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What tools does Congress have to exert its influence over public policy?

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Congress does not just exert influence over public policy. Often times, it sets the public policy itself. The process of carrying out public policy usually falls under the purview of the executive branch, but it is the legislative branch, or Congress, that sets it.

For example, Congress has the power to make laws. Congress has the right to pass laws that affect every part of public policy—from civil rights to health care to education, and more. While Congress makes the laws, it is up to the executive branch of government to implement them. For example, Congress might pass a law that requires power plants to reduce carbon emissions. It would then be up to either the EPA or Department of Energy (part of the executive branch) to enforce those laws.

A second powerful, but less direct, tool that Congress has to influence public policy lies in its power to set budgets. Article One of the United States Constitution gives Congress what is known as the "power of the purse." Congress can decide just how much money can go to any one part of government spending. For example, Congress effectively ended the Vietnam War in 1974 when it decided to stop funding the military of South Vietnam. Congress also used this power to pressure states to raise the drinking age to 21. Congress passed a law that would have withheld ten percent of highway funding for any state that did not comply have a legal drinking age of 21.

Congress can also attempt to influence public policy in an even less direct way than those already mentioned by confirming or refusing to confirm presidential nominations. Since the executive branch has the power to implement public policy, members of Congress, specifically the Senate, can use their power to confirm or deny nominations to try to influence that implementation. A recent example involves the nomination of Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. Many senators who support school choice supported her nomination in an attempt to influence public policy in relation to education. Those that opposed her viewpoint voted to deny the nomination. (In this particular example, the vice president had to cast the tie-breaking vote).

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Congress has many tools that it can use to exert its influence over public policy.  Let us look at three of the main tools that it can use.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Congress has the power to make laws.  Public policy is created largely by laws that Congress passes.  Some of the most important policies in our history have been created by such laws.  For example, it was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public places.  It was Congress that passed the Clean Air Act that helped to reduce pollution in the US.  It was Congress that passed laws creating Social Security and Medicare.  It is Congress that passed the “Obamacare” legislation.  These things show us that Congress has used the legislative power to exert influence over public policy.

Second, Congress has the “power of the purse.”  It is Congress that decides which governmental agencies and programs get money.  That is why, for example, the Republicans in the Congress were able to try to kill Obamacare by refusing to fund it.  This, too, allows Congress to exert influence in this area.

Finally, Congress has power over the ways in which laws are enforced.  Congress shares in the control of the government agencies of the executive branch.  It can (as alluded to above) change their funding if it likes.  It can hold hearings to criticize their performance and to put pressure on them to change.  If Congress does not like the way that laws are being carried out, it can use these tools to try to change things.

In these three ways, Congress can exert significant amounts of power over public policy.

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