"Congress"

| November 24, 2015

Based on the scenario and the knowledge gained from this section, address the following:

  • Describe key elements of the role that Congress plays within the U.S. federal system, with particular focus on Congress’ ability to reflect the will of the people. Support your argument with at least two concrete examples.
  • See attachment
  • No plagarism
  • 1 reference
Attachments:POL110 Week 7 Scenario Script: The Power of Congress

Slide # Scene/Interaction Narration
Slide 1 Introductory screen, containing the environment (an outside view of a government office building) and a title showing the scenario topic.  There will be a “begin” button on the screen allowing students to begin the scenario.

 

 
Slide 2

 

Scene 1

 

Amanda and Dr. Ryan standing in Dr. Ryan’s office.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Ryan: Hello, Amanda.

 

Last week we took a close look at the campaign process and the elections they lead to. This week we’re going to examine the role of Congress in the political process.

 

Amanda, can you tell me what comes to mind when you think of the United States Congress?

 

Amanda: Hmm, let me see…

 

The House of Representatives and the Senate are the two chambers that compose Congress.  They have been part of our system as long as we have been a country. Although they have always been divided along party lines, they’ve found numerous ways to work together so that public policy can be made.

 

Dr. Ryan:  Good point.

 

I’m not so sure that the Senate is the world’s greatest debating body, as it likes to refer to itself. But the Senate and the House do come together to make the kind of policy you referred to, through compromise. It’s important that we remember that.

 

Amanda: But you would never know it with the amount of gridlock that goes on up on Capitol Hill.

 

Dr. Ryan: Right. This is especially true when the president comes from one party and either the Senate or the House is controlled by another.

 

In fact, it’s rare that one party controls all three bodies, making a willingness to compromise that much more important.

 

Amanda: Party polarization, or partisanship, was fairly commonplace up to about 1910. But then Congress pretty much settled down until the 1970s, when party polarization picked up again.  Why is that?

 

Dr. Ryan: The war in Vietnam had a lot to do with it.  Our minor involvement there began in the late 1950s under Eisenhower, a Republican. But this involvement was expanded enormously under Kennedy and Johnson, both Democrats. The war was finally ended in 1973 under Nixon, another Republican.

 

The civil rights movement also split the parties and even wings within the same parties. Since these rifts have never quite healed, we now have a system that sees partisanship more often than we would like.

 

Amanda: It’s interesting that there are so many differences between our congressional system and the parliamentary systems that predominate in Europe, Australia and Japan.

 

Dr. Ryan: Yes.  In Great Britain’s House of Commons, which equates to our House of Representatives, members are nominated by party leaders after that party has won a general election. But here in the U.S., members of Congress are elected directly by the voters themselves.

 

This means that their allegiance is to the voters and not necessarily to a party.  That’s why representatives can get away with voting as their constituents want and not as their party leaders demand.  As long as they do that, they’ll generally be re-elected, despite whether their party hierarchy likes them or not.

 

Slide 3 Scene 2

 

Amanda and Dr. Ryan do a visual tour of a museum or historical exhibit in Capitol Hill that showcases the material that is covered.  This is sort of a visual tour of Washington D.C. as well as a visual component to the conversation.

 

Dr. Ryan: Now let’s talk a bit about composition.  What do you know about who makes up Congress?

 

Amanda: Well, I remember that by law, there are four hundred thirty-five members of the House. They are elected on the basis of a state’s population and serve two-year terms.

 

This means that California can have over forty representatives, while a state like South Dakota may have only one or two.  And if a state gains or loses population, then that’s reflected in the number of seats allotted to them in the House.

 

Dr. Ryan: Okay, and what about the Senate?

 

Amanda:  Again, by law, every state rates two. So there are always one hundred members, but they are elected for six-year terms.

 

Dr. Ryan: Very good!  Now can you tell me something about the demographics?

 

Amanda: Well, most members in either chamber are white, middle-aged males.

 

But the numbers of blacks, Hispanics and women in their ranks have been increasing steadily over the years because Americans see how minorities have benefited by more representation.

 

And once you’re in, you usually stay in, with a better than eighty percent chance of being re-elected.

 

 

Slide 4 Scene 3

 

Amanda and Dr. Ryan do a visual tour of a museum or historical exhibit in Capitol Hill that showcases the material that is covered.  This is sort of a visual tour of Washington D.C. as well as a visual component to the conversation.

 

Dr. Ryan: Why do you think that is?

 

Amanda: Because representatives are usually elected on the basis of their personalities. As long as they don’t start acting unusual, then voters tend to keep them in.   Did you hear about the member who started coming to work a few years ago dressed up in bunny suits?

 

Dr. Ryan: You’re kidding!

 

Amanda:  Nope.  True story.

 

Dr. Ryan:  Well, that’s a descriptive way of putting it, but you’re right.  As long as voters like them, representatives tend to be re-elected.  However, there can be a down side to this re-election business, can’t there?

 

Amanda: Yes. Sometimes voters get so angry about the endless quarreling between members or about a series of scandals that they rebel against what they see as professional politicians. Then they elect complete novices in the hope that they will clean things up.

 

It happens at least once every election to some long-term member who thought their seat was safe. Little did they know their constituents had other ideas.

 

Dr. Ryan: So, let’s look at the organization of these chambers, because they’re similar in many ways.

 

Amanda: I can see some ways that the Senate and the House of Representatives are similar.

 

Both have majority and minority leaders based on their party’s numbers. And both have whips that are responsible for keeping members in line and marshaling votes for the passage of bills.  Both have minimum age and citizenship restrictions and must live in the state from which he or she comes from.  And finally, in terms of the line of succession, after the vice-president comes the speaker of the House, and then the president pro tempore of the Senate.

 

Dr. Ryan: Great job. We spoke earlier about members voting on behalf of their constituents’ wishes. However, there are times when they will support their party in the event that they have no strong opinion on a bill, or not enough information.

 

In cases like this, it also helps to support one’s party more often than not. It often helps a member to advance his or her career.

 

Amanda: Gaining political traction within one’s party by toeing the line can also benefit constituents. That is, if the member is assigned to a committee of his choice between the twenty or so major committees and one hundred sub-committees in each chamber.  Junior members of Congress don’t always have their choice of committee assignments, but their leadership tries to accommodate them as much as possible, at least at the sub-committee level. This way, if you’re a representative from Oregon, you would want the sub-committee on natural resources. But if you’re a Senator from Wyoming, you would want agriculture.

 

If they want influence and seniority, generally the only way to build this up is by going along with the party.  But if they’re not careful and cross paths with the wrong person, especially among new members, they may find themselves banished to the political wilderness of something like the sub-committee on trade or space.

 

Slide 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scene 4

 

Amanda and Dr. Ryan do a visual tour of a museum or historical exhibit in Capitol Hill that showcases the material that is covered.  This is sort of a visual tour of Washington D.C. as well as a visual component to the conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Ryan: Now we turn to how bills become law, and it can be a very involved process.  This is why members have large staffs whose job it is to filter all of the information coming to them and presenting the member with material he or she can make sense of.

Amanda: But the protocol for each chamber is pretty much the same, isn’t it?

Dr. Ryan Pretty much. After the bill is first introduced in the House, the Senate can take it up.  This is when they move to committee action. At this point they are referred to their respective Senate or House subcommittee, full committee and rules committee before making it to the respective floor for debating and voting.

Once both chambers have passed related bills, a conference committee composed of members of each side negotiates a compromise version. This compromise is sent back to each chamber for final approval.  If they pass it, then it goes to the president for his signature and becomes law.

Amanda: But there is also the veto lurking somewhere.

Dr. Ryan: Indeed there is. Presidents have vetoed bills that they didn’t like. In that case, the legislation is returned to Congress, where the president can be bypassed anyway if both chambers override the veto by a two-thirds vote.

Needless to say, this doesn’t happen very often because it invariably calls for members of the president’s own party to vote against him. That’s not exactly the way to ensure a long political career, because you will certainly have burned some political bridges.  People have long memories up on the Hill.

Amanda: But isn’t it a fact that most bills never even make it out of committee?

Dr. Ryan: That’s correct. Most never have a chance.  This is because they really weren’t well-conceived in the first place.  They were vanity bills introduced by someone who wanted to be able to tell his constituents that he was doing something up in Washington.

Conversely, some bills are sponsored by a member at the behest of the president, because he wants there to be a public debate on an issue. Public hearings are a good way to get this done and get as much information out to the people as possible.

In this way, the president hopes to build up momentum in Congress by way of enlisting public support. He hopes this support will ultimately be conveyed to representatives.

Amanda: So let’s assume the bill makes it out of committees, and it now has to go to the floor for debate.

This can be difficult, because members who don’t like it could filibuster by speaking for hours, or even days. This is a way to keep a vote from taking place. Or they could have other members attach irrelevant amendments to it, called riders, which make the bill more unattractive to its initial supporters.

Needless to say, it’s a wonder that any bills survive this complicated process at all to make it to the president for signature.

Dr. Ryan: That’s why you often see bills co-sponsored by members of opposite parties.  This is one way to gather bipartisan support in both chambers and help move them along.

Slide 6 Scene 5

Amanda and Dr. Ryan do a visual tour of a museum or historical exhibit in Capitol Hill that showcases the material that is covered.  This is sort of a visual tour of Washington D.C. as well as a visual component to the conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Ryan: There has been a great deal of talk about the state of Congressional ethics since Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency in August of 1974. This was because he tried to cover up Watergate. But how far have we really come since then?

Amanda: Depending on the offense, members can be censured. This would include fines and a loss of seniority, or expulsion by a two-thirds vote from their chamber.

No Senator has been expelled since the Civil War. But three House members have suffered that fate since 1967, mostly for diverting campaign funds for personal use.  Some members resigned in the middle of investigations, but it’s rare that we see this spectacle any more these days.

Dr. Ryan: Why do you think voters are paying more attention to ethics?

Amanda: I know it wasn’t always this way. Kennedy had numerous affairs while he was president ― and he had them in the White House! The press knew all about them but chose not to report anything because of the respect journalists had for the office.

But those days are long gone.   People don’t like the idea of someone with that kind of character flaw representing their interests now.  We had a spate of scandals from 1941 to 1981 when no less than fifty members of congress faced criminal charges. And although that frequency has tapered off considerably since then, I think that voters are going to remain jaded until ethical behavior becomes more of an issue in the minds of our representatives.

 

Dr. Ryan: You actually bring us to a very interesting point about the connection between power and one’s actions.

It has long been argued that it is the power itself that has given some political figures the feeling that the laws governing the rest of us somehow don’t really apply to them. This leaves them with the feeling that they can engage in inappropriate behavior regarding sexual matters and the misuse of campaign funds.

Amanda: People do have a low tolerance for this sort of thing. Extremely powerful men like Wilbur Mills, Harrison Williams, Jim Wright, Dan Rostenkowski and Jessie Jackson, Jr. were all indicted or resigned from office because of malfeasance issues similar to these.

Dr. Ryan: Speaking of power, Congress lost a great deal of it to the president between the New Deal in the 1930s and early 1970s.  This was when the war in Vietnam and Watergate visibly weakened the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

 

Congress really began reasserting itself when it passed the War Powers Act over Nixon’s veto in 1973 and the Congressional Budget Act the following year. These acts gave that body a major role to play in the budget process, which it didn’t have before.

 

Amanda: And yet the president and Congress can agree on many major issues because both sense that Americans want them to cooperate.  Another reason they do this is that in most major endeavors, like preparing the budget and conducting foreign policy, the president must take the lead if anything is to get accomplished. Congress tacitly understands that it must step aside during such periods.

 

Dr. Ryan: Right.  Congress can still propose new legislation on issues like the environment, immigration, consumer protection and welfare reform. But it always has to keep it in the back of its mind that the president is the one who ultimately signs these bills into law, and that his veto is very difficult to override.

 

I guess what we need to remember is that Congress doesn’t simply respond to presidential whim. It is a serious player in Washington that advances and influences the kinds of proposals that the president will ultimately offer Americans.

Slide 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check Your Understanding

What would best describe our Congress today?

It is:

  1. dominated by minorities
  2. concerned with overriding presidential vetos
  3. responsible for initiating all laws in the US
  4. very weak compared to the president
  5. X  politically fragmented

 

Answer: The two-party process guarantees that there will be political disputes that can become so divisive that the entire legislative process comes to a halt.  At times like this, even the intervention of the president can be ineffective because the ideologies of the antagonists are so incompatible.

 

Of the following, which is the least likely to occur in Congress?

 

  1. X  total bipartisan support for presidential initiatives
  2. the killing of most bills in committee
  3. members being elected on the basis of  their policy proposals and not their personalities
  4. a willingness to surrender power to the president for the good of the country
  5. a reduction in the number of House and Senate representatives

Answer: Unless a crisis of national proportions has occurred, like the attacks of nine-eleven, party fracturing is common in both congressional chambers.  This makes it extremely rare for total bipartisan support to be shown for any presidential initiative.

 

 

 

Slide 8 Scene 6

Amanda and Dr. Ryan standing in Dr. Ryan’s office.

Dr. Ryan: Alright, then.  This takes us to the end of our survey of Congress and its powers and limitations. Next week we can look forward to assessing the power of its counterpart, the Office of the Presidency.

 

Well done, as usual.  In the interim, keep up with your reading and make sure to participate in this week’s discussion questions.

 

I’ll see you again next week.

 

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