How has the U.S. Congress evolved over its history? What major reforms have occurred within Congress to change the balance of power within the institution? How do the incumbency factor,...

How has the U.S. Congress evolved over its history? What major reforms have occurred within Congress to change the balance of power within the institution? How do the incumbency factor, Congressional leaders, committees, etc. affect the legislative process? Students should be able to trace the process by which legislation moves through Congress and explain why so few bills are passed.

Please address each question to better help me understand the workings of Congress. I'm preparing for my final on this topic.

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main way Congress has “evolved” over its history is through size and the construction of procedures intended to provide it its own internal checks and balances. 

Obviously, as the country grew, the number of members of Congress grew with it.  Article 1 Section 3 of the Constitution specifies that each state shall have two senators.  The Constitution did not, however, specify the number of members each state would have in the House of Representatives, intending the House to be the more representative body with the number of congressman from each state directly proportional to the size of each state’s population.  As Article 1 Section 2 states:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative”

As the country grew, then, the number of senators grew in direct accordance with the “two per state” provision of the Constitution, but the number of congressmen in the House of Representatives grew in a disproportionate manner according to the population of each state, with the larger the population the higher number of representatives.  By way of illustration, then, in 1812, there were 18 states in the Union, accounting for 36 senators, and 143 representatives.  Today, there are 50 senators and 435 representatives.  As a general rule, each member of the House of Representatives represents a district containing roughly 500,000 people.  Simple math will not, however, arrive at a direct correlation between this general purpose formula and the total population of the country, which is currently over 300 million.  If one multiplies 500,000 by 435 representatives, one arrives at a sum of 217,500,000.  The discrepancy exists by necessity, as the number 435 was established following the 1910 census, and it has remained at that number even with the continued addition of new states (Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii) that should have resulted in an increase in the total number of seats in the House of Representatives.  Consequently, the failure of Congress to continue to adjust the number of seats in the House upward to reflect increases in the number of states and in the size of the population resulted in this discrepancy.  Anyway, this growth in size is one of the two major evolutionary changes in Congress over its history.

The second major change, as noted, involves the attempt at instituting a system of checks and balances within the Legislative Branch, not unlike the system of checks and balances that exists between branches of government.  Congress organized itself according to functional areas of responsibility, for example, agriculture, national defense, tax issues, and so on.  Committees were formed to allow for more specialized handling of each of the myriad issues that come up on a regular basis, and these committees were assigned responsibility for determining how much of the federal budget would be allocated for each purpose or function.  Consequently, these committees became enormously powerful, and those who failed to attain a seat on the appropriations committee were heavily dependent upon those who were successful to secure funding for projects in their home states or districts. 

Because the power of the appropriations committee grew so formidable, Congress instituted a system designed to check that power.  Authorization Committees were established to function alongside the Appropriations Committees, and new rules were instituted in both chambers of Congress.  Today, in theory, the Appropriations Committees are not supposed to be able to fund projects that were not authorized by the Authorization Committees.  Appropriators, as members of the committee are called, can write the check, so to speak, but only if project for which the money is intended has been duly authorized by the Authorizers.  Conversely, the Authorization Committees can establish organizations like new agencies, can dictate the size and structure of those organizations, and can approve new projects, but they cannot spend a dime; only the Appropriators can write the check, but only if the Authorizers approved the purpose for which the check is being written.

That, in a nutshell, is how Congress functions.  And, depending upon the strength of individual committee chairmen relative to each other, it can work.  In practice, however, there is no uncertainty as to where the real power lied.  Having spent 12 years working for members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which are authorizing committees, I can attest to the frustrations among members and staff of those committees at the sometimes far greater power of the Appropriators over the Authorizers.  In short, the internal system of checks and balances has not worked.  Appropriators remain too powerful, although some of that power disappeared when the new generation of conservative congressmen were elected to the House inn 2010 and succeeded in forcing an end to what the public refers to as “pork barrel legislation,” in effect, the money senators and representatives direct to their home states and districts in appropriations bills – projects that were not subject to any kind of rigorous analysis or scrutiny and were added to spending bills solely to benefit individual districts for the political benefit of those districts’ elected officials.

The legislative process has often been referred to as “the sausage factory”:  you may like the outcome, but you really don’t want to see how the process works anymore than you want to see how the sausage you enjoy eating is manufactured.  It’s not pretty.  Seniority is an extremely important factor in the legislative process, as is party affiliation (i.e., whether your party is in the majority can determine the amount of influence you have on the legislative process).   Both chambers of Congress are structured according to committees, with each committee responsible for specified areas.  For example, he Committee on Ways and Means in the House and is Senate counterpart, the Committee on Finance, have jurisdiction over tax issues and trade; the Committees on Armed Services have jurisdiction over the military in terms of its size, the types and numbers of weapons it has, the type of retirement systems that will exist for military retirees, and so on.  In general, each senator or congressman can sit on two to three committees.  Within each committee is a series of subcommittees that further divides issues under the committee’s jurisdiction among functional subunits.  For example, within the Armed Services Committees (and subcommittee designations and assignments can change over time) there are subcommittees dedicated to military aviation, shipbuilding, personnel, operations and maintenance (i.e., the enormous amount of money required to keep the ships at sea, fully manned and armed; the money needed to ensure pilots receive the amount of training time in the air they need to stay proficient; and the nation’s nuclear arsenal has enjoyed its own dedicated subcommittees.  Members of Congress choose committee assignments dependent first and foremost upon the economic needs of their districts and states.  A congressman with many military installations in his district will want to serve on the Armed Services Committee.  A senator representing a state heavily dependent upon agriculture will want a seat on the Agriculture Committee. 

These committees and subcommittees operate on the basis of seniority.  With occasional exceptions, the longer an individual has served on a particular committee, the more senior he or she becomes, and the more deferential the more junior members are towards that senior member.  The most senior, then, is usually the chairman or, in the case of the minority party, the ranking minority member of the committee.  These individuals are statistically more likely to get what they want during budget deliberations and on the final text of legislation.  While the old-style seniority system has been weakened with the rise of the so-called “young Turks” especially on the right, there is still a tendency to be deferential towards the more senior members. 

As Pohnpei397 noted in his answer, most bills that are introduced do not get passed.  There are simply too many of them introduced every year, and many of those are frivolous attempts at getting press coverage for “having done something” to address a problem.  Just because the bills did not get passed, however, does not mean the content of the bill does not find its way into another, larger bill.  It is very common practice, when one’s bill is not advancing through the cumbersome process, to offer the text of that bill as an amendment to a larger bill that is widely expected to pass, such as an omnibus bill or, more common, the defense spending bills.  The defense budget is so large (currently $620 billion for fiscal year 2014, which ends on September 30) and contains so many provisions and sections that is easy to hide extraneous programs in its many pages.  In other words, congressmen who fail to get their bill passed take the easy route and have the bill redrafted as an amendment to a larger bill, with a much greater certainty that the item will survive the remainder of the legislative process.  Even with the aforementioned elimination of earmarks, many non-spending bills find their way into other legislation even though there is no natural correlation between the subject of the larger bill and the amendment.

Congressman work hard to circumvent their own rules for how the institution should function.  Recalling the earlier discussion of authorizers and appropriaters, one of the Senate’s rules is that senators are not allowed to “authorize on an appropriations bill.”  Whereas appropriations bills are straightforward budget documents detailing programs and amount of money allocated for each of those programs, authorization bills are more “legislative” in nature.  They articulate and sometimes attempt to mandate U.S. Government policy, or attempt to proscribe certain activities of the Executive Branch.  Bills or amendments the content of which more appropriately belongs in an authorizing bill are often introduced during deliberations on an appropriations bill, usually when the senator in question failed to have his amendment adopted by the authorizing committee.  He or she will then, consequently, attempt to have his amendment attached to the appropriations bill, in direct violation of Senate rules.  A senator who opposes that amendment, or merely wishes to protect the integrity of the process, can object to the amendment on procedural grounds, usually with the disclaimer, “Mr. President [referring to the President Pro Tem of the Senate], I object to the senator’s amendment on the grounds that he is attempting to authorize on an appropriations bill.”

How effective individual senators and representatives are is traditionally a product of seniority and personal relationships forged among members.  Members of the Senate and House leadership are, unsurprisingly, the most powerful in Congress, especially the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senator Majority Leader.  Other powerful leaders are the party minority leaders and the Whips, who are responsible to making sure his or her fellow party members are working together and ready to vote the “right” way. 

Incumbency is an interesting issue.  There is no question that some members of Congress serve too long in terms of their ability to function coherently and to vote responsibly.  The late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond served from 1954 to 2003, by which time he was clearly not suited to the job.  He died in office at the age of 100.  While he continued to get the projects funded for his home state, he had over the previous decade become less relevant to the legislative process, indicating that incumbency in the extreme can involve a loss of power.  Many voters have been critical of the length of time many politicians serve in Congress, arguing that the Framer’s intent was for citizen-politicians and not professional full-time politicians.  It was out of this concern that the issue of term limits arose, meaning each member of Congress would be limited to one or two terms in office for a senator and three to six terms for a representative (remembering that each term in the House is for two years). 

The reality is slightly different than the perception regarding incumbency.  The truth is, turnover in Congress occurs much more than many people realize.  By charting the seniority of a congressional committee over the course of a decade, it becomes apparent how many representatives are gone due to retirements, lost elections, or deaths.  There is no question, though, that seniority continues to equal power, and that more senior a member the more likely he or she is to get a bill passed.

Little in life is absolute, however, including the correlation between seniority and power.  Both parties want to help their freshman senators and congressmen succeed so that they can get reelected when the time comes.  Consequently, junior members of Congress often fare better than anticipated, especially when they hold seats that were hard-won and remain vulnerable to defeat at the hands of the other party.  If jumping these up-and-comers ahead of the line to help secure their seats for the party results in disgruntlement among those over whom the junior member jumped, then that is a price they pay.  That’s politics.

All of these factors influence how bills proceed through the legislative process.  Presidents of both parties routinely submit legislation to Congress that they wish to see get passed into law.  Whichever party in Congress is aligned with the president, then, makes it a priority to push the president’s plan through the legislative process.  Committee assignments, seniority, a tenuously-held seat, backroom quid pro quo deal-making, and personal friendships among members of Congress all factor into the equation, as do the efforts of lobbyists and special interest groups.  A lot goes into making most laws.  Very little goes into making other laws, if the author of the bill has enough power.  A committee chairman can stick anything he wants into a bill passing through his committee; to oppose him is to make an enemy.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For a very detailed description of the process by which a bill moves through Congress, please follow the link below.  For the purposes of this answer, we will look at a very basic view of the process.  A bill can be introduced into either house of Congress. When the bill is introduced, it is sent to a committee.  The committee can hold hearings on the bill and can make changes to it.  The committee then either kills the bill or votes to let it move to the floor.  If a bill makes it to the floor, it can be debated and then voted upon.  A bill has to pass both houses of Congress in identical form in order to become a law.  If the two houses pass different versions of the same bill, they must create a conference committee to iron out the differences.  If the conference committee can agree on a single version of the bill, that version gets voted on by both houses.  Bills that pass go to the president to be signed.

Very few bills get through this process because there are so many steps.  A bill can be derailed at any step on the way.  It has to meet with the approval of both houses of Congress.  This is very difficult, particularly in times like these when a different party controls each house.

The major reform that has happened in Congress to change the way it works is the set of reforms that has taken power away from leadership to a great degree.  For most of the country’s history, leaders in Congress had tremendous amounts of power.  After Watergate, however, that began to change.  Various rule changes have made it so that committee chairs and party leadership do not have as much power as they used to.  The main effect of this is to make it harder to get bills through Congress.  The various members of Congress have a greater ability to shoot down legislation than they did back in the days when they essentially had to do what their party leadership told them to do.