The Ten Most Important Things You Should Know About The U. S. House of Representatives
By Ray Smock
Dirksen Center’s Congress in the Classroom
July 28, 2009
My goal in this session is to give you a framework for understanding the House of Representatives. Later this afternoon my distinguished friend and colleague from the Senate Historical Office, Betty Koed, will complete the story with the important things you should know about the Other Body. Why have two lectures, one on the House and one on the Senate when perhaps one session on “The Ten Most Important Things You Should Know About Congress” might suffice? The answer gets at the heart of this exercise. The House and the Senate are remarkably different institutions, even though it is the business of both bodies to make law.
The most crucial debate at the Federal Convention of 1787 was on the question of who would elect the House and Senate. Had the delegates not reached a compromise between the large and small states on the composition of the two-house legislature and how each would be elected, it may have doomed the attempt to create a new Constitution. The Connecticut Compromise, often called the Great Compromise of July 16, 1787, is one of the crucial and pivotal events in American history. The small states won equal representation in the Senate and the House would be apportioned by the population of each state.
1. The House as Embodiment of Representative Democracy
So the first important thing about the House of Representatives is that it is the embodiment of the Founders’ idea of representative democracy. In a republic like ours, the people hold ultimate power and the Framers of the Constitution made the House the first branch of government, the branch closest to the people and most responsive to the needs and desires of the people. Don’t listen to those who refer to the House as the “Lower Body”—because such talk is blasphemy! The House is the First Branch of the legislature. This is what the Framers of the Constitution called it.
Now it is true that many of the Framers were leery of too much democracy. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” He and others said the people should have as little to do with government as possible. Not the least of the sins of the people was that they would starve a public servant rather than give him decent salary. But others spoke eloquently on behalf of the people and for the House as the “grand depository of the democratic principle of the Govtt,” as George Mason of Virginia put it. The House would know and sympathize with every part of the community, Mason said. He saw the House representing “the rights of every class of people.”
The House would also be the largest branch of the legislature. A census would be held every ten years to determine how many representatives each state would get. There will be another census in 2010. In the first Congress, each member of the House represented about 30,000 people. Today the average House member represents over 600,000 people. The size of the House has been frozen since 1911, which means that as the population of the United States increases, most members end up getting larger and larger numbers of people to represent. If we ever wanted to reduce the number of persons in each district, it could be done if the House changes the 1911 law. It would require no constitutional amendment, only a change in law to make the House an even larger body than it is now.
2. Apportionment and Redistricting
The second most important thing to know about the House has to do with how congressional districts are shaped. In a short presentation like this, I cannot do justice to the issue of apportionment and redistricting other than to tell you it is one of the most important and least understood aspects of the House of Representatives. The Census Bureau calculates each state’s population and using a complex formula divides that population into fairly equal districts. Shifting populations cause some states to lose or gain representation each ten years. The formula is never as precise as some would like it to be. After the 1980 Census, for example, Nevada had 787,000 people and Maine had 1,125,000 people, and each got two representatives each. But South Dakota, which had 690,000 people, got only one. So after that census, each of Nevada’s House members represented 393,500 people, in Maine each member represented 562,500, and South Dakota’s one representative had 690,000 constituents and a lot of territory to cover.
Governors and other state officials are the ones who draw up the boundaries of the districts, and partisan politics plays a key role in deciding boundaries. Often districts are drawn to favor one party over the other, or in some instances are drawn to account for racial or ethnic quotas. This process is called Gerrymandering and it has been a common practice since the first census of 1790, although the term was first coined to describe a crazy-shaped district drawn up by Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts, in 1812, when he tried to reduce the influence of the Federalist Party by drawing districts that had higher concentrations of Democratic-Republican voters. One such district resembled a salamander, so it was labeled a Gerrymander in honor of the governor and one of this nation’s most distinguished Founders.
This whole process of redistricting and apportionment is unique to the House of Representatives, and it can greatly shape the institution of the House for years, even though the public and the press usually do not follow how this process is conducted in a state-by-state manner, unless of course, some egregious unfairness pops up to capture an occasional headline. Sometimes when a state is closely divided between the two major parties, the political fighting for determining district boundaries can be fierce; when the state cannot decide fairly, the courts have stepped in to finalize the redistricting. While Gerrymandering was used extensively in the South to spread black voters in such a way that the black vote could never elect a House member, since the 1990s the courts have used Gerrymandering to be inclusionary rather than exclusionary, leading to the election of more African Americans in the House, but, in some cases, creating districts that are so oddly shaped as to have very little geographical integrity.
As I said, this complex matter is hard to fully explain in a brief presentation, but it is nonetheless a truly important matter that you should know about the House. While the public may pay this issue very little attention, you can be sure that state officials and members of the House or those who are candidates for House seats, and the state and national Republican and Democratic party machinery pay great attention to this matter because it is the essence of determining who has power in the House.
3. The House Runs by the Numbers—the Majority Rules
My third most important thing is that the House runs by the numbers. In other words: the majority rules. Nothing is more important in the House than the majority. The great Republican Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed, who served in the 1890s, and his successor Joe Cannon of Illinois, ran the House with an iron hand because they had the numbers to do it. The purpose of the minority, Speaker Reed said, was to draw their paychecks and help make a quorum.
Now having a majority does not always mean that the majority party will prevail. This is especially true when the parties are fairly evenly divided in the House as they have been in recent years. There are always some members of the majority who, on some specific issues, will vote with the minority. But my main point is still true, that virtually every aspect of the House, not just the passage of legislation, is shaped by which party has the majority. Having a majority means you also have the majority on all committees, and that all chairmen and chairwomen are members of the majority. The elected officers of the House are determined by the majority.
4. The House Reinvents Itself Every Two Years
My fourth most important thing is that the House reinvents itself every two years. As part of the Framers’ scheme of keeping the House as the branch most accountable and representative of the people, the members are elected every two years. This means that all 435 members must face re-election each two years. They can hardly take office before they must start the next campaign. The House holds an election for Speaker every two years. It has to adopt the rules under which it operates every two years. The House has a temporary quality about it that was built in by the Framers. They expected the electorate to be the main corrective device if the House was not responsive to the will of the people. The Framers expected the electorate to correct the House if it got mired in corruption or greed. While the House has evolved slowly over time and shows a remarkable resemblance to the House of one hundred or even two hundred years ago, the point to keep in mind is that it could change quickly, depending on the results of each two-year election cycle.
Now, if the same party remains in control of the majority, the previous Speaker is likely to be re-elected, and most of the House rules will stay the same, and most of the committee chairs will stay the same. But if the majority and the minority change, the House can change dramatically overnight.
5. The Role of the Speaker
My fifth most important thing is to describe the Speaker of the House in more detail and put this office in historical and constitutional context. The Constitution says, “The House shall chuse its Speaker and other officers….” There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that describes the duties or the powers of the Speaker. The Framers of the Constitution spent no time at all debating the office. They assumed that the Speaker would be the presiding officer and left it at that.
They all knew the long history of the Speaker under the British Parliament and how it had evolved from the 13th century, from a presiding officer who was the spokesman for the crown in the House of Commons, to an office where the Speaker of the House of Commons was independent of the crown and often at odds with the monarch. In the United States, the office evolved from the long experience with colonial legislatures. The Office of Speaker has also evolved by House rules and precedent, and by the individual will of each Speaker. The Speaker can be someone who can play an important role as leader in the creation of national policy. The first Speaker of the House, Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, saw his role as that of an impartial parliamentarian. His main job was to keep the business of the House moving in a formal and collegial manner. But early on he was given the power to appoint committees, and this was a source of power that the other members did not have. He was paid an extra two dollars a day for each day the House was in session. But he claimed this was not enough and that he spent most of the extra money on oyster suppers for the other members.
The young, dynamic Henry Clay of Kentucky transformed the Speakership starting in 1811, into a power that rivaled that of the president. All Speakers who have since put their stamp on the office have been compared to Henry Clay. His power came not from the Constitution or from any particular House rules, but from his own energy, his forceful personality, and his willingness to see himself as virtually co-equal to the president. Clay could be an impartial parliamentarian, but he was not content to merely preside. He would often leave the Speaker’s chair, go to the well of the House, and engage in partisan debate. Traditionally Speakers only voted to break a tie or in other rare circumstances, but Clay voted regularly.
Clay carefully picked committee chairs who would support President James Madison and push his program. Later Clay would do the reverse and work against President Monroe, who opposed Clay’s American System of internal improvements and protective tariffs for American industries.
In 1995, when Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years, Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia saw an opportunity to model himself after Henry Clay, and other strong Speakers like Thomas B. Reed and Joe Cannon, by taking on an aggressive national role as leader of the opposition against the policies of President Clinton. He sought to radically reform the House, change its rules, and take charge of the House agenda.
He thrust himself into the national spotlight as the voice of the Republican Party, and he saw his office as more important than the House committee chairman in determining the legislative agenda. He expected members of his party to spend more time in their districts raising money to insure their re-election and to leave the heavy lifting on the legislative agenda to him. Gingrich’s plans to create a powerful centralized Speakership eventually failed because he lost the support of his own party, which after being out of the majority for so long, were enjoying their new-found power as committee chairman and did not relish the idea of becoming subordinates to the Speaker.
So the Office of Speaker can be an extremely important force in setting the national agenda, or in opposing the agenda of a president from the opposite party. Most of the power of the office depends on the energy and drive of the individual in the office, and, naturally, the size of the majority who supports the Speaker.
6. The Power of Impeachment
Sixth on my list is the fact that the Constitution gives the House the power to impeach the president of the United States and other high federal officials, especially federal judges. Fortunately, this power is rarely used. Two presidents have been impeached (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) and a third (Richard Nixon) resigned when faced with impeachment. The threat of impeachment has led to a number of judicial resignations before they came to trial. The House has used its power of impeachment more than 50 times in the past two hundred years but only fifteen have gone to trial in the Senate.
Historically, the impeachment process is a difficult and often messy process. It is best understood as a political and constitutional process rather than a criminal process. It helps if the charges are clear, and when there is bipartisan support for the impeachment. If one party or the other takes the lead on an impeachment, it can quickly degenerate into a bitter partisan feud.
The role of the House is to bring the charge against the accused official, and if the House votes to impeach (indict), the trail is held in the Senate. The House, the body that impeached, selects managers who act as prosecutors and the Senate sits as a jury of 100. I am sure Betty Koed will explain the Senate side of this process more fully, but suffice it to say that any comparison of a House impeachment and a Senate trial to any criminal procedure in our regular court system is very misleading. House impeachment and the Senate trial have to be understood on their own terms and under the rules established in the House and Senate to carry out the process.
The context for understanding impeachments is the Constitution, the Congress, and the current political climate. During the Clinton impeachment most of the talking heads on television were people familiar with criminal law, and their ignorance of the impeachment process only added to public frustration and misunderstanding of the process. Few journalists were able to capture the nuances of this process. They kept trying to find comparisons between the proceedings against President Nixon and President Clinton. I advised a number of them to look at the Andrew Johnson case as a better comparison to the Clinton impeachment, but most found Andrew Johnson to be ancient history that the public would not relate to, and furthermore, there were no video clips of the Andrew Johnson case that could be used on the 6 o’clock news!
There have been numerous attempts since the 1790s to come up with an alternate process for impeachment. These include proposed constitutional amendments and attempts to create a statutory method of removing high officials from office, but none have gained enough support for adoption. All fifty states have provisions for removal of high officials and while most students of the subject find impeachments cumbersome, difficult, and awkward, no one has yet to garner support for an alternative method, and the House and Senate are reluctant to relinquish this important Constitutional power. It is one of the significant checks that the legislative branch has on both the executive and the judicial branches.
7. The Power to Elect the President
The seventh point about the House is that it has the power to elect the president of the United States when there is a tie in the Electoral College. This power is found in Article II of the Constitution and was further clarified and modified by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804. Only twice has the House exercised this special constitutional power. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the presidency. In those days, the candidate with the highest number of Electoral College votes was elected president and the second highest vote getter was elected vice president. The election of 1800, one of the most pivotal in American history, was also one of the most contentious and difficult elections because of the tie for president. To keep this from happening again, the Twelfth Amendment provided for separate ballots for president and vice president. If there was a tie, the House still elected the president of the United States, but the duty of electing the vice president would fall to the Senate, since the vice president serves as president of the Senate.
The fact that the House has the power to elect the president in the case of a tie shows the Framers’ intention that the most democratic branch of government, the House, be the place to decide the presidential election. But this would be no ordinary election where every member of the House had the right to vote. Each state would have only one vote.
In two other cases in American history the constitutional provisions were side-stepped because of unusual circumstances that did not quite fall under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment. In the election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, several states sent conflicting electoral results. The Twelfth Amendment is silent on how to determine which electoral ballots are the legitimate ones. The House could not agree on a victor so it created a special commission composed of 15 members, five House members, five Senators, and five Supreme Court justices, to sort things out.
In 2000, in the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, disputed election results in Florida led to a drawn-out, highly controversial recount process, each side looking to limit the scope of the recount. Turning first to the Florida Supreme Court for resolution, both political parties eventually looked for redress in the U .S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the Florida Supreme Court had violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment when it stopped the Florida recount, but the Supreme Court also ruled that there was insufficient time under Florida law to come up with an alternative plan for the recount, so the earlier ruling of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris declaring Bush the victor was upheld. I was one of those who went to the Supreme Court in protest of this procedure. I saw no reason for the House not to exercise its constitutional authority and chose the president as provided for in the Twelfth Amendment, or to follow the precedent of 1877 and create a special commission, which would still allow the House to exercise its constitutional authority. Bush would have been the likely winner if the House did decide, since the majority of the House was Republican, but at least, as far as I was concerned, the constitutional authority of the House would be upheld.
8. All Revenue Bills Begin in the House
The eighth important thing you should know about the House is that all revenue bills must originate in the House. Taxation and spending bills are usually the most contentious and potentially troublesome types of bills. The Framers apparently thought that the House, being the body closest to the people, would be the body most sensitive to public concerns regarding taxes and spending.
In Federalist 66, Alexander Hamilton described the fact that the House would originate all money bills as a part of the careful counterbalancing of House and Senate powers. Over the years the House and Senate plus the Supreme Court have tried to figure out just exactly what is meant by “revenue” bills. Does this mean, as Hamilton put it in Federalist 66, that revenue means all money bills? Or does revenue have a more particular meaning of a bill related to taxation? The House takes great pride in its role as the originator of all revenue bills, even though, of course, the Senate can amend these bills and by doing so change the nature of the tax bill or any appropriations bill. For all practical purposes, this particular prerogative of the House seems to be of little importance in the give and take of the legislative process between the two bodies. But the House takes this matter very seriously and has challenged some Senate-originated bills that have revenue aspects to them. No one in the House is about to give up on this constitutional authority. It suggests that when it comes to taxes, the House can be counted on more so than that other body.
9. Representatives Get No Respect
The ninth item on my list has to do with the public’s perception of members of Congress. This is more of a personal editorial than a constitutional observation. It can be put simply in this sentence, which is short enough to qualify as a Tweet: “Most people like their own Representative but they think all the others are crazy.” I realize this is an exaggeration. But I think it makes a point. Another way to put it would be: “Representatives get No Respect.” For years, regardless of which party is in the majority, members of the House rank somewhere below car salesmen when it comes to trustworthiness.
I have always been intrigued and puzzled by this phenomenon of representative democracy. Why do people like their own representative? It is the person they know. It is someone who is local. He or she may be from your own community or they may have gone to the same high school you did. There is a sense of familiarity. The Framers expected the public to know their own representative. They expected the constituents of a particular district to be someone known and respected. They assumed that voters would have sense enough to elect someone they knew and trusted, and someone who shared the values and ideas of the majority in a particular district. This was easier to do when districts had 30,000 or even a 100,000 persons, but the size of modern districts has challenged the assumptions of the Framers of the Constitution. Most voters may not even know their own House member. But they may get to know this person if they have dealings with the member’s office.
If a member provides some service to you, you are likely to develop a bond with this individual. Maybe they help trace a lost Social Security check, or help with veteran’s benefits when the Veteran’s Administration bureaucracy is not responding as you think it should. Whatever the service, the bond is made. New members of the House learn quickly that constituent service is the single most important thing their office can do to insure a good chance of re-election.
As for the other 434 members, you have no control over them. You can’t vote for or against them. They seem distant from your concerns and needs. If you come from a rural district in, say, Kansas, you may have no reason whatsoever to understand or appreciate a member from an urban district in a major city. So it becomes easy to see most House members as abstractions, and once they become abstractions they are easy to blame for the woes of the nation on any particular issue.
These days there is another component that adds a major dimension of frustration about members of the House and the Senate. The rise of 24/7 cable news and talk radio has turned Congress into cannon fodder for the daily chatter whether it comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum. Cable news is insatiable in its need to have controversy. So House members, who may represent their constituents well, are thrust into the national spotlight because of things they say or do on the floor of the House or in committee that in past times would have only been of interest to the local press in their own state or district. Many members like this national exposure and take to it. Everyone wants to be a national spokesperson on the issues of the day. But often the process makes members and their deliberations look more like a sideshow than it is.
During my tenure has the Historian of the House of Representatives, I had a chance to observe the House up close and personal. It was a real education. I can’t say I was on intimate terms with all the members of the House, but I did get to know a lot of them from both parties. I saw them daily. I testified before House committees, I attended press conferences of the Speaker, I worked with many staff members, and in some cases I formed strong bonds of friendship.
I had many mentors in the House, both members, officers, and leaders, of both parties. But the member I worked with most closely was Congresswoman Lindy Boggs of Louisiana. She was the chair of the House Bicentenary Committee, which was in charge of the national celebrations of the 200th anniversaries of Congress and the U. S. Constitution. I was the historian hired to direct that effort. Lindy served in Congress for 20 years after her husband, Hale Boggs, the House majority leader, was lost in a airplane crash in rugged mountainous terrain in Alaska. The plane was never found.
Lindy Boggs is the one who told me something that helped keep my understanding of the House members in perspective. She said, “Members of the House are ordinary people who are trying to do an extraordinary job.” She was so right. I saw her observation unfold before me every day. The vast majority of House members work very hard. This is not a job for sissies. It is demanding, totally consuming, and always a challenge to balance local concerns and national issues, while all the while constantly trying to raise money for re-election.
So another way of stating the ninth important point of this talk is that I want to say to you that the House is a serious place that deserves our respect. The institution is too important to trivialize on the cable stations and talk radio. But having said this, I will also add that the House bears watching, and when it seems to be straying from what you perceive as the right direction, you have every right to voice your objections. Hopefully, our critique of the House should be made with the intention of improving the national dialogue and not for the purpose of fostering cynicism or trying to destroy one party or the other. I am a great believer that when it comes to politics—local, state, or national—we should all be healthy skeptics, but when we lose sight of the issues and lose respect for our institutions we run the risk of becoming cynics.
10. Is Pork Good for Us?
This leads me to the 10th most important thing you should know about the House (and the Senate, for that matter). In point number 9, I made reference to constituent service as being essential for the success of a House member. Let’s get specific and talk about PORK! Members get loved and they get re-elected if they can bring home the bacon to their own district and to their state. But if you are from another state or locality that is not getting the pork, you are not likely to think it is a worthy expenditure. On the other hand, if the pork is coming to your state or town, you may look more kindly on it as a worthy expenditure.
First: a definition of Pork Barrel spending. In the 19th century, it was common for pork to be salted and packed in barrels. If you had a full barrel of pork, you would at least be able to feed your family. The term “pork barrel” comes into widespread use in the 1860s and 70s to describe money given to local entities for specific projects. It quickly became a derogatory term to suggest wasteful spending. Another name for this type of appropriation is “earmark.” In other words, money marked for a special project, usually to go directly to a state or locality for a specific purpose, such as the building of a road, a bridge, a hospital, or for a specific research project, or public works activity, such as the creation of a city park, or a recreation center.
I would argue that congressional earmarks and pork barrel spending have been a part of the legislative process since the first Congress, even though the term pork barrel legislation or the earmark had not been coined. But the process existed from the beginning. Some of the earliest petitions that came to Congress dealt with what we would today call “pork.” States and localities asked for post roads to help commerce and speed the mail to areas that needed development. In Nantucket, Massachusetts, whalers asked the House to fund the dredging of a sand bar that was keeping the whaling ships from getting out of the harbor.
In recent times, the earmark has come under attack because it is seen as a way to force taxpayers from states not affected to pay for projects they have no direct interest in. Furthermore, the fact that earmarks are not debated but often slipped into spending bills or into report language at the 11th hour, with no explanation and with no member identified with the earmark. In the last Congress, the 110th, both the House and the Senate instituted changes in the procedure to make the process more transparent. The person sponsoring the earmark has to be identified, and such spending requires explanations from those seeking earmarks, which become part of the record.
So my tenth most important thing to know is that earmarks have long been a part of the appropriations process since the first Congress. They play an essential role in the work of individual House members and senators. While there have been some spectacular boondoggles and bridges to nowhere, if you looked at the actual list of earmarks, I think you would be surprised to find the vast majority of them to be worthy projects. The late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin used to make a big deal out of earmarks, picking out the ones that seemed to be ludicrous and giving them his Golden Fleece Award for wasteful spending. He made fun of a Department of Education grant of $219,000 to develop a curriculum package to teach students how to watch television. It sounds ludicrous without knowing the context of the study. He made fun of NASA’s SETI program, which searched for extraterrestrial life. I guess that would be a waste of money, unless, of course, we found some, in which case it would be astounding and earth-shaking.
And lest you think earmarks are eating away at the federal coffers at an alarming rate, in total they amount to about 2% of annual government expenditures. I predict that PORK will continue to be an important part of the legislative process. Considering the amount of coverage earmarks are given in the press and how they are used negatively in political campaigns, I wonder why most of us can be so easily persuaded to focus on the 2% that is spread over all fifty states, while we ignore the most significant parts of the federal budget that consume so much more and include regular appropriations that are often excessive. In the 2010 proposed budget from President Obama, 57% goes to military and defense, 6% to transportation, 6% heath and human services, 4% to education, 4% to the State Department and international programs, to mention some of the larger parts of the budget.
So we are up to Ten Things this talk was supposed to be about. But I think you deserve an even dozen because, frankly, I couldn’t limit myself to ten. I’ll give you two more in two minutes.
11. House Committees—Where the Work Gets Done
While I mentioned the importance of the office of Speaker, I have not yet said a word about the committees of the House, where most of the work of creating legislation takes place. So my eleventh most important point is that to understand the House, you need to pay attention to its committees and their work.
Woodrow Wilson, when he was a student at Johns Hopkins University, wrote a very influential book called Congressional Government, published in 1885. It is a classic and it is still in print. It is full of interesting observations even though Wilson wrote it without ever visiting the Capitol, being 30 miles away in Baltimore. Wilson thought Congress was the most important branch of government, and I think he thought that way until he ran for president. He was particularly critical of the House and its committee system. He liked the idea of a parliamentary system. He thought the checks and balances of the three branches were cumbersome and inefficient. He described the House committees this way:
“[They are] divided up, as it were, into forty-seven seignories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court-baron and its chairman lord-proprietor. These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within reach [of] the full powers of rule, may at will exercise an almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself.”
Wilson went overboard to describe committee chairmen in the most despicable manner. But he did put his finger on a major problem. Committee chairmen and chairwomen can run their committees almost as fiefdoms. Each committee is a world unto itself. I recall thinking how Byzantine the House was when I first went to work there. And the longer I served there the more Byzantine the committees became. Powerful senior staff members often acted as guardians, screening those who sought to see the chairman. Respect and deference to committee chairman is essential if you plan to get anywhere. Committee chairman and top staff guarded their power with the tenacity of pit bulls.
The House committee system divides the workload into major areas of legislation. Some committees have more clout than others. Appropriations and Ways and Means are traditionally the most important because they deal with the actual dollars. The House Rules Committee proudly puts on its home page the constitutional language that gives it the authority to establish the rules under which legislation is considered. This committee sets limits on the length of debate on a bill, whether or not it can be amended, and the procedure for amending the bill.
If you watch C-SPAN coverage of the House, you will notice that a great deal of debate time is taken up explaining the rules or objecting to the procedure established by the Rules Committee. But other committees are equally important. Still others such as House Administration work to run the House itself, and it deals with the mechanics of running the institution, from computer systems to furniture and toilet paper. This committee has little clout on national policy, but believe me if you work for the House, you are more likely to encounter House Administration than any other committee on a daily basis.
Committees are where the work is done. If you want to affect a piece of legislation, you need to pay attention to which committee, or committees, has jurisdiction.
12. The Virtue of Inefficiency
Finally, my last point, which gets us to an even dozen, can be stated briefly. The House is designed to be inefficient. This frustrates the majority and the minority. But legislating has never been a pretty business even if it is vital. My former boss, Speaker Tip O’Neill, used to say, “If you want efficient government, get yourself a dictatorship.” The House is where all the varying wills of the nation come together. The hardest thing for representatives to do is to learn to work with people they disagree with. Those of us who are not inside the institution can take easy pot shots at the representatives, but once inside the institution a representative is faced with the realization that there are smart people who don’t think like they do. Compromise is the art of politics, but this is much easier to say than to do. And thus the process can be frustrating for those inside and for the rest of us watching from the outside.
NOTE: The author is the director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV, about 70 miles from Washington, DC. (www.byrdcenter.org). From 1983 to 1995 he served as Historian of the U. S. House of Representatives.
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Betty Koed, Associate Historian of the U.S. Senate, identifies ten factors organized around six major themes: the Senate as a deliberative body, as protector of minority rights, as promoter of compromise, as “cooling factor” in the legislative process, as “states’ ambassadors,” and as advisory body.
The Ten (Really Twelve) Most Important Things to Know about the U.S. House of Representatives
Ray Smock, former historian of the U.S. House, singles out 12 factors key to understanding the so-called lower chamber. They range from the House as the “embodiment of representative democracy” to “the virtue of inefficiency.”
The Voices of Your Classroom are the Voices of Our Future
Writing in The Instructor (March 1967), Dirksen told America’s teachers: “Our challenge and responsibility are clear. If we would desire good citizenship, love of country, respect for heritage among our young, then we must teach them. And we must do so actively, consistently, and most of all early. It is essential that we provide children with an environment conducive to the learning about, practicing of, and valuing of good citizenship and responsible involvement in national life.”
What Do Students See When They Look at Congress?
Professor Jeffrey L. Bernstein presents a video report on his “think-aloud” methodology to explore what students see when they look at Congress. His research reveals the importance of understanding (1) the tension between majority rule and minority rights and (2) the essentially conflictual nature of legislative activity. When students have a low comfort level with these ideas, their ability to understand the work of the legislative branch suffers dramatically. He concludes this lecture by discussing how his findings can inform classroom teaching.
What Every Student Should Know about Congress
Congressional scholar Charles O. Jones responds to this question: “Suppose you had 15 minutes to describe the ten most important features of the U.S. Congress—what would they be?”
What High School Government Teachers Should Know about Congressional Elections
Jeffrey Bernstein, a political scientist at Eastern Michigan University, describes the central fact about congressional elections: incumbents are re-elected in overwhelming numbers. He also reviews how political scientists have explained this phenomenon and suggests ways for high school and college teachers to teach their students about incumbency.
What I Wish Political Scientists Would Teach about Congress
Former Congressman Lee Hamilton offers ten basic lessons about Congress ranging from “the legislative process is dynamic and complex” to “the country needs more politicians.”
A classification of six “learning categories” to guide educators in teaching their students.
A glossary of congressional terms.
Notes on congressional events and procedures.