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The U.S. Congress at Work
Russell D. Renka
PS103 -
July 23, 2009

What the Congress Does
Works Cited

    The first thing one should understand about the U.S. Congress is how powerful it is compared to other legislatures in the parliamentary democracies.  The second thing is that bicameralism is important, producing a strikingly effective separation of powers principle in action between the so-called lower House of Representatives, and the "other body" upper house, the U.S. Senate.  The third thing is that the House and Senate operate very differently despite typically having approximately the same configuration of Members in terms of party balance and ideological dispositions.

What the Congress Does                     Top; Next Down

    That's right, Congress makes the laws.  You know the first answer to this if your childhood included exposure to Dave Frishberg's 1975 song "I'm Just a Bill" on Capitol Hill (YouTube - Schoolhouse Rock- How a Bill Becomes a Law; SchoolhouseRock - I'm Just a Bill; Schoolhouse Rock featuring JACK SHELDON; Bill).  The Congress turns bills submitted to it by its Members into laws--on occasion.  Most bills, of course, die somewhere in the warren of almost 20 permanent or standing committees that do the detailed lawmaking work of the Congress.  Some few arrive to the floor, for roll call floor votes in one chamber.  If also passed in identical form by the other body, then the bill is presented to the president for signature or veto.  Assuming no veto, then:  it's a law, formally called a statute.  And if there is a presidential veto, Congress can try for an override, but that takes 2/3 majority or greater in each house.  Most vetoed bills therefore die (so Frishberg's Bill told the little boy just that).

    So Congress and President reside in separate branches of our federal government.  In the democratic world's many assemblies, most have no formal or de facto separation of powers between the parliament and the executive or "government" that derives from parliament.  We say the parliament's lower house is sovereign, because it's the source of that government's existence.  But once that government is in place, it basically dominates the proceedings in parliament.  It had best do so, for parliament's disapproval of its fundamental plans (such as the annual budget) is usually grounds for "no confidence" and eventual dissolution or termination of that government.  In short, the first job of a parliament is to pick a government, which is done on basis of one party or a party coalition controlling a parliamentary majority.  But per Renka, Presidents and Congresses, 1933-2010, we Americans elect our president separately from our Congress; and often in recent years like 2007 and 2008 we get divided government where Democrats control one institution and Republicans the other.  That's quite OK with the American people, who pragmatically view this as protection from overweening power in one party's hands.

    So Congress often passes laws independently of or in outright defiance of the separate executive.  The presidential veto is a deterrent, but a quite limited one.  For example, the veto doesn't prevent Congress from revamping the president's proposed budget toward its own ideological and district-interest priorities.  Many congressional laws involve handling money, both incoming and outgoing.  The core congressional power is the appropriation, universally known as power of the purse.  These are done annually, unlike authorizations.  Put it this way:  authorization creates legal authority to have a federal program on which money can be spent, but only the annual appropriation actually provides a dole.  It's the fundamental bulwark of congressional separation and independence from the executive branch "downtown" in the region below Capitol Hill (a literal hill, by the way, with a majestic west-facing view down Washington Mall toward an opposite hill across the Potomac River containing the national cemetery at Arlington).  The most powerful permanent committees in House and Senate are basically those that handle money (incoming or taxation via House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee; outgoing via respective House and Senate Appropriations Committees).

    And committee-based power is grounded in three things:  1) membership in the majority party, 2) senior status within the committee among those members, and 3) policy expertise.  The majority party ensures itself of control of standing committee outputs (usually) by giving itself a majority of the members on each committee (with one small exception for equal representation on the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee).  Then committee seniority kicks in:  the committee chair goes to the majority party with longest unbroken service on that committee.  But in the party-ruled House, it's no longer the automatic prerogative as it was from the 1920s all the way to 1975.  The House Republicans effected a six-year term limitation on all chairpersons starting in 1995, and that held for the six congresses (104th through 109th) of 1995 to 2006 where they held a majority.  So in 2001 a host of old chairs were forced to yield their posts, and a flock of aspirants had to beg the leadership and Republican Conference to replace them.  When chair vacancies arose during 2001 through 2005 with the Republicans, would-be new chairs had to: 1) raise plentiful campaign funds for their co-partisans in the House, and 2) have demonstrated orthodox party voting on important floor votes.  Do otherwise and you were denied a chair post even though you were next in line for it by seniority (Renka and Ponder 2005).

    House Democrats took over the 110th in 2007-08, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi very quietly kept in place the House rule imposing the three-term limitation to Democratic chairpersons--over grousing by Democratic "old bulls" such as fifty-year veteran John Dingell, who arrived in Congress representing the Detroit area in 1955!  What's more, the newly minority Republicans kept the limitation for their "chairs in waiting" known as ranking minority members.  Seniority still is usually observed in the House, but it's anything but automatic (Renka and Ponder 2005).

    The Senate is different.  Seniority still prevails there with Senate Democrats and with Republicans until the six-year term limitation kicks in.  The Senate differs from the House because committee service is less important to the members, the number of members per committee is smaller, and the adverse consequences of angering a spurned Senator are considerably more severe (Renka and Ponder 2005).

    Policy expertise still counts for a lot in committees too.  It's the simple observation that when others know vastly more than Members of Congress do about a technical subject, and have a venue to express themselves, they'll dominate any transaction between the two.  Committees are indispensable as repositories of informational expertise within Congress (Krehbiel 1991).  The long tenure in Congress and on committee of its careerist members (with no term limits and few defeats of incumbents) means they can and do develop sufficient expertise to compete seriously with "downtown" (executive bureaucracies) and with lobbyists for specialized businesses such as the telecommunications industry.  This is one of the national legislature's greatest contrasts to the General Assembly of the State of Missouri, which makes its own lack of expertise painfully clear in May of each calendar year.  It's also Item A against the notion of ever imposing term limitations automatically to all Members of Congress.

    But there is far more to Congress than passing proposed legislation into law.  Congress is also our preeminent national representative institution.  To the extent popular sentiment can reach national policymakers, much of it does so through this bicameral institution.  The same holds for interest groups, which devote tremendous resources to lobbying of the national legislature.  Were the Congress not a largely autonomous power center on its own, be assured that lobbyists would hastily recognize that and take their business "downtown" to the executive branch instead.  Many lobbyists, including state and local governments seeking more federal grant allotments, go to Congress for identical reason that Willie Sutton once robbed banks:  because that's where the money is (Willie Sutton - Wikipedia).

    One form of that representation is constituent case work.  Case work isn't really lawmaking (Casework in a Congressional Office Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources Open CRS Network - CRS Reports for the People).  It is well defined in a typical website from former Congressman Bob Beauprez, Republican of Colorado's 7th Congressional District until 2007, as "assistance from a Member of Congress and his or her staff at the request of constituents on their behalf in their dealings with Federal agencies."  Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson > Constituent Services > Casework identifies casework as a primary job of her staff housed largely in the Missouri's 8th congressional district, which covers 28 Missouri counties with 700,000 residents ranging from Rolla in the northwest down to the Bootheel's Arkansas border.  Be advised in the event you seek this service:  identify yourself via nine-digit zip code as living in her district, that her staff can farm out any other business to its rightful advocate.  In any case, this casework is largely political profit for all modern Members like Emerson.  It is done on a strictly nonpartisan basis, and is a primary reason why Members now have as many as 18 fulltime staffers with a large share located in the district instead of D.C.

    Remember that federalism counts for a lot here.  As the Emerson website points out, you can only get casework assistance with federal agencies, not state ones.  For state bureaucratic unsticking services, go instead to state legislative offices.  But do not expect comparable services from the General Assembly of the State of Missouri, or state legislatures of other states.  They have some election-based political incentive to do it but rarely have the necessary dedicated staff support.  And with term limitations in place among nearly half the states including Missouri, even the political will to commit to this work is often lacking.  When and if you do seek assistance with state bureaucracies, chances are good that if you get something done, you'll hear directly from the state legislator.  That's because he or she cannot farm this out.

    Another form of representation comes via pork barrel, dishing out packages of tangible benefits back to districts and states.  That infamous 2002 farm bill is a flagrant example, and so is the transportation ISTEA measure of 1999 (2002 Farm Bill Report Card; ISTEA Reauthorization) where a single committee has a subcommittee with 54 members devoted entirely to distributing federal highway funds (House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee - Highways with D 30, R 24 in 110th House).  These open the bank doors to the Willie Suttons of the world, so to speak.  They treat government revenue as a "common pool" good where the goal is to extract a maximum share for each Member and district.  The power is committee-centered, the lard is widely distributed, the committee members get hefty extra shares, the bill goes to the floor as a bipartisan veto-proofed single measure for up-or-down vote, and the measure is easily passed.  It's the classic prisoners' dilemma where society is better off without such excess, but failing that, no Member wants to be left out.  And if a Member does fight it seriously, chances are good that he or she loses that district's share of largesse while 434 other districts stay at the trough.

    This process doesn't fare well in smell tests.  Almost all Members compete with each other and with potential home-based election opponents to demonstrate their prowess at "bringing home the bacon."  The process as a whole brings disrepute upon the Congress as an institution for potential corruption, for inefficiency, and for flouting expertise in favor of raw politics.  But for a district, well, we want our roads paved and bridges built even if the cost is an occasional unfortunate project included in a bill such as Rep. Don Young's infamous Alaska "Bridge to Nowhere" in the 2005 highways legislation (Utt, 2005 - The Bridge to Nowhere: A National Embarrassment; Murray 2005, For a Senate Foe of Pork Barrel Spending, Two Bridges Too Far).  Besides, if we forego our share from the federal common pool, will other states and districts exercise the same restraint?  Not likely--especially once you're familiar with the "sucker's payoff" in prisoner dilemma games (everyone gets a share except you; and the common pool of funds is still drained).

    It might go without saying that pork barrel has a horrid reputation among budget hawks (those few who still believe we should watch carefully what public dollars are spent to do) and reformists.  There is no denying that while pork distribution is widespread, Members with extra power do take extra portions.  The State of Alaska had two veteran committee chairpersons (Don Young in the House, and Ted Stevens in the Senate) who were famous during the 12-year Republican majorities in 1995 through 2006 for getting a lot extra.  The most notorious single example is a "bridge to nowhere" per left-leaned Pacific Views Alaska's bridge to nowhere and rightward Heritage Foundation's The Bridge to Nowhere: A National Embarrassment (Utt, 2005).  When public crisis arrived in early September 2005 via Hurricane Katrina's trashing of a half-dozen major Gulf bridges (and one large city as well), this bridge became the poster boy for excessive and wasteful spending that reflected personal political power in lieu of sober judgment of where public transit would produce the most benefits for the dollar.  You may note as well from these links that criticism was bipartisan and rather non-ideological, deriving from budget watchers on both left and right sides of the wide partisan aisle.

    That particular bridge did get axed from the budget (Alaska 'bridge to nowhere' funding gets nowhere - Lawmakers delete project after critics bestow derisive moniker).  Public ridicule and the hurricane's aftermath can curb pork abuse.  But this is abnormal exposure of a single event.  Don't count on this becoming regular practice.  Politicians are agents of districts sent to D.C. to extract maximal shares of benefits from the "common pool" of the federal budget.  This isn't partisan, or ideological; it's another form of servicing the district or state that sent them there.  When Representative Don Young (R-Ak.) put that Alaska bridge into the 2005 budget, he was chairperson of the standing committee with jurisdiction over all budget authority on public transit projects; so he was just doing his job with some extra largesse to demonstrate his power back home.  We want lower taxes and more services here in Emerson's district; and Alaskans think the same for themselves.  They logroll (swap) benefits of this sort; and the most powerful members like Young take extra-sized log allotments for their districts or states.

    Congress does more than just casework and pork.  There is also oversight of the executive branch.  Suppose there is evidence from the media that the President of the United States and his principal White House aides are apparently engaged in a massive cover-up of felony crimes committed by lower-level persons employed by the Committee for the Reelection of the President (CREEP, for short).  This calls for a committee-based formal investigation of the scandal (you can see more on that by web-dialing "Watergate").  In 2007, we are seeing the first serious oversight of the Bush Administration since it began in 2001, courtesy of the 2006 midterm's creation of a Democratic majority.  The now-departed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would have had it otherwise, but divided government operates quite differently than unified one-party government in this intensely partisan era.

    During and leading to wartime, Congress also has the sole formal authority to declare war (Linder, War and Treaty Powers of the U. S. Constitution).  That is prescribed in the Constitution; but there is considerably less to it than appears.  The last time this was done came in December 1941 upon attack at Pearl Harbor.  But in 1991 and again in 2001 followed by 2003, Congress each time issued legislation tantamount to giving the President broad legal authority to prosecute war actions against first the Saddam Hussein Iraq regime's forced occupation of a neighboring oil state, then the Taliban regime in Iran as host of the international al Q'aeda terrorist network that brought about 9-11, and finally in 2003 Saddam's Iraq a second time to overthrow Saddam.  Who actually makes war?  Usually the president and executive branch (granting considerable influence of Vice-President Dick Cheney as instigator of our current war and occupation in Iraq).  And who ends a war?  Congress has only limited power to effect that, short of entirely cutting off the funding of an ongoing war.  The Democratic majority in the 110th Congress is currently showing us that it's easier to run for election on basis of stopping a war than it is to get 535 Members of Congress to actually do that.  President Bush has only to veto a funding cutoff or an authorization change to impose restrictions on his use of troops in foreign lands; and we see once again that vetoes are rarely overridden in this era of deeply and also closely divided parties.

    Finally, Congress has considerable power of advice and consent (U.S. Senate Reference Home Glossary advice and consent).  This is a Senatorial specialty conferred through its power to approve or disapprove presidential nominees for high executive and judicial posts.  Like warmaking, one curb on congressional advice and consent power is that the Senate can refuse to confirm a presidential nominee, but once that person's there, Congress lacks direct power to fire him or her.  Thus Attorney General Alberto Gonzales still sits in that office despite doing much to infuriate both Democrats and Republicans in the current Senate.  If there were a formal power in the Senate to fire him, he'd be vacationing in Texas now.

    There is also special provision for U.S. House participation in one special presidential nomination, that of a replacement of any vacant Vice Presidential office under the 25th Amendment of the Constitution (FindLaw U.S. Constitution Twenty-Fifth Amendment; Dr. Zebra's 25th Amendment to the Constitution in 1967; Dr. Zebra, Presidential Succession).  This is how Gerald Ford became successor to the disgraced Richard Nixon in 1974 following the fall 1973 resignation from office of disgraced former Vice-President Spiro Agnew.  We'll see more on this in presidential succession notes down the road.  And we'll see a good bit about selection of the judiciary as well. 

Bicameralism                 Top; Next Down

    In the U.S. House, the majority party rules.  In the Senate, the egotistical individual senator rules.  The two sides of Capitol Hill operate very differently.  This isn't due to ideological difference, since House and Senate are both popularly elected and both tend to reflect the current powerful trend to create ideologically separated and cohesive parties with few Members in the dangerous moderate middle.  Their differences come from tradition and special rules of the Senate.

    The special senatorial "f word" is, of course, the filibuster.  This is a provision allowing unlimited debate on floor measures because the Senate lacks a formal provision to "call the question" and compel a vote on whether to end further debate.  The only senatorial way to force an end to debate, and a vote on a measure or a stalled nomination, is to invoke cloture.  That in turn requires 60 votes among the 100 senators.  The modern problem is that the minority party can and does employ the filibuster as an effective threat and/or actual weapon to prevent a floor action.  With ideologically antagonistic parties lacking middle voters, this is a constant incentive--especially after the ideologically ruled House pushes through a bill (such as December 2005 passage of immigration reform) that completely excluded the minority-party Democrats--to use this threat to get the majority to heed minority party views.  The majority party can only invoke cloture with 60 votes, but you can see from Presidents and Congresses, 1933-2008 that a full generation has passed since either party approached that threshhold.

    The result is that cultural warriors have a far easier time getting their way in the party-ruled House.  The Senate will not be ruled so simply.  It's the one place currently where a degree of bipartisanship still exists on legislation, because neither party has a path to House-styled rule by itself.  The famous and long-standing partnership on bills with Senator Ted Kennedy, liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, and Orren Hatch, conservative Republican from Utah, originates from the peculiar Senate rules.  So have others, including the "odd fellows" coalition of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold that produced the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law of 2002.  We do not see such relationships across party lines in the contemporary House even though the tenure of its Members is approximately equal to that of Senators.

    The independent power of the Senate is another reminder of the central effect of constitutional separation of powers.  It makes the American model operate differently from other national assemblies.  In formal terms, Canada, Great Britain, and many other parliamentary countries have bicameral division of lower and upper houses (such as House of Commons, and House of Lords).  But in fact, only the so-called "lower house" is truly a power center.  Not so in the American system.  The U.S. Senate as an institution is every bit equal to our lower house.  If you're one of Dave Frishberg's bills on Capitol Hill, his song reminds that you must wind your way through committee, rule issuance, and floor vote in both chambers alike in the elaborate "how a bill becomes law" schematic.  If you doubt that, then read the New York Times 2006-2007 coverage of the pathway of immigration reform toward either passage as a negotiated settlement between highly different House and Senate versions; or eventual demise for failure to resolve that (9.26.2006 Editorial, Immigration Reform, in Pieces - New York Times).


Works Cited

Krehbiel, Keith.  1991.  Information and Legislative Organization.  Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press.

Linder, Doug.  2007.   War and Treaty Powers of the U. S. Constitution.  URL:

Murray, Shailagh.  For a Senate Foe of Pork Barrel Spending, Two Bridges Too Far, October 21.  The Washington Post.  URL:

Pontius, John S.  2004.  Congressional Research Service, CRS Report for Congress.  CRS-98-878 - Casework in a Congressional Office.  URL:

Renka, Russell D., and Daniel E. Ponder.  2005.  Committee Seniority Violations in the U.S. House During Republican Control since the 104th House.  Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington Marriott Hotel, Washington, D.C., August 30-September 3, 2005.

Renka, Russell D.  Presidents and Congresses, 1933-2010.  URL:

Utt, Ronald D.  2005.  The Bridge to Nowhere: A National Embarrassment, October 20.  The Heritage Foundation.  URL:


Copyrightę2009, Russell D. Renka