Congress as a Governing Institution

Within the American political system, the role of Congress and its members is to represent the people as laws are drafted, debated, enacted, and implemented. Article I of the Constitution directs each chamber of Congress to “determine the rules of its proceedings,” and since 1789 the House of Representatives and the Senate have established unique processes that shape how they take action. In the early twenty-first century, both chambers are complex bodies of structures, offices, and rules. Their institutional features are important because the ways Congress structures and governs itself affect how it governs the country.


Perhaps the most essential structural feature of Congress is bicameralism. As a consequence of conflict and compromise at the Constitutional Convention, Congress is composed of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Whereas the House has always been popularly elected, until 1913 members of the Senate were appointed by state legislatures. In the early twenty-first century the chambers are fundamentally different in their structure, membership, and rules, and these differences meaningfully affect how Congress governs.

The Senate's 100 members are elected two per state to staggered, six-year terms with roughly one-third of the chamber standing for reelection every two years. The House's 435 members (and six nonvoting delegates) are elected concurrently to two-year terms. Although every state is represented by the same number of senators, the number of House members per state is based on its population. States are reapportioned House seats every ten years with the goal of creating districts of roughly equal population nationwide. According to population statistics from the 2010 US Census, the average district had over 700,000 residents, but there is significant variation. While several supreme court decisions ( including Wesberry v. Sanders (376 U.S. 1 [1964 )]) require each state to draw its districts to be of equal size, state boundaries and the constitutional requirement that all districts be situated within a single state result in disparities. For instance, Wyoming's population of roughly 580,000 resided within one of the smallest districts, whereas others totaled nearly one million residents.

As a result of these differences, the members of the two chambers hold different policy views and priorities. For instance, the Senate, which is heavily composed of individuals representing rural states, tends to be more supportive of farm subsidies and the agriculture industry than does the House. However, for legislation to become law it must pass both chambers in identical form. Usually, this requires building bipartisan coalitions. Data collected by David Mayhew ( 2005 ) show that major legislation passed between 1947 and 2002 was supported, on average, by 81 percent of House members and 84 percent of senators. But putting together such large voting coalitions is not easy. As Sarah Binder observes, “bicameralism is perhaps the most critical structural factor shaping the politics of gridlock” ( 2003, 81 ). Most years, Congress is unable to act on most of the pressing issues requiring its attention. Figure 1 shows the percentage of issues on the agenda on which Congress did not pass new laws from the 80th Congress ( 1947–1949 ) through the 106th Congress ( 1999–2001 ). Although some Congresses are more prolific than others, the average Congress failed to act on 52 percent of pressing issues. Even the most productive Congress (the 89th) failed to legislate on nearly one-third of its agenda.

When Congress does act, the differences in seat apportionment affect what becomes law. Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer ( 1999 ) show that the equal representation afforded to each state in the Senate benefits smaller states at the expense of larger states in terms of federal spending. Additionally, the staggered nature of Senate elections sometimes softens the effects of election waves. Because only one-third of Senate seats are up for election, even the most decisive landslides can have their effects muted by the sixtyplus senators who did not face the ballot box.

Differences between the rules of the House and Senate are also important. Because the two chambers are allowed to set their own rules, they have developed and evolved separately. In the early twenty-first century they operate very differently from each other: the rules of the House make it a chamber where the majority rules, whereas the rules of the Senate emphasize minority power.

Until the 1890s the minority party in the House enjoyed considerable latitude to obstruct action. However, a series of reforms spearheaded by Speaker Thomas Reed ( 1889–1891, 1895–1899

Rates of legislative gridlock per US Congressional session held, 1947–2000.

Rates of legislative gridlock per US Congressional session held, 1947–2000.
Source: Binder, Sarah A. Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003. GRAPHIC BY LUMINADATAMATICS LTD. ©2015CENGAGE LEARNING®

The rules of the Senate emphasize minority power. The Senate is sometimes referred to as a unanimous consent chamber because in practice many actions, including the consideration of legislation, require the consent of every senator. Early in the Senate's history the need for unanimous consent was rarely exploited by opponents of legislation to block it. However, that changed as the Senate became more active in the twentieth century. In 1917 rules changes created cloture motions, which allow Senate supermajorities to end the filibustering tactics of a minority of senators. Since then, requirements for achieving cloture have been amended numerous times. In the early twenty-first century, three-fifths of the chamber (sixty votes) is needed to end filibusters on bills and treaties, while a simple majority (fifty-one votes) is needed on most executive and judicial nominations (Supreme Court nominees still require sixty). These requirements, however, still allow a unified minority party to block action, and since the 1960s the use of filibusters has risen sharply (see Figure 2). For instance, during the 113th Congress ( 2013–2015 ) there were 218 votes on cloture.

The separate rules of the House and Senate amplify their other differences and thus make legislative action even more challenging. Not only do the members of each chamber hold different policy opinions and priorities, but one chamber is able to pass strictly majoritarian legislation whereas the other must accommodate the interests of at least some members of the minority. The resulting gap in the policies produced by the two chambers adds to the difficulty of congressional action and prevalence of gridlock that is a consequence of the legislature's design.


Number of cloture votes per US Congressional session, 1961–2014.

Number of cloture votes per US Congressional session, 1961–2014.
Source: United States Senate. “Senate Action on Cloture Motions.” GRAPHIC BY LUMINA DATAMATICS LTD. © 2015 CENGAGE LEARNING®

Each committee has jurisdiction over a set of issues, and legislation introduced on those topics is referred to it for further consideration. Legislation can also originate within committees, where it is drafted by committee staff, marked up, agreed to by committee members, and then sent to the floor for further consideration. The ability to bottle up referred legislation, amend it to their liking, or create their own bills has traditionally given committees significant influence in Congress. In addition, according to research by Kenneth Shepsle and Barry Weingast ( 1987 ), the ability of committees to dominate conference committees (a means of reconciling House- and Senate-passed versions of the same bill) gives them a second chance to amend legislation related to their jurisdictions to their liking, or else kill it before it becomes law.

Because of their power, committee assignments are highly valued by lawmakers in both chambers. Committee assignment processes, run by the parties, largely enable members to obtain seats that allow them influence over the issues most important to them and their constituents. As a result, many committees are made up of what are called “high demanders.” For example, members on the agriculture committees tend to represent rural areas with many farms, and members on the armed services committees tend to represent areas with large military installations. The legislation emerging from these committees is often in the interest of these particular groups, and not necessarily that of the country. In addition, these same committees' members dominate oversight of executive-branch departments and agencies related to their jurisdictions, giving them significant influence over policy in that way as well.


Political parties also affect how Congress governs and its ability to do so effectively. Parties simultaneously add coherence and functionality to Congress's structures, while adding new complications that sometimes make governance even more difficult.

Parties add coherence by bridging gaps within and across the chambers. Representatives and senators, elected individually from distinct districts and states, have numerous incentives to work apart, but parties provide incentives for them to work together. As argued by Frances Lee ( 2009 ), members of a congressional party have collective electoral and power incentives to coordinate their action. Electorally, all members of a party benefit if the party is popular among the voting public, or if the other party is unpopular. They also benefit when their party is in power, controlling one or both chambers of Congress. Thus parties link members across the chambers, spurring coordinated action to boost their party's image or take and maintain control over Congress. Parties also aid action within each chamber. Prerogatives available to the majority include control over every committee and over which bills are considered and debated on the floor. These powers make it easier for action to occur.

But parties can also make action harder. The possibility of Democratic control over one chamber and Republican control over the other raises new impediments to action. When majorities are at odds with each other the space for the bipartisanship necessary for action is reduced. Binder ( 2003 ) finds that this situation— divided party control—is the most antithetical to a productive American political system. Additionally, parties increase the frequency of coordinated obstruction, while ensuring some measure of minority party representation in the legislative process. The use of filibusters in the Senate is largely a consequence of party politics. Minority party senators have incentives to work together to block the majority's actions, force concessions, or both.

Parties also empower leaders. Party leaders are delegated substantial authority to take action and lead their party, and they are deeply involved in nearly every important initiative. Party leaders take the lead in setting each chamber's agenda, determining their party's policy positions and priorities, and facilitating communication, the taking of cues, and consensus building among party members. In the House the majority leadership controls the Rules Committee and uses it to ensure their party dominates policy making on the floor. In the Senate the majority leader negotiates with the minority, takes steps to break filibusters, and maintains control over the floor.

Party leaders have impressive abilities to foster party unity and rely on various powers to do so. Leaders control the distribution of important resources, including committee assignments, campaign funds, and other perquisites, and can leverage them to reward loyalty and punish disloyalty. Party leaders can allow loyal members to have their bills considered on the floor while blocking action on the bills of less loyal members. As shown by James Curry ( 2015 ), leaders are also empowered by their superior information. Their large staff resources allow leaders to be better informed than their rank and file about important legislation under consideration, and as a result become sources of information and cues for their timestrapped members. Consequently they can influence what their members know and how they understand bills and issues, and keep them in line on important votes.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, party polarization has amplified the importance and influence of parties in Congress. A measure of the distance between the parties in terms of their roll-call voting records indicates that the parties in both chambers have polarized dramatically since the 1950s (see Figure 3). In the early twenty-first century, members of each party are more unified than they have been in over a hundred years, and the partisan conflict over policy proposals has become very contentious. Polarization has dramatically altered how Congress operates. For instance, it has led to the further empowerment of leaders. Needing better coordination to overcome the opposition, parties have delegated substantial authority to party leaders since the 1970s. Polarization has also influenced congressional processes. To make law, parties in both chambers have turned to previously uncommon procedures such as restrictive rules in the House, complex unanimous consent agreements in the Senate, and budget reconciliation, as covered extensively by Barbara Sinclair ( 2012 ). Polarization has also played a role in the increase in filibusters (see Figure 2). With more disagreement between the parties, the minority in the Senate has been more willing to use its prerogative to block action.

Party polarization has made it even harder for Congress to take action by making bipartisan coalitions more difficult to create. According to Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein ( 2012

Degree ofparty polarization in the US Congress, 1879–2009. DW-NOMINATE data compiledfrom

Degree ofparty polarization in the US Congress, 1879–2009. DW-NOMINATE data compiled from

Congress, like any complex governmental institution, requires structures, rules, and processes in order to take the action necessary to govern. However, its specific features have consequences. Congress's bicameral structure and the differences between chambers, including their rules, raise barriers to congressional action. Other features, including committees, parties, and leaders, add coherence and functionality to Congress's basic structure but also induce biases and create new impediments to action. Party polarization, a defining feature of the contemporary Congress, has further affected how it performs in various ways. Congress governs the country, but how it does so is strongly shaped by how it governs itself.

SEE ALSO Article I, United States Constitution ; Congress in the Policy Process ; Filibuster ; Government ; Governance ; Polarization ; Regular Order ; Representation: Idea of .


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James M. Curry
University of Utah