1. Explain the role played by interest groups in American politics. Explain the proliferation of interest groups in America.
INTEREST GROUPS try to influence public policy for a group of people with common concerns. Called by many different names these SPECIAL INTERESTS or FACTIONS are organized to LOBBY at every entry point of public policy. Remember James Madison in Federalist 10 said such activity was natural. Interest groups have proliferated here because of social diversity, federalism, weak political parties and fragmented institutions. Interest groups are more common here than in other democracies because of our unique American political culture. Feelings of civic duty and high levels of political efficacy help to explain the large number of interest groups in America. Interest groups are another example of a linkage institution.
Nevertheless a vast majority of Americans, close to 75%, believe interest groups have too much power and authority over Washington DC. Perhaps because people with better then average incomes are the most likely to join interest groups. Yet our PLURALISTIC political system allows for the free flow of competing interests. Many of the largest lobbying firms have offices on K Street in Washington. For this reason interest groups are often referred collectively as K STREET.
2. Discuss tactics used by interest groups. What is a lobbyist?
The act of influencing is called LOBBYING. A professional who works for any given interest group is called a lobbyist. Though the FIRST AMENDMENT protects lobbying their behavior is closely regulated not unlike campaign finance. All lobbyists must register with the government and file regular statements that itemize their activity. In addition to money and gift limits there are restrictions on “revolving door” lobbying. The revolving door describes those elected officials and bureaucrats who are hired by lobbying firms to influence their former office. Nevertheless, many of our democratic values protect lobbyists against draconian restrictions.
Of course hiring a lobbyist is not the only way to influence policy. Through letter writing, demonstrating and other like-minded activities anybody can play the role of an interest group. When everyday citizens participate as an interest group this is called GRASSROOTS. When powerful interest groups orchestrate grass root activity it is called ASTROTURFING. Too many of us are FREE RIDERS, we want to enjoy the privileges of interest group activity without participating ourselves.
Unfortunately MONEY all too often provides the currency of gaining access to our decision makers. It has been said “the mother’s milk of politics” is money. Interest groups allocate money to candidates running for office by creating PACS, political action committees. Ordinarily PACs face strict limits. Today, however, 527 groups or SUPER PACs can raise large sums of unlimited cash. 527 money cannot be given directly to candidates. Clearly interest groups with lots of monetary resources are advantaged when trying to affect election outcomes.
It is for this reason that people with above average incomes participate in interest groups more than others. There are more interest groups that represent big business than any other sector in our economy.
There are many techniques that interest groups use to influence policy. They write policy proposals that later are introduced as bills; they conduct important research; they testify before important Congressional committees; use ballot initiatives; write amicus briefs; litigate by filing lawsuits; and they help candidates campaign. Interest groups can affect litigation by writing amicus briefs. By far the single most important commodity held by interest groups is INFORMATION. Notice making a lot of noise by demonstrating is not a strategy used often. Flying under the radar actually works best. If public opinion is aroused the work of interest groups can often be harder. This is why many interest groups try to remain BIPARTISAN. They want to influence policy in both Democratic and Republican Administrations. Checking lobbyists from misrepresenting facts is the fear of losing a particular Congressman’s trust and confidence. Without access interest groups cannot influence.
Unlike political parties who want to WIN ELECTIONS, interest groups want to INFLUENCE POLICY.
3. Discuss the formal and informal powers of Congress? Explain the significance of the commerce clause and the elastic clause when assessing Congressional power.
The powers of Congress are found in Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Congress declares war; collects taxes; regulates interstate commerce; and establishes courts. Broadly speaking, Congress makes laws; conducts oversight of the entire government; and provides for constituent service.
If the president has the POWER OF THE SWORD, the Congress has the POWER OF THE PURSE. The greatest power the Congress can wield is their control of the Federal budget.
It is the informal powers of Congress, however, that increasingly express its 21st century authority. More and more of Congress’ work is legitimized by the commerce clause and the necessary and proper clause. These two constitutional provisions allow Congress to go beyond the letter of the law.
The Constitution’s enumerated power to regulate all interstate commerce has been used to expand the size and scope of the federal government. Congress uses this provision more than any other to justify its regulatory perogative. In a recent Court argument a Justice asked if there were any limits to what could be regulated under the commerce clause. Before the attorney could answer another Justice quipped, “Don’t give anything away here. They might want to do it next.” Conservatives in recent years have tried to reign in the use of the commerce clause. With little success, the commerce clause continues to be at the epicenter of political debate over the role played by our government in our lives.
There is a reason the necessary and proper clause has been dubbed the elastic clause. This constitutional provision has allowed the Congress and subsequently the government of the United States to expand far beyond what the Founders had envisioned. In all fairness, however, the Founders never could have imagined what our world would be like today. It was for this reason they wrote into law a provision that would allow the Constitution to be a living letter. Some argue it lives too gregariously. It is necessary and proper for “we the people” to decide whether or not the Congress abuses its authority.
4. Define bicameralism and explain its effects. How do the House and Senate differ?
BICAMERALISM best describes our legislative branch. The United States Congress is a two-house legislature. There is the House of Representatives, based upon population, and the Senate where every state has two members. The House was the only elected office that the Founders put in the hands of the people in a direct election. Even to this day the House mirrors local interests far more than the Senate. The House is most responsive to the public’s wishes. The Senate tends to focus more on broader national issues. Senators were not directly elected until the passage of the 17th Amendment (1913). Due to its more prestigious six-year terms the Senate is referred to as the Upper House.
Our bicameral legislature was divided for reasons other than compromising between big states and small states. Each house represents the people, yet they also possess remarkably different responsibilities. The House, modeled on the British House of Commons, represents the passions of the people. The Senate, modeled on the British House of Lords, responds to these passions with reason. James Madison saw the Senate as an “anchor,” a “necessary fence” against the “fickleness and passion” of the people. The Senate is to “cool” House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea. Thomas Jefferson once expressed his doubts about the usefulness of the Senate. “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” George Washington asked. “To cool it,” Jefferson replied. “Even so,” Washington declared, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
Today, with the advent of directly elected Senators and the 24/7 televised news cycle, it is more difficult to discern between the passions of the House and the Senate. By not fulfilling their proper roles, our cups run over. Who is going to clean up the mess?
INCUMBENCY rates in Congress are so high. Close to 90% of members in the House seeking reelection win. Despite low approval ratings of Congress incumbency almost guarantees reelection. Beyond the affects of gerrymandering, incumbents have many advantages. They have name recognition due to free media attention. They have an easier time raising money. They have the FRANKING privilege [free postage]. Most importantly, incumbents engage in CONSTITUENT SERVICE. Legislating takes up less and less of Congress’ time. Members spend much of their time helping CONSTITUENTS back home in their districts resolve local issues. Constituents are simply the citizens a member of Congress represents.
Occasionally incumbents lose. Every seat is not a “safe seat.” There are a few MARGINAL DISTRICTS. Marginal districts are congressional districts where the winner receives less than 55% of the vote. Marginal districts are competitive. Marginal districts are more likely when congressional districts are NATIONALIZED. This means a national issue mobilizes voters throughout the country.
6. Discuss the demographic make up of past and present Congresses.
House members serve 2-year terms. The Senate enjoys 6-year terms. One third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. In recent years our Congress has come to reflect the diversity of America more than ever. The House of Representatives is much less male and much less white.
The American people have never held Congress in lower regard than today. Nevertheless, even though our Congress has never been more representative today’s Congress looks more like America – it is less male and less white. At last our Congress mirrors our demographic diversity. Most Americans have grown cynical toward Congress. Many reformers have suggested term limits – limiting the length of time one can serve in Congress. Most believe Congress is self serving and beholden to the special interests.
Ironically the more Congress looks like “one of us” the more we frown upon the way we look.
7. Define gerrymandering and discuss its impact on Congressional politics.
If Americans knew about gerrymandering our perception of Congress would be even lower.
GERRYMANDERING is a by-product of a practice mandated by the US Constitution that takes place every ten years. Every ten years the U.S. must take a census to count accurately our population. Population determines the number of representatives each state is allocated in the House of Representatives. Every ten years the House is REAPPORTIONED. If one state’s population declines relative to another they may lose a seat in Congress. An increase might mean adding a seat in the House. Once REAPPORTIONED, each state congressional district must be redrawn to reflect the new population numbers. Remember in BAKER v. CARR (1962) the Court ruled against MALAPPORTIONMENT. Each congressional district must have the same population, “one man one vote.” Drawing new congressional districts is called REDISTRICTING. So far it sounds quite innocent. It is far form it. When STATE LEGISLATURES REDISTRICT they intentionally draw the lines to favor one political party over another. When they REDISTRICT to advantage an INCUMBENT this is called GERRYMANDERING. To put it plainly, GERRYMANDERING is when elected officials all but rig election outcomes BEFORE we the people vote. Gerrymandering gives a tremendous advantage to the political party in power. It almost assures that party will hold on to voting majorities for another ten years. Gerrymandering helps to explain why our Congress has grown more partisan and ideological.
8. Explain the legislative process. Focus on the similarities and differences between the House and the Senate as well as the role played by the leadership and the committee structures in Congress.
The LEADERSHIP of Congress is determined by strict party votes. The MAJORITY PARTY holds ALL of the leadership positions.
The most important leadership positions in the House of Representatives are:
SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE – As presiding officer the Speaker controls the calendar. The Speaker determines the agenda of the House. The Speaker also makes committee assignments.
MAJORITY LEADER – The Majority Leader orchestrates the legislative process. When important bills are introduced the Majority Leader is in charge of building a strategy to get it passed.
MAJORITY WHIP – The Majority Whip collects information and tries to induce members to vote in line with the party leadership. No vote in Congress is held before the Whip informs the leadership of the probable outcome. This allows the leadership to only hold a vote when they know they will win. WHIPs help build coalitions of voters and serve as Congressional head counters.
The most important leadership positions in the Senate are:
MAJORITY LEADER – The Majority Leader in the Senate is the most important leader. The Majority Leader orchestrates the legislative process. When important bills are introduced the Majority Leader is in charge of building a strategy to get it passed.
MAJORITY WHIP – The Majority Whip collects information and tries to induce members to vote in line with the party leadership. No vote in the Senate is held before the Whip informs the leadership of the probable outcome. This allows the leadership to only hold a vote when they know they will win.
NOTE: The presiding officer in the Senate is the VICE PRESIDENT but has virtually no power. The Vice President will appear in the Senate on the opening day and if a tie occurs in a vote. The VP breaks all tie votes. In his absence the presiding officer becomes the PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE. This is more symbolic and typically goes to the oldest member of the majority party.
Congress at work is Congress in committees
Congress at work, however, is CONGRESS IN COMMITTEE. Though the leadership of Congress receives the lion share of the media attention – most of the power in Congress is found in the standing committees. Every member of Congress is assigned to at least one STANDING COMMITTEE. Standing committees is where the real work of Congress gets done. The majority party holds a majority of the votes in every committee. The permanent committees study prospective laws. This allows members of Congress, over time, to become experts in one area over another. For instance, a Congressman from Minnesota when assigned to the House Agriculture Committee becomes an expert on agricultural issues. Of course this helps him back home with his constituents. Another reason incumbency rates are so high. The DISTRIBUTIVE THEORY of legislative organization argues that committee views are respected over what the whole House wants.
Certain standing committees are more important than others. The HOUSE WAYS AND MEANS Committee handles all REVENUE BILLS. Taxes can only be changed by first going through this committee. The APPROPRIATION Committee, in both the House and Senate, handles the way tax dollars are spent.
There are two other types of committees in Congress. Select committees work on a specific albeit temporary issue. CONFERENCE COMMITTEES resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the same bill.
Beyond committees Congress also is organized around specialized caucuses. These would be members who organize around a particular interest or issue. Many are large and powerful like the Congressional Black Caucus. Others are more silly like the Congressional Boating Caucus. Caucuses are just another means to organize like-minded members to influence public policy.
Members of Congress also possess a large staff that helps them perform their duties. As Congressional staff increases so too does the amount of work Congress performs. With help from staff more and more legislation is proposed every year. This has made Congress much more individualistic. This DECENTRALIZED Congress now provides greater access points for corrupt behavior.
The legislative branch is ultimately responsible to MAKE LAWS. The time taken in the legislative process varies enormously. The complexity of the legislative process always gives the opponents an advantage. Only members of Congress can introduce a bill or propose a piece of legislation. Bills must pass BOTH chambers of Congress in order to become a law. Bills can originate in any chamber EXCEPT all REVENUE BILLS, laws that affect taxes, MUST start in the House of Representatives. Remember we fought a revolution over “no taxation without representation.”
Once a bill is introduced it is assigned to a committee where the bill is MARKED UP. Committees study, hold hearings, and edit various details before voting on the bill. If the bill receives a majority vote in committee it is passed on to the next step. Helping Congress in the early stages of legislation is the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This bipartisan agency scores the probable affect of proposed bills.
If the bill is defeated in committee, true for most, a member can call for a discharge petition. A discharge petition allows members from the floor of each chamber to reject a committee decision and bring a bill to a vote. Discharge petitions are highly unusual.
In the HOUSE [only] there is a RULES COMMITTEE. The Rules Committee determines if a bill on the FLOOR will have an OPEN or CLOSED rule. An open rule means a bill CAN BE amended on the floor debate. A closed rule means a bill CANNOT BE amended or changed during the floor debate.
Most bills in Congress involve the AUTHORIZATION of money. Authorizations set spending limits. Most laws in Congress APPROPRIATE money. An appropriation is the amount of money that is actually spent. Often appropriations are given inside large bills to small projects that affect only one congressional district. These EARMARKS are used to persuade single members to vote for a more controversial bill. This “greasing of the wheel” is often called a PORK BARREL PROJECT. Earmarks make up a small percentage of Congressional spending but have come under serious criticism in recent years.
Floor debate and voting is dramatically different in the House and Senate. In the House the majority party dominates floor activity. Debate is limited by time. If the leadership maintains party discipline, that is if they stick together, the majority party in the House can pass everything they want.
The Senate floor is much different. There are no strict time limits. In fact, one member can stall or delay the entire Senate calendar by filibustering. Today almost every bill in the Senate must overcome a FILIBUSTER. To end a filibuster requires a CLOTURE VOTE. A cloture vote requires sixty (60) Senators to decide to end a filibuster. Rarely does the majority party have 60 votes. This means that the minority party can obstruct just about everything in the Senate.
If a bill were to pass both chambers of Congress it must go to a CONFERENCE COMMITTEE. A conference committee reconciles the differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill.
When a bill passes Congress it still needs a president’s signature to become law. The president has 10 days to act. If he does nothing in 10 days the bill becomes law automatically. A presidential VETO, however, ends it all. Congress can override a veto with a 2/3’s majority vote. This is rare. Less than 4% of presidential vetoes are overridden. Occasionally the president might use a pocket veto. A bill is pocket vetoed if the president does not act and Congress adjourns within the 10-day limit. One thing is certain – the legislative process is never routine. The process varies enormously. The opposition always has the advantage. As the legislative process has grown more and more decentralized, with numerous hurdles and access points for officials to affect outcomes, opportunities for corruption and obstruction have proliferated.
9. Explain the Congressional voting styles of trustee, delegate, partisan, and politico.
There are three types of votes taken in Congress. When members vote as DELEGATES they cast votes that best represent their constituents back home in their districts. When members vote as TRUSTEES they cast votes that best represent their own individual conscience. When members vote as PARTISANS they cast votes that best represent the wishes of their party. With the precision of today’s gerrymandering, members often can play all three roles in any given vote. This is called being a POLITICO.
Logrolling is as old as politics itself. Logrolling is vote trading. I will support your bill if you support mine. You scratch my back and I will scratch yours. One wonders if principle can be found anymore? Logrolling also provides cover for legislators to do an interest groups’ bidding. Yet many would argue that without logrolling even less would get done inside Congress. Logrolling serves as a practical lubricant to the legislative process. Our Constitution was a byproduct of great compromises. Our form of government persists because of even more great compromises. Let’s roll.
10. Other than lawmaking, explain the duties of Congress. How does Congress use its oversight powers?
Like other government institutions the formal powers of Congress are found in the United States constitution. Article 1 details the primary powers of our legislative branch. Also like the other branches, many of the duties and responsibilities of Congress have evolved with experience and certain new traditions. It is for this reason that our Congress should be seen as more then a legislative branch. The United States Congress fulfills three primary duties:
First: The United States Congress is a legislative branch. Here “we the people” make laws. Here “we the people” rule. But this is not their only responsibility.
Second: The United States Congress is given the power of oversight. The U.S. Congress is empowered to check the privileges and authority of the rest of the government. This is done through Congressional hearings where information is solicited. It is done through formal investigations. But it is also done through the budget process. The U.S. Congress controls the money collected and spent by our federal government. Congress can cut spending, cut appropriations, to those agencies of government that abuse their power.
Third: The United States Congress is ultimately made up of members who are charged with representing their constituents. Therefore, more and more time spent by members of Congress revolves around constituent service. Constituents are the citizens who cast their votes for a member of Congress. Most members of Congress spend a majority of their time helping their constituents. This is done through direct representation of constituent interests but also by helping to resolve local concerns, coordinating services with state and local governments and making personal appeals to assure veterans receive their pensions and seniors receive promptly their Social Security benefits.
As Ben Franklin was leaving the constitutional convention one afternoon in September 1787, a young woman approached him and asked, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have you given us?” “A republic--if you can keep it,” was his reply. Keeping the Republic requires that all of us labor vigilantly to ensure that the shared values of scholarship, and artisanship, and citizenship are preserved.