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Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action (Chapter 3--Congress)

12 minutes

(Describer) Titles: Founding Principles - American Governance in Theory and Action. Chapter 3: Congress.

Hi, I'm Andrew Rudalevige-- Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. Welcome to Hawthorne Longfellow Library in beautiful Brunswick, Maine, and Founding Principles-- our series introducing you to how American politics work. Today, we begin a three-part discussion of the branches of government. We start with jokes about Congress-- only clean ones. Bowdoin wouldn't let me go for the R rating. So much for artistic integrity.

(Describer) Against a parchment background, title: Chapter 3 - Congress.

(Describer) Red curtains close over the title and a microphone pops up. Rudalevige steps to it.

So here it goes. The opposite of progress is Congress. [drumroll/ cymbals clanging] Talk is cheap, except when Congress does it.

[drumroll/cymbals]

With Congress, every time they make a joke, it's a law, and every time they make a law, it's a joke. Suppose I were an idiot, and suppose I were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

[drumroll/cymbals]

Thank you, I'll be here all week.

(Describer) The mic falls and the curtains open.

That last one goes back to Mark Twain in the 19th century. With public approval of Congress somewhere below 10%, it hasn't aged much. A Gallup poll showed we think more of lawyers and salesmen-- and college professors-- than we do of members of Congress. Another poll suggested Congress, as an institution, is less respected than cockroaches, root canals, or even the nation of France. It did beat out telemarketers, though apparently the telemarketers are calling and asking for a recount.

[drumroll/cymbals]

Okay, these aren't hilarious, but there is something funny going on. If we don't take Congress seriously, we undermine our vehicle for self-governance. Congress is the most powerful legislative body in the world. It controls the purse and writes laws. It's Article I of the Constitution-- the first branch of government, far stronger than the President. A supermajority of Congress can get rid of the President. The President can't fire Congress. Now, another funny thing. We, the voters, can fire Congress, but we hardly ever do. Even in 2010--a terrible year for incumbent legislators-- 85% of House incumbents were reelected-- 91% in 2012, 94% in 2006 and '08. If Congress is so bad, why do we keep so many members around for so many years? Why do we hate Congress but love our own member of Congress? This contradiction is so widespread, it has a name in political science. It's called Fenno's paradox, after the scholar Richard Fenno. Let's explore what's behind it. The answer, like most things in American politics, starts with the structure of the Constitution.

The first piece of the puzzle is bicameralism. Having given Congress the power to make laws, the framers immediately created a massive obstacle to actually doing so. They divided Congress into two chambers-- House of Representatives and the Senate. Both need to act, but they are structured quite differently in ways that create immediate conflict. To start, the Senate has 100 members-- two from each state-- while the House has a nearly unmanageable 435, divvied up by state population. They serve quite different constituencies. Remember, the House is the only institution in the original Constitution to be directly chosen by voters. The President is chosen by the electoral college, and senators, until 1913, were chosen by state legislatures. So the House, with its short two-year term, was intended to channel public opinion-- the passions of the people. The Senate would get a long six-year term. It could serve as a stable deliberative body cooling those passions down. It would be the saucer to the House's hot tea. A second piece of the puzzle-- parochialism. Senators represent a grand total of one state. House members are even more localized. They represent a small piece of physical territory, often specifically drawn to limit the diversity in its population-- to have mostly rural voters, say, or mostly Democrats. They all care about the people generally, but naturally, they care a lot more about what people in their districts think. Those districts care about different things. A member of Congress from an urban district cares about different things than colleagues down the turnpike representing a more rural region. A senator from Maine cares more about fishing than one from Kansas and less about wheat. For members of Congress to focus on the national interest, that interest has to speak in a local dialect. Only people in their district can vote them in or out of office. To get anything done, members of Congress--House or Senate-- have to get elected. Most want to make good policy. Whether they want to change education, improve civil rights, or fix the national defense posture, they need to get elected first, and re-elected, and they hope re-elected again. So let's think about how these things fit together. We have long-term legislators who want to be longer term and who have personally constructed constituencies defined by physical territory. This already explains a fair bit about how Congress works or doesn't. Given those ground rules, it makes sense for legislators to organize Congress to enable them to do things for constituents, give benefits, and protect them from costs. They want to give themselves the ability to take credit. To achieve this, they created the two fundamental institutions that govern Congress in both House and Senate... Committees first. Committees and their subcommittees divide up the workload of Congress. There are more than 200. Some make rules; some are informational. It would be impossible to be an expert on everything that comes through Congress. Others we might call distributive. They allow members to control the flow of legislation, usually areas helpful to their district. Obviously, the committees that control the cash-- the Appropriations Committees, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee-- have special power. That power is organized by the political parties. This has been true since the first Congress in 1789, even though most of the big names of the day-- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison-- consistently despaired of what factions could do to politics. But divisions occurred quite naturally as divisive issues arose. These days, the majority party in each chamber controls committees and rules of debate. Thus, it controls the policymaking process pretty tightly, especially in the House. The parties are very divided at the moment. There aren't many in the middle to serve as a bridge. In the Senate, there have been two key differences from the House. Any senator could speak for as long as he or she wanted--filibuster. They could introduce amendments, even if those amendments didn't have much to do with the bill being debated. The majority doesn't have as much power to ram through legislation. This protects the minority. Of course, it means that even less gets done.

(Describer) A graph shows no more than three percent of bills becoming law.

At the end, both chambers have to agree on the same text-- another chance for the bill to die. The final result? The status quo usually wins. If you have to put money on whether a bill becomes a law, bet no. Think about the classic process. There are many places-- veto points-- where a small number of lawmakers can stop something from moving forward. You've probably seen the cartoon showing how a bill becomes law. These days, with the parties so divided, it takes something special-- a big majority for one party, clever use of what's been called unorthodox lawmaking-- doing an end run around the standard committee process, or using tricks of legislative procedure, or both. The Affordable Care Act in 2009-2010 is a great case study on that point. So Congress is slow most of the time. It's inefficient. Great at giving goodies, not so great at giving them to people who need them most. It is localized, has short time horizons. It isn't really an "it" at all. It's a "they." In short, Congress is easy to make jokes about. But remember, the House and Senate aren't inefficient because they violate the rules. Those are the rules. Congress can be a good example of the tragedy of the commons, when lots of individual people acting perfectly rationally leads to group results none of those individuals wanted. Put another way, our lawmakers don't always perform well collectively, because individually they respond so well to the incentives they face. Quite logically, we hate Congress but love our member of Congress.

(Describer) Two men fight in an old illustration.

Now we might ask, is gridlock so bad? Is it better for bad things not to happen, even if it prevents a few good things? Is speed always good? What value should we place on deliberation and debate?

(Describer) The weapons are a bat and quill.

However you answer those questions, the rules lawmakers are following are ones we wrote for them. James Madison observed in Federalist 57 that the House "is so constituted "as to support in the members an habitual recollection to their dependence on the people." That still holds. Congress represents us-- our divisions, our factions, and just often enough, our better angels. But it represents us in small chunks thrown together under one roof. Only one actor has the nation as a constituency. As we'll see, the presidency doesn't have formal powers commensurate with that implied authority.

(Describer) Back in the library...

The history of the presidency is the efforts of its occupants to overcome its constraints, exercise real power despite a Constitution that doesn't give them much. That brings us to Article II-- the executive branch. Hope to see you then. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: Written and Preformed by Andrew Rudalevige, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government, Bowdoin College. Editorial and Production Assistance by Abigail McBride and Scott Schaiberger. Special Thanks to Clayton Rose, President, Bowdoin College. Special Thanks to Barry Mills, President Emeritus, Bowdoin College. A logo depicts a lower-case letter E in a purple shield with 1880 just above it. Beside it, title: produced by Emerson Productions. Bowdoin. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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In this episode, Dr. Andrew Rudalevige explores the legislative branch. Through a study of foundational documents like the Constitution, students learn why Congress is an integral part of American government and politics. Students will also analyze the lawmaking duties of both legislative houses. Part of the "Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 12 minutes

Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 1
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 2
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 3
12 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 4
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 5
12 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 6
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 7
12 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 8
16 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 9
14 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 10
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12