The American Democracy, 10th Edition (Patterson)

Chapter 11: Congress: Balancing National Goals and Local Interests

Chapter Overview

The author details the nature and relationship of congressional election and organization. In describing the factors affecting electoral politics, he focuses primarily on the issue of incumbency, its advantages, and its drawbacks. The discussion includes an assessment of the influence of these electoral campaigns on members of Congress. The author then examines the organization of the institutions of the House and Senate, and the nature and sources of congressional leadership.

Congress is organized in part along political party lines; its collective leadership is provided by party leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate. These party leaders do not have great formal powers. Their authority rests mainly on shared partisan values and the fact that they have been entrusted with leadership responsibility by other senators or representatives of their party.

Most of the work done in Congress is done by committees. There is a complex but long-established structure of permanent and temporary committees in Congress. The author discusses the power structure of these committees, their rules and duties, and the seniority system that governs them. The steps of lawmaking are then explained, from the introduction of a bill through the committee work, floor actions, and passage into law.

The three major roles of Congress—lawmaking, representation, and oversight—are discussed, with analysis of the degrees to which Congress performs or fails to perform these functions well. The fragmented and partisan natures of Congress are explored with an eye to their effects on the ability of the institution to function effectively, as intended by the constitutional framers.

The main points of this chapter are as follows:

  • Congressional elections have a local orientation and usually result in the reelection of the incumbent. The congressional office provides incumbents with substantial resources (free publicity, staff, and legislative influence) that give them (particularly House members) a major advantage in election campaigns.

  • Leadership in Congress is provided by party leaders, including the Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. Party leaders are in a more powerful position today than a few decades ago because the party caucuses in Congress are more cohesive than in the past.

  • The work of Congress is done mainly through its committees and subcommittees, each of which has its own leadership and its designated policy jurisdiction.

  • Congress lacks the central direction and hierarchical organization required to provide consistent leadership on major national policies, which has allowed the president to assume this role. On the other hand, Congress is well organized to handle policies of narrower scope.

  • Congress’s policymaking role is based on three major functions: lawmaking, representation, and oversight.

Patterson Tenth Edition Large Cover
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