In our week spent on the legislative branch, we will learn the process by which a bill becomes a law – along with all the possible roadblocks along the way. We will learn about our political parties and their platforms. Today, we introduce the legislative branch by reviewing the basic structure and rules of our two-chambered Congress.
With only a two year term, the Representatives are basically constantly running for re-election. Representatives tend to be very partisan (that is, they follow their party and are reluctant to cooperate with the other party). In the Senate, with a six year term, things are calmer, more collegial. Although the trend over the last twenty years has been for both chambers to be increasingly partisan. Currently, Republicans control both chambers in the 115th Congress but their Senate lead is narrow – 52 seats to 48 for the Democrats.
Staff members don’t make huge salaries ($35,000 a year is the average) but the experience can be very valuable later on if the staffer decides to go into political consulting or become a lobbyist. Committee staff are directly employed by Congress, not by any single representative or senator. Their duties are primarily research-based and their salaries are higher.
Congress has four groups that assist it with research and help it with budgeting and planning. Of these four groups, the GAO is the largest.
Obviously, passing laws is the primary job of a Congressperson. But Representatives and Senators receive hundreds, even thousands of requests per year from their constituents, asking for help with every imaginable problem. Requests range from help with Social Security, to requests for appointments to the military academies and complaints about treatment the constituents have received from federal agencies. A Congressperson is also supposed to “bring home the bacon” by making sure that the federal government spends money in their district, whether it be military contracts or infrastructure like new dams or highways. Of course, to someone outside the district, such spending may be seen as wasteful – as what is called “pork barrel” spending.
A great cartoon showing the difference between “bring home the bacon” when the money is coming to your district versus how it’s seen by other people in other districts (as “pork barrel” politics).
The power of the purse is perhaps the mightiest weapon wielded by Congress. They can take away funding to stop or delay enforcement of executive orders; they can blunt the impact of an agency by slashing its budget.
Seen here, a ticket from the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in the Senate during January of 1999 (Clinton was not convicted). Another powerful weapon at the disposal of Congress is its ability to investigate (or not investigate) anything it wants to. The Benghazi investigations certainly hurt Hillary Clinton’s Presidential hopes in 2016 and the 115th Congress and their refusal to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia are certainly helping Trump.
Committee chairs are given proportionally to the parties based on their total number of seats in Congress. In our current Congress, the Republicans have the majority of the seats and thus, have the majority of seats on each committee. The committee chair goes to the senior member of the party in power. Roughly 95% of all bills introduced in Congress never make it out of their committee – thus, the committee chair has a huge influence on the passage of legislation.
An overview of the House and Senate committee structure. Note that these are the primary or standing committees. Each standing committee will have three or four subcommittees on more specialized topics.
Paul Ryan (R) is the Speaker for the 115th Congress. The Speaker is in charge of committee membership and through that, wields tremendous power. The Speaker is also next in line for the Presidency, after the Vice President. A new Speaker is selected every two years (or the old one is re-elected).
Senator Orrin Hatch (R) is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. The Vice President is the President of the Senate but they are only called in to break a 50-50 tie (as was the case with the Betsy DeVos nomination). Otherwise, the President Pro Tempore (or “Pro Tem”). The Pro Tem position typically goes to the senior Senator from the party in control of the Senate. For the 115th Congress, it is Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah. As the Senate turns over less often, there are fewer committee appointments to be made, thus the President Pro Tem has less influence than the Speaker of the House. They are also third in line for the Presidency (after the Vice President and the Speaker).
Pictured is the current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Majority and Minority leaders in both chambers are their party’s spokespeople and regularly give interviews to the media where they articulate their party’s vies on legislation. The “whips” are their second-in-commands and are tasked with getting out the vote and making sure that each Representative or Senator follows the Party line.
As you can see from the image, Congress is only in session about half the time (not counting August, which is completely blocked off). This gives Congress members time to return to their home districts and meet with constituents (and campaign). Each Congress meets for two years in two one-year sessions that are sequentially numbered (the 155th Congress meets from January of 2017 through the end of December of 2018.
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