman devote to committee work?
5. What is the average size of a committee?
6. Using the Center for Legislative Archives’ web site, students will research the origins and history of five congressional committees. On what date was each committee formed? What was the original purpose of each committee? Has the function of the committee changed over time? If so, how?
7. Why are committees more important in the House than in the Senate?
Related Web Sites: The Center for Legislative Archives, Thomas, U.S. House of Representatives Home Page (and Member home pages and committee listings), U.S. Senate Home Page (and Member home pages and committee listings)
Presidents cannot actually introduce bills, but they can propose them and help build public support for action in Congress. Their power in the legislative arena is not absolute by any means, but they are usually more able than congressional leaders to focus attention, identify the leading issues, and publicize them. Further, by vetoing or threatening to veto legislation, presidents can have extraordinary influence over what Congress does.
1. Students read portions of the president’s last State of the Union address. What were the key issues that the president raised? Which ones have Congress addressed and how has it addressed them?
2. Is the president of the same political party as the majority in the House? The Senate? What are the pros and cons of having the majority in Congress of the same political party as the president?
3. Students compare President Clinton’s veto record with the 103rd Congress to that of the 104th Congress. How many bills did he veto in the 103rd? 104th? What may have accounted for this difference?
4. Did the 104th Congress override any of President Clinton’s vetoes? If so, how many and on what issues?
5. What are three examples of the executive branch implementing laws?
Related Web Sites: The White House Home Page
Congress does not act alone in producing laws. Nor is lawmaking strictly a partnership between the Congress and the president. U.S. courts have powers to curtail action by other parts of government, including Congress and the White House. They may even tell those bodies what to do. Under the principle of judicial review, the Supreme Court has the right, when there is a case before them, to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional and therefore null and void. Of course, in our system of checks and balances, the president and Congress have influence over the courts, too. The main point here is interdependence among the three branches as it relates to lawmaking. Or as John C. Calhoun stated in 1817: "the prevailing principle is not so much a balance of power as a well-connected chain of responsibility.... This, then is the essence of our liberty; Congress is responsible to the people immediately, and the other branches are responsible to it."
1. Students illustrate John Calhoun’s statement with an example of the chain of responsibility between the three branches of government.
2. Students examine a case in which the Supreme Court has used its power of judicial review to find a law unconstitutional. What was the vote on the case? Why did the Court find the law to be unconstitutional? What might have been the consequences if the court did not use judicial review?
3. Through the system of checks and balances, the Supreme Court can "check" Congress and the president by using its power of judicial review. Are there any other ways that the judicial branch can check the other two branches? How can Congress and the president check the Supreme Court?
Related Web Sites: FINDLAW
Public opinion polls suggest that the public’s current unhappiness with Congress stems partly from the belief that members of Congress spend too much time raising money for campaigns, and that campaign donors have special access to members. The statistics are unmistakable: the costs of running for the U.S. Senate or House have risen dramatically in recent years. As a result, one of the most vexing public policy issues of the day is campaign finance reform. But are the public’s assumptions about money and influence correct? Do members pay undue attention to donors? Are some interests under-represented because they don’t have money to contribute to campaigns? What are the implications if the conventional wisdom is wrong?
1. Students research a Member’s contributions from special interests and the Member’s voting record. Do the two correspond? (For example, did the NRA donate money to the candidate and did he/she vote against gun control?)
2. Students research three campaign finance proposals. What are the similarities? Differences? How might each of the plans affect the campaign process? How might the proposals affect taxpayers?
3. Students research two campaign finance proposals and the contribution list of their representative or senator in the last election (or last couple of elections). How might each of the plans affect the way your representative/senator runs his/her next campaign?
4. Students research campaign advertising costs. What is the cost for 30 seconds of TV time? Radio time? A billboard for 1 month? 10,000 bumper stickers? 1,000 yard signs? An ad in the local newspaper? Mailing flyers to the whole district?
5. Terms to know and define: hard money, PAC, soft money, special interest group