Congress in the Policy Process

The United States Congress plays a fundamental agendasetting role in the American political system by processing and prioritizing information. Information is critical to the policy process: decision makers need information to address emerging or recurring problems, to reduce uncertainty about the effects of various proposed solutions, and to develop preferences and expertise. The Congress is responsible for deliberating about all of these. As a representative body, its members try to reflect public concerns and address issues that their local and national constituents find important while also maintaining critical government functions. Interest groups, executive branch agencies and the president, courts, and citizens all look to the legislative branch at certain times for guidance, agreement, or simply for attention.


Government problem solving in advanced democracies involves three processes: information supply, information prioritization, and solution selection ( Jones and Baumgartner 2005 ). Because policy makers face an overabundance of information about policy problems, solutions, and effects, the primary means by which Congress fulfills its policy-making role is through its committee system, which acts as a division of labor ( Jones and Baumgartner 2005 ). Congressional committees can handle more of this information and address more issues at a time than can the entire body on the chamber floor ( Adler and Wilkerson 2012; Kingdon 1984; Krehbiel 1991 ). Members of Congress have faced competing pressures over time to keep power and agenda-setting authority decentralized among individuals and committees or, alternatively, centralized under the party aegis. A Congress of strong committees may struggle to prioritize information in a coherent, comprehensive way, so members may grant party leaders a large measure of control over setting the institution's agenda. Doing so helps establish a coherent program but comes at the expense of information gathering and in-house expertise.

Many scholars argue for Congress's prominence in the American policy process based on its placement in Article I of the US Constitution. In The Federalist, Publius (likely James Madison) highlights several important features of the proposed new Congress, including members' terms in office and seat apportionment. Madison and the Federalists argued that these features effectively balanced representation with knowledgeable lawmaking; legislators would face regular elections and be aware of matters important to their districts but also be given enough time in office between elections to learn about policy problems ( Kramnick 1987 ). Committees emerged early in Congress's development. The Jeffersonians who controlled Congress in the early years initially opposed creating smaller committees for fear that they would produce biased lawmaking, but these committees became a viable means of handling the nation's business as the policy demands Congress faced grew in both number and complexity ( Cooper 1970 ).

The decades after the Constitution's ratification saw the Congress more generally become institutionalized— that is, members came to see serving in Congress and in positions within it, such as Speaker of the House, as viable careers ( Polsby 1968 ). Over the course of the nineteenth century the two legislative parties became increasingly cohesive and evenly matched electorally. In 1890 a series of changes to House rules proposed by House Speaker Thomas Reed (Republican of Maine), which were subsequently approved, significantly curtailed the minority party's procedural rights for blocking legislative action while also allowing that chamber to process legislation more efficiently, which in turn allowed House Republicans to present a comprehensive legislative agenda ( Cooper and Young 1989; Schickler 2001 ).

Members of the 110th Congress take the oath of office at the US Capitol on January 4, 2007.

Members of the 110th Congress take the oath of office at the US Capitol on January 4, 2007.


The 1930s marked a turning point for relations between Congress and the president. In the early, Jeffersonian days, members of Congress often resented it when presidents and executive department heads presented them with draft legislation. By the time President Franklin Roosevelt was first elected to office in 1932, that dynamic had changed, and Roosevelt was seen as the leader of his party in Congress, not just in the national electorate. Presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon were seen as “chief legislators,” a role that diminished in part because of the unwillingness or inability of Nixon's two immediate successors, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, to fill that role. Congress also increasingly delegated policy implementation authority to the executive branch during this period ( Sundquist 1981 ).

The 1970s saw several dramatic changes to congressional organization and operations as a result of both outright conflict and more subtle competition for information between the legislative and executive branches. The executive branch had done a much better job of integrating new technologies and modes of policy analysis following World War II. Congress, for its part, was seen as overly fragmented and subject to the whims of autocratic committee chairs. Fragmented committee jurisdictions and recalcitrant chairmen combined to hinder Congress's ability to make policy in a comprehensive manner. In 1970 Congress enacted a Legislative Reorganization Act (LRA), which streamlined many committee jurisdictions and provided more committee staff. In fact this was the second LRA; the first was enacted in 1946 to accomplish many of the same goals. Both reorganization efforts produced mixed results.

The 1970 LRA also authorized televised committee hearings and instituted electronic voting in the House. Although restructured committee jurisdictions helped the institution in a general sense, control of these committees still lay in the hands of powerful chairmen who often were more conservative than the rest of the Democratic majority. The 1970s thus saw a further push toward decentralization as the House Democratic majority adopted the Subcommittee Bill of Rights, which required committees to adopt rules that would establish standing subcommittees with fixed jurisdictions and adequate staff independent of their parent committees ( Rohde 1974 ).

Just as junior legislators succeeded at making these changes and began using their new, powerful subcommittee positions to their advantage, Congress once again began to centralize. The greater authority that committees and subcommittees enjoyed produced what many observers described as biased, incremental, or incoherent policy making that struggled to keep the federal bureaucracy in check ( Dodd [1981] 2012; Dodd and Schott 1979; Shepsle and Weingast 1985 ). The chamber floors thus became more important policy-making venues in the ensuing decades, particularly as the advent of electronic voting in the House made requesting floor votes easier and House members took more opportunities to do so ( Smith 1989 ).

Minority party members used these opportunities to delay legislative action or offer amendments unfriendly to the majority, which in turn led majority party leaders to further restrict the number of amendments allowed on any particular bill ( Smith 1989 ). Party leaders also have taken much of the authority for compiling legislation out of committees' hands. These leadership-driven processes— which political scientist Barbara Sinclair has termed “unorthodox” —include having bills referred to multiple committees, packaging multiple items together as omnibus bills, and bypassing conference committees in reconciling House and Senate versions of the same bill. Such processes allow congressional majorities to put together a more comprehensive legislative package and can help an individual bill get through the process much more efficiently. The tradeoff comes in reducing the incentives for members of Congress to specialize in particular policy areas, which puts many rank-and-file members at an information disadvantage ( Sinclair 2005; Smith 1989 ).

The US Constitution gives Congress wide latitude to determine its rules and structure. This has produced several fights over institutional control throughout the body's history, but it also allows the legislature to adapt to changing needs and circumstances. Indeed, Congress's role within the policy process has changed little since the Constitution was ratified, but the means by which it fulfills that role—by emphasizing information gathering or prioritization—has changed several times as the institution has addressed a changing array of public problems.

SEE ALSO Congress as a Governing Institution ; Government ; Governance ; Policy Process ; Representation: Idea of .


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Jonathan Lewallen
University of Texas at Austin