(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Congress of the United States

Congress of the United States, the legislative branch of the national government. It consists of two houses, a Senate having 100 members (2 from each state) and a House of Representatives having 435 members. The members of the House represent districts that within each state, by requirement of the Supreme Court, must be nearly equal in population.

The Congress was created by Article I, section 1, of the U.S. Constitution (adopted 1787, effective 1789), which enumerates the powers invested in Congress, including the powers to assess and collect taxes, regulate interstate and foreign commerce, coin money, establish post offices, declare war, and maintain the armed forces. Each chamber also has special powers. For example, the Senate must ratify treaties, and the House initiates all revenue bills.

Congress itself determines the size of the House (the Senate customarily respecting the House's wishes in this matter), and although the House has grown with the admission of new states to the Union and with population increases, an upper limit of 435 has been maintained since 1913 except for a temporary suspension to accommodate the admission of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959.

Qualifications and Elections. Representatives must be at least 25 years old, must be residents of their states (and also, by custom, of the districts they represent), and must have been citizens of the United States for 7 years. They are elected by popular vote for 2-year terms from districts established by the legislatures of their states. Senators must be 30 years old, residents of their states, and citizens of 9 years' standing. Senators are also elected by popular vote; before the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, they were chosen by their state legislatures or according to provisions laid down by their legislatures. Senate terms are for 6 years, one-third of the terms expiring every 2 years. Elections for both houses are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years or on special dates set by state laws to fill seats that become vacant between terms. Political parties emerged during the First Congress, and members of both houses have customarily been nominated by parties. In the 18th and the early 19th century, nominees were selected in conventions; now, with few exceptions, they are chosen by popular primary elections.

Sessions. Under terms of the 20th Amendment, adopted in 1933, both houses meet at noon on the third day of January after the November elections (unless Congress fixes a different date) to organize for the forthcoming two-year period. One session is held each year, extending continuously from January until adjournment. In recent years the length of sessions has increased, until now Congress usually remains in session until fall. Each biennium is designated a Congress, the 1st Congress meeting in 1789 and 1790, and the 100th in 1987 and 1988. The Constitution permits neither house to adjourn for more than three days without the concurrence of the other. Once a session or a Congress adjourns sine die (indefinitely), it meets again only if the president calls a special session of one or both houses.

Officials and Leaders

The Constitution provides that the House shall elect a speaker to preside over it; legally he or she need not be, but by custom the speaker always is, a member. The speaker is the leader of the party having the greater membership in the House, and commonly attains leadership only after many uninterrupted terms of service. Except, of course, for the first speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg, only Henry Clay in 1811 and William Pennington in 1859 were elected to the speakership in their first terms.

The Constitution designates the vice president of the United States as president of the Senate; it permits him or her to vote only when senators' votes are equally divided. In recent years vice presidents have usually presided only on ceremonial occasions or at meetings of special importance. A president pro tempore—by tradition the senator having the longest continuous service in the majority party—presides or, more typically, rotates the role of presiding officer among new senators of both parties.

In both House and Senate the party with larger membership takes major responsibility for managing formal leadership positions. Usually the same party commands a majority in both houses, and that party, more often than not, occupies the presidency also. The participation of parties is wholly traditional and extralegal; parties are not mentioned in either the Constitution or the rules of either house. Party caucuses in each house elect majority and minority leaders and their deputies, the party whips. The speaker and the leaders enjoy certain emoluments, notably large offices and chauffeured automobiles.

Changing Role of the Speaker. During the speakerships of Thomas B. Reed (1889–1891, 1895–1899) and Joseph G. Cannon (1903–1911), House leaders appointed committees, sometimes ignored seniority in designating chairpersons, and set the agenda for debate to suit their policies. First Reed and then Cannon commanded the Republican Party and, therefore, the House. In the first decade of the 20th century, "insurgent" Republicans, led by George Norris of Nebraska, rebelled against Cannon and joined the Democrats to remove the speaker from the Rules Committee, strip him or her of power to appoint committees, and adopt other reforms that made the speaker less powerful and more responsive to a majority of the House—not necessarily a partisan majority. Since then speakers have relied more on informal influence than on formal authority. They have preferred to work privately, hence flexibly, rather than to consolidate power publicly and thus restrict their latitude for compromise. Sam Rayburn, whose 17 years as speaker (1940–1947, 1949–1953, 1955–1961) far exceeded any previous tenure in that office, epitomized the informal leader. History was made in November 2006 when House Democrats selected Nancy Pelosi of California to be speaker in the 110th Congress, making her the first woman to be chosen for the job.

Senate Leadership. Senate leaders, too, have relied almost exclusively on informal influence. Indeed, the formal leadership positions, such as those of majority and minority leader, have occasionally been filled by relatively junior senators selected through a compromise among senior party figures. Not until Lyndon B. Johnson became Democratic leader in 1953 and majority leader in 1955 did a formal party leader centralize power in the Senate. Although chosen by a traditional compromise and while serving only his first Senate term, Johnson soon defined his role in quite untraditional ways. He acquired the largest staff any leader ever had by drawing together assistants from his several other positions as chair of committees and subcommittees. Johnson made himself the center of Senate activity, sometimes talking with every Democratic senator every day. Within a few years he became the acknowledged authority on what was acceptable to the Senate. He proved himself a consummate parliamentarian without precedent in Congress or in any other legislature. Nevertheless, when Johnson resigned in 1961 to serve as vice president, he had not yet so consolidated his authority and institutionalized his role that his successor would automatically inherit the accoutrements of power. Senate leadership soon reverted to its customary decentralized style.

The Committee System

The fate of most proposed legislation rests in the hands of the congressional committees. In 1913 the two houses had 135 committees. Some reduction occurred in the 1920s, but by the end of World War II, 81 committees still existed. The committee system was streamlined by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. By 2007 Congress had divided its work among some 250 committees and subcommittees.

In the 110th Congress the House had 20 standing committees: Agriculture; Appropriations; Armed Services; Budget; Education and the Workforce; Energy and Commerce; Financial Services; Government Reform; Homeland Security; House Administration; International Relations; Judiciary; Resources; Rules; Science; Small Business; Standards of Official Conduct; Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans' Affairs; and Ways and Means. There also was the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The Senate had 16: Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Appropriations; Armed Services; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; Finance; Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; Judiciary; Rules and Administration; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and Veterans' Affairs. The Senate also had 4 other committees: Indian Affairs; the Select Committee on Ethics; the Select Committee on Intelligence; and the Special Committee on Aging. Within Congress there also were the Joint Economic Committee as well as joint committees on printing, taxation, and the Library of Congress.

Most House members serve on only one committee; all Senators serve on several. Each may sit on one or more subcommittees. When bills are introduced in either house, they are referred to a committee. Experience and precedents have been codified to make reference virtually automatic, thus reducing the discretion and influence of the leaders; in rare cases of uncertainty the presiding officer, advised by the parliamentarian, designates the committee having jurisdiction.

The majority party holds a majority of the seats on every committee. The distribution of committee seats is usually adjusted when the ratio of majority to minority changes.

The Committee's Work. The chairperson of the committee (the majority party member whose continuous service is longest) to which the bill is referred decides whether to refer the bill to a subcommittee, hold hearings in the full committee, or ignore the bill. Some committees have adopted rules to govern the chairperson, but in most the chair proceeds with considerable latitude. Chairs appoint subcommittees, and subcommittee assignments depend less on seniority considerations and more on the chair's preferences than do committee appointments. A sympathetic chairman or chairwoman can hasten a bill's passage by scheduling hearings or by affecting the composition of a subcommittee; an unsympathetic chair can delay action, while his or her colleagues are reluctant to press the issue.

By custom, chairpersons are respected for their positions—acquired through seniority, not through election by the House or party—and members will not readily impinge on their power even when they differ with them on issues. Leaders can entreat but not command action on bills in committees or subcommittees. Once scheduled, hearings may last from hours to weeks, months, even years, depending on the amount of controversy. After hearing witnesses, public and private, committees or subcommittees vote to report the bill, with or without amendments. Subcommittees respect each others' recommendations; members of full committees hesitate to reverse actions of subcommittees of which they are not members, lest decisions of their own subcommittees in turn suffer reversal.

If the committee's decision is negative, a bill is virtually dead for that Congress. Representatives are disinclined to sign a discharge petition whereby a House majority may take a bill from a committee, lest they encourage similar actions against their own committee, and senators likewise are reluctant to remove a bill from a committee's jurisdiction.

Acting on Bills Approved by a Committee. If the committee vote is affirmative, the bill is reported to the House or Senate and is placed on one of the "calendars." Because the Senate is small, its calendar is simpler than the House's. In the Senate, bills are taken from the calendar of business by unanimous consent on recommendation of the majority leader after consultation with his or her fellow party leaders and with the minority leader. Only rarely is a vote needed to remove a bill from the calendar and to make it pending Senate business. In the House, bills are referred to the private calendar, consent calendar, union calendar (revenue and appropriation measures), or House calendar. For the House, taking action on a controversial bill is itself controversial. Because of the large number of House members desiring to participate in debate, leaders are reluctant to debate in the full House bills that are not likely to pass. Occasionally, for reasons of partisan advantage or as a favor to a member or a president who wants an issue for an election campaign, leaders will bring to a vote a bill that they expect to be defeated. Hence, voting to debate a bill is itself a key decision in the House, and opponents try to finish their work by preventing consideration.

Controversial bills come to the floor of the House on recommendation of the Committee on Rules (consisting of nine majority and four minority members). Neither approval nor prompt decision is automatic at this point. Since Speaker Cannon's dominance of House procedure was broken in 1910 by enlarging the Rules Committee from five to ten and by removing the speaker of the House from the committee, the committee has sometimes been closely attuned to the majority party's leadership and sometimes more representative of House bipartisan majorities. On highly controversial and innovative bills, Rules occasionally delays decision until it is too late in the session for both the House and Senate to complete action. When the Rules Committee recommends debate on the floor, the House votes on Rules's proposal in the form of a simple House resolution. Then, on adoption, it resolves itself into the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union.

Under "open rules," amendments are in order in the Committee of the Whole but, if added, must be affirmed again after the committee rises and reports to the House. If defeated, they cannot be offered again. On tax and other occasional complicated bills, the Rules Committee recommends (and the House almost invariably adopts) a "closed rule" that limits or prohibits amendments. When the House passes a bill, the measure is referred to the Senate (unless, of course, the Senate has already passed it), where similar procedures are followed.

Delay in the Senate has one additional possibility: the filibuster. Unlike the House, the Senate does not limit debate by majority vote. Unanimous consent or two-thirds of those present and voting are required to close Senate debate. A lone senator or a coalition of senators can postpone a vote, perhaps long enough to compel compromise if not defeat.

If the Senate passes a bill in the precise form of the House measure, it is delivered to the president for signature. If both houses do not pass the same version of a bill, one house must agree to the other's; otherwise, the bill is referred to a conference committee of members of both House and Senate whose jurisdiction extends only to resolving differences between the two houses. Compromises adopted by conference committee must be approved by both houses before the bill is sent to the president. At each of these many stages, a bill must win in order to become law. Defeat at any point, except by a presidential veto that is overridden by a two-thirds vote of each house, is permanent, at least until another Congress convenes. Moreover, if a Congress adjourns before a bill has passed through all stages, the bill dies and must begin the enactment process anew in the next Congress. Hence, the iron law of parliaments: it is easier to defeat a motion than to pass it.

Congress and the Executive Branch

The decisions of the Constitutional Convention to establish a bicameral Congress and to separate it from the executive illustrate a major theme of 18th-century American political thought. The Founding Fathers emphasized checks and balances as means of assuring individual freedom and avoiding governmental tyranny. Similar principles had been stressed by classical political philosophers, including Solon, Plato, and Aristotle, in whom the Founding Fathers were well read, and also by contemporary theorists, among them Blackstone, Hume, and Voltaire, who were impressed by Newtonian analogies to the physical and natural order of the universe. Montesquieu thought that he observed a nicely honed balance among English political institutions, especially in the separation of powers among legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Although Montesquieu's description was found inaccurate for the British system, his De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws) nevertheless served the Founding Fathers as a model in writing the Constitution of their new nation.

The separation of legislative from judicial and executive functions led not merely to investing Congress with all legislative power; it also charged each house of Congress with checking and balancing the other. Many theorists feared not political power per se, but power unchecked by countervailing power. Indeed, many contemporaries regarded the Articles of Confederation as a failure because the government they created had insufficient power. The framers of the Constitution, therefore, intended to create a viable government, one vested with sufficient power to fulfill the responsibilities assigned to it. Increasing governmental power required new checks and balances on each source of power. As the federal government was to be balanced by the governments of the states and each house of Congress by its fellow, so each branch of the federal government was to be balanced by the others.

Separation of Powers, in Practice. Strict separation of legislative, judicial, and executive functions, however, cannot in fact be drawn or maintained. Although Congress is the principal legislative branch, the judiciary interprets the meaning of acts of Congress and has assumed power to review their constitutionality. The Constitution obliges the president to report to Congress annually on the "State of the Union" and thereby to recommend legislation. The president's signature is required for a bill to become law, unless each house of Congress passes the bill by a two-thirds majority after the president has withheld said signature. The Constitution empowers the Senate to participate in executive actions by confirming presidential appointments (including appointments to the federal courts) and by consenting to treaties through a two-thirds majority.

Thus, from the beginning of the new government, each branch involved itself in performing functions of another. Accordingly, each branch soon became expected not only to check and balance the others but also to create new practices and institutions for fulfilling the high aspirations of the Founding Fathers. Chief Justice John Marshall established the Supreme Court's acquisition of the power of judicial review (Marbury v. Madison); Pres. Thomas Jefferson extended the executive's power in ill-defined situations (for example, the Louisiana Purchase); and Speaker Henry Clay and other congressional leaders competed with the other branches to design programs and policies affecting national expansion, roads, tariffs, and slavery. Congress soon was expected (by itself and others) to be a full and active participant in the widest range of problems that concern national government.

Efforts to Achieve Balance and Retain Initiative. As an instrument of checks and balances, Congress has changed little since its inception. Through annual appropriations, legislative authorizations, committee investigations, Senate approval of appointments and treaties, and intimate daily contacts, Congress (often acting through its leaders or committees rather than as House and Senate) continues to check executive and judicial power, either by direct action or by others' anticipation of its action. While many other national legislatures have assumed merely ceremonial status or have been subjugated by the executive, Congress remains a fully active, working part of the system of checks and balances. Indeed, Congress ranks as one of the world's most powerful and effective legislatures.

The influence of Congress rests in its checking, balancing, delaying, questioning, amending, and negating actions of the executive without rendering the government inoperative or ineffective. The executive branch anticipates congressional reaction to its major moves and so acts to win legislative support. Though the Senate rarely fails to confirm a presidential appointment, the president usually inquires privately whether a nominee is acceptable and withdraws the nomination if he or she is not. Similarly, the president often attempts to anticipate the reaction of Congress to legislation that he or she plans to request and usually adjusts proposals so as to increase the probability of a favorable congressional decision.

The most fundamental changes in Congress have occurred with respect to policy innovation. Throughout the 19th century new policies came as often from Congress as from the executive. Positions of congressional leadership, especially in the House of Representatives, were prominent national offices nearly comparable to the presidency in prestige and power. Speaker James K. Polk and Ways and Means Committee chair William McKinley achieved the presidency, and Speakers Henry Clay and James G. Blaine were nominees for it. At the turn of the century, Speakers Reed and Cannon justly earned their reputations as powerful national party figures. After Reed and Cannon, however, Congress waned as an effective initiator of policy proposals.

Initiative Taken by the Executive. Increasingly, Congress relied on its check and balance function—delaying, vetoing, amending, approving executive initiatives—to exercise its influence. It became less concerned with identifying national problems and inventing and prescribing policies to deal with them. The years of Theodore Roosevelt's and Woodrow Wilson's presidencies (1901–1909, 1913–1921) marked the first sustained shift of initiative from Capitol Hill to the White House. From 1921 to 1933 neither the executive nor the legislative branch asserted itself often. From Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933 dates the routine expectation that the president will initiate legislative programs. That this was an institutional change, not merely a difference between Democrats and Republicans, was confirmed by Dwight D. Eisenhower's two terms as president (1953–1961). He also took the initiative; when he did not, some congressional leaders criticized the want of presidential leadership, and Congress itself made no attempt to innovate. It was resigned to awaiting executive action.

That Congress has lost initiative is true for almost every stage of policy making. Policy has come to be recognized as inexorably bound with administration. In all aspects of policy making—gathering intelligence, formulating and recommending alternatives, selecting among alternatives, implementing the prescribed choice, and appraising the effectiveness of the decision—the executive branch has won initiative from the legislature. Congress has not staffed itself with a legislative intelligence network. Its sources of information are largely executive. Sometimes it temporarily employs experts from the other branch; always, it relies heavily on executive officials' reports, testimony, and informal consultation. Virtually every congressional hearing opens with a witness from the executive branch. Committees refer every bill introduced in Congress to one or more executive departments for an opinion. No legislative authorization or monetary appropriation is actually made until the Office of Management and Budget has reported that the measure is consistent with the president's program. Not infrequently, executive officials call problems to the attention of individual congresspersons, usually members of the committee with pertinent jurisdiction. The president supplements the State of the Union address (required by the Constitution) with an annual budget (required by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921), an annual economic report (required by the Employment Act of 1946), personal appearances (required by custom since Woodrow Wilson restored the precedent that had lapsed with Jefferson) before joint sessions of the House and Senate, and numerous special, written messages.

Even when committees or individual members of Congress undertake their own analyses of issues, they rely extensively on executive documents. Similarly, the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress depends principally on executive sources of information, as the footnotes to its tables and reports often acknowledge. When lobbyists for organized interests testify before congressional committees, their information, whatever their interpretation of it may be, often derives from official publications.

The executive's near monopoly of information is the product of its vast intelligence network, which embraces the Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau of the Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other investigative bureaus and research facilities. Information brings problems to politicians' attention, indicating who is deprived, who indulged. Information points the way toward the most practicable courses of action.

Executive officials draft legislation and then arrange its introduction by a member. In the president's messages to Congress, the president establishes the agenda for much public discussion and congressional deliberation. Almost every issue centers on "the Administration's bill." What the president will not support is unlikely to be considered seriously, much less passed. Neutrality may be overcome, but outright executive opposition is rarely defeated.

Executive-Legislative Liaison. To facilitate the executive's dominance of the information and recommendation aspects of congressional decision making, elaborate procedures of legislative-executive liaison have developed. In 1937 Pres. Franklin Roosevelt, at the suggestion of Sam Rayburn, House majority leader, initiated weekly meetings with legislative leaders. The regular exchanges, usually held over breakfast or lunch at the White House, are supplemented by many informal contacts, and remain a government fixture. In the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, they were augmented by a larger staff for the special assistant to the president for congressional relations.

Every executive department and agency has a team of liaison officers who faithfully respond to congressional requests for information and assistance and who regularly consult with individual members, committee chairs, and party leaders. Liaison officials at the departmental levels are coordinated at the White House by the special assistant to the president. White House emissaries cooperate with legislative tacticians in mapping plans for congressional votes and proceedings. Although prohibited by House and Senate rules from entering either chamber, presidential aides are available in the galleries above the chambers, in the lobbies just outside, or in leaders' offices. They participate in decisions concerning when bills should be brought to the floor for debate, when votes should be scheduled, and when amendments should be supported by the administration's coalition.

Reasons for Loss of Initiative—

The Industrial Revolution. The decline in congressional initiative and the concentration of innovation in the executive branch resulted from a fundamental change in the character of public policy-making. The Industrial Revolution caused an increase in the number of problems that reach the attention of governments. The revolution radically rearranged population centers, opened roads, invented new forms of transport, created unforeseen modes of communication, developed previously unused natural resources, organized bigger markets, enlarged international commerce, stimulated wave after wave of immigration, demanded acquisition of new skills and adaptation of old ones, replaced many small firms with a few immense industrywide organizations, accentuated problems of public health and private welfare, increased rates of birth, and diminished rates of death.

The acceleration of social change that these developments symbolized confronted governments with demands for services that heretofore had been accommodated by private sectors of society or not at all. Statesmen who had been experts on virtually every one of the few major public issues could not command expertise on the greatly extended range of social questions. As the number of problems demanding attention increased, so did the availability of information about them. No longer was personal experience in commerce, agriculture, law, or war sufficient to equip a congressperson for almost every contingency. Science, scholarship, and journalism expanded beyond the capacity of single minds to encompass all knowledge. Institutions became unable to process the increased inputs of information without specialization and bureaucratization.

One may date these developments from about 1880, when the decennial census had become such an enormous undertaking that the Bureau of the Census confronted the prospect of being unable to complete analyzing one census before taking the next. A census official, Herman Hollerith, thereupon invented punched-hole cards for machine tabulation to facilitate processing data for the 1890 census. Simultaneously, executive branches of government began to formalize bureaucratic procedures; indeed, for the first time, bureaucracy, or public administration, became a subject for study, training, and professional employment.

Failure to Bureaucratize. Congress's reaction to these developments differed from the executive's. The legislative branch did not specialize or bureaucratize. Although Congress has expanded its staff and supporting facilities over the years, it has not done so to the degree approaching the growth and diversification of the executive branch. Congress still operates from the two wings added in 1857 and 1859 to the same Capitol building it has occupied since 1800. The House built separate office buildings in 1907 when it had 386 members, in 1933, and in 1965. In 1975 a building that had been built for the Federal Bureau of Investigation became another House office building and was named in honor of former president and House minority leader Gerald R. Ford. The Senate acquired a separate building for offices in 1909 (when its membership numbered 92) and added two others in 1958 and 1982. This expansion is modest compared with the growth in the number and size of executive buildings in the District of Columbia and in nearby areas of Virginia and Maryland.

Congress Not Altogether Representative. Historically, the culture, class, and interest of Congress have not been that of the nation in miniature. The backgrounds and experiences of individual congresspersons selectively determine the sources of influence that reach the focus of their attention. Throughout much of U.S. history, congressmen and -women typically came from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, belonged to high-status religious denominations, derived from families of relatively high income, and possessed more than average education. Membership in Congress did, however, become somewhat more diversified in the late 20th century and early 21st century. By 2007, with African Americans constituting approximately 13% of the nation's population, there were 43 African Americans in the House (slightly less than 10%) and 1 in the Senate (5%). African Americans were chairs of 4 House committees and 16 subcommittees. These totals represented an increase since 1991, when minority membership in the House stood at about 8%. In 2007 there were more women than ever before in Congress—16 in the Senate and 73 in the House. These numbers, too, had grown since the early 1990s but still were low when one considers that women made up more than half of the total population. The growing Hispanic minority, which accounts for about 14% of the population, also saw a rise in its representation in Congress in recent years. In 2007 there were 27 Hispanic members of the House (6%), up from 17 (4%) in 1990. After nearly 30 years without a Hispanic member, the Senate saw the addition of two Latino legislators in 2005 and another one in 2007 (3%).

Granting individual exceptions, most congresspeople are members of and represent social classes preferring moderate, gradual change. Moreover, the predominant interests of congresspeople—law, commerce, agriculture—provide Congress with few specialists in some of the emergent or growing professions—science, technology, social science, communications, medicine—that are increasingly relevant to contemporary public problems. The most common previous political activity of congressmen and -women is service in a state legislature, an experience that breeds generalists rather than specialists and that provides no training in using a staff of specialists. There have been some notable exceptions to that trend in recent years. For example, Bill Frist of Tennessee, who was serving as the Senate majority leader, did not seek reelection in November 2006 and returned to his medical practice.

Toward an Effective Congress

Influential and effective congresspeople are those whose colleagues respect them for their hard work, their loyalty to the social life of the institution, their preference for recognition as congresspeople over ambition for the presidency, their knowledge of parliamentary procedure, and their devotion to committee responsibilities. Members who observe the "rules of the game" are those most likely to attain positions of influence in Congress and to secure favorable dispensation of bills and resolutions that they propose. In short, a legislator's most valuable asset is the respect of his or her peers, acquired by learning and adhering to subtle but identifiable folkways of congressional conduct. The apprenticeship that the seniority traditions require a member to serve before gathering much influence inculcates the personal qualities of respect and the observance of institutional mores.

Strategies for Action. In using his or her assets to achieve legislative objectives, a congressman or -woman has various strategies available. The clublike norms dictate that contests for leadership positions and contests over legislative issues be resolved inside the House and inside the Senate. Concerning leadership positions, the "inside strategy" gives preference to personal qualities, discounts ideology, rewards service to Congress as an institution, and pays little heed to demands of special interest groups, constituents, and the executive. Vacancies in positions of official leadership are ordinarily settled by contests in which all candidates adhere to an inside strategy; to resort to an "outside strategy" of appeals for presidential endorsement, national editorial support, and organized lobbying signifies a candidate's weakness and may foreshadow defeat. Presidents rarely express preferences in contests for speaker or floor leaders. On legislative measures, conversely, outside strategies are frequently employed when one side can improve its chances of success by evoking greater public attention. Use of an outside strategy increases the salience of issues in some constituencies and thus increases constituency demands, thereby restricting a representative's or senator's latitude for compromise. The issues on which Congress is most likely to triumph over the presidency are those of relatively low salience.

In addition to choosing between inside and outside strategies, party leaders may choose between strategies that build inclusive coalitions of diverse interests or those which build exclusive coalitions of narrow interests. Many effective party leaders are renowned for their "inclusive" tactics—for winning support of farm groups for legislation favored by unions and for attracting votes of urban representatives for reclamation and irrigation projects demanded by representatives from western states. The once-powerful southern Democratic-Republican coalition, based on opposition to federal civil rights legislation and on fiscal conservatism, foundered in the 1960s, when Republicans could no longer afford the political costs of voting against civil rights measures. The success of the inclusive strategy partly explains the Democratic Party's control of Congress during most of the mid-20th century.

Outlook for Congressional Influence. The future of Congress depends partly on whether current trends and conditions continue or change. The two principal sources of congressional decline—increasing number of public problems and increasing information about them—will flourish rather than diminish. The society served by government evidences more complexity, not less. And complexity produces deprivations and demands for power and economic realignments. Similarly, the variety and number of sources of information relevant to these problems is certain to grow. As these developments become increasingly acute, the participation of Congress in national decisions will continue to be less that of initiator and more that of reactor to executive intelligence and recommendations.

Doctrine of Responsible Parties. Given this probable future, political theorists have turned their efforts not to ways of rejuvenating Congress as an innovative body but principally to ways of guaranteeing its continued success as a check-and-balance instrument. The doctrine of party responsibility, popular among political scientists, would adapt the British parliamentary model to the American scene. Majority party leaders and chairpersons in Congress would be more closely associated with the president, and minority party leaders would be more closely affiliated with national party figures of the "loyal opposition." Chairpeople would be expected to support the party platform adopted at quadrennial national conventions and to follow presidential leadership to enact it. Members unwilling to adhere to the party program would be denied party endorsement and financial support in subsequent elections. Establishing competitive programmatic parties and permitting the electorate to choose between them would give the winning party a mandate for action. Success or failure in enacting a party program could be rewarded, or punished, at the next ballot.

In the unlikely event that programmatic parties emerged to compete with and to check each other, Congress would become merely a stage for party government, not an institution for checking and balancing the executive. To a much lesser degree would it be an initiative-taking institution.

The "Oversight" Function. Other theorists expect, and some recommend, that Congress will concentrate more on its "oversight" function, that is, on using its investigating committees to monitor and appraise executive performance. Through hearings, investigations, and staff studies, committees would highlight public discussion of the execution of broad programs enacted by Congress and assigned to the executive for detailed specification and implementation.

Such a role for Congress is most likely to develop first with respect to the policies in which the executive has the greatest informational advantage. Among these are foreign relations and the closely associated policies pertaining to national defense and the military applications of science and technology. Congress has always been at a constitutional disadvantage in affecting foreign policy, and the new characteristics of policy making have further strengthened the executive.

If Congress cannot initiate major foreign and defense policies, its members and committees can make Congress a forum in which conflicting arguments can be focused on executive officials. Occasionally a speech or hearing may prod the executive to take an initiative that it would not otherwise assume or may induce it to withhold or retract an action, either contemplated or already undertaken. At other times Congress may restore a consensus by thorough exposure of an issue, event, or decision through an investigation or a great debate. Indeed it is not impossible that debate, which declined in quality and importance when committees became the principal loci of legislative work, will once again offer dramatic opportunities for resolving political conflicts.

James A. Robinson
Mershon Professor of Political Science Ohio State University


Baker, Richard A., The Senate of the United States (Krieger 1988).

Brenner, Phillip, The Limits and Possibilities of Congress (St. Martin's 1983).

Clapp, Charles L., The Congressman: His Work as He Sees It (1963; reprint, Greenwood Press 1980).

Congressional Quarterly Service, Congress and the Nation, 1981–1984 (CW Press 1985).

Dahl, Robert A., Congress and Foreign Policy (1950; reprint, Greenwood Press 1983).

Egger, Rowland, and Joseph P. Harris, The President and Congress (1963; reprint, Greenwood Press 1988).

Feld, Werner J., and John K. Wildgen, Congress and National Defense (Praeger 1985).

Goehlert, Robert U., and Fenton S. Martin, Congress and Law-Making, 2d ed. (ABC-CLIO 1988).

Hale, Dennis, The United States Congress (Transaction Bks. 1984).

Hinckley, Barbara, Stability and Change in Congress, 4th ed. (Harper 1987).

Jennings, Bruce, and Daniel Callahan, eds., Representation and Responsibility (Plenum Pub. 1985).

Keefe, William J., Congress and the American People, 3d ed. (Prentice-Hall 1985).

Keefe, William J., and Morris S. Ogul, The American Legislative Process: Congress and the States, 6th ed. (Prentice-Hall 1985).

Maass, Arthur, Congress and the Common Good (Basic Bks. 1985).

Matthews, Donald R., United States Senators and Their World (1960; reprint, Greenwood Press 1980).

Miller, J. A., Running in Place (Simon & Schuster 1986).

Murphy, Thomas, Politics of Congressional Committees (Barron's Educ. Ser. 1978).

Reedy, George E., The U.S. Senate: Paralysis or a Search for Consensus? (Crown 1986).

Rieselbach, Leroy N., Congressional Reform (CQ Review 1986).

Robinson, James A., Congress and Foreign Policy-Making (1962; reprint, Greenwood Press 1980).

Seltser, Barry J., The Principles and Practice of Political Compromise (Mellen Press 1984).

Shields, Johanna N., The Line of Duty: Maverick Congressmen and the Development of American Political Culture, 1836–1860 (Greenwood Press 1985).

Vogler, David J., The Politics of Congress, 5th ed. (W. C. Brown 1988).

Weatherford, J. McIver, Tribes on the Hill: The U.S. Congress—Rituals and Realities (Bergin & Garvey 1985).