220 American Government and Politics
Spring, 2000

Kenneth Janda, Instructor

Week 7: Congress and the Prsidency
Lecture 1: Congress as Rule-Making

May 8

Legislatures make rules for government

  • Article I, Section 1
    • All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.
    • Section 8: 18 clauses that enumerate Congress' powers
  • Some very different institutions have been called legislatures.
    • U.S. Congress
    • British Parliament
    • Supreme Soviet
  • What definition can embrace all these types?
    • A legislative body can be defined by its FUNCTION:
      • The function of a legislature is to make laws for society.
      • However, a nation's laws may be made elsewhere -- e.g., in the bureaucracy - and the legislature merely ratifies decisions
    • A legislative body can also be defined by its STRUCTURE:
      • It is a MULTIMEMBERED political organ,
      • composed of ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES and is formally accountable to the electorate,
      • which DELIBERATES FORMALLY formally before COLLECTIVELY VOTING to decide issues
      • which then become NATIONAL POLICY.
  • Virtually every country has a body known as a "legislature" according to a structural definition of a legislature.
    • But the legislatures in different countries often fulfill quite different functions in the political system.
    • We can gain insight into the nature of congress as a rule-making body by examining LEGISLATURES in comparative perspective: http://www.assnat.qc.ca/eng/autres_parl.html
  • These legislatures in the U.K., U.S., and former USSR are so different that we must adopt a broader view of the functions served by legislatures in a political system,
    • POLICY-MAKING -- emphasizing coherent decisions that support general interests in the society (that is, rule-making in a broad sense)
    • LEGITIMATING -- promoting the acceptability of policy decisions, wherever they are actually made
    • REPRESENTING -- defending particular interests in making decisions on matters of national policy
  • The architectual imperative, "form follows function," can be applied to legislatures
    • Battlefield of opposing parties

    • Political Theater:
      • Supreme Soviet

    • Arena of conflicting interests:
      • U.S. Congress

  • Most legislatures--illustrated by the British House of Commons--are primarily POLICY MAKING bodies.
    • Debate is public and centers over broad issues of policy, with the participants knowing that the electorate will hold the governing party responsible for national policies at the next election.
    • Because national policies are debated in the House of Commons, the chamber itself becomes a conflict arena.
    • Videos on the House of Commons
      • July 14, 1996 from 60 Minutes
      • 1990 from C-Span of Question Time
    • The design of the House of Commons illustrates that form follows function:
      • The chamber is designed to pit one party against the other-- in this case on the issue of the government's policy of dropping economic sanctions against South Africa.
      • Remarks made by members of the Government and the Loyal Opposition- who sit on benches near the front, next to the Speaker--are vociferously supported by their party members sitting behind them--called Backbenchers.
      • Note the treatment given to Margaret Thatcher, who is the Prime Minister and Head of Government, which is quite different from the deference shown to a president.
      • Note also that a Prime Minister must have terrific debating skills, which would seem to eliminate Ronald Reagan from that type of office.
      • Finally, note the class differences that appear among the members speaking for the Conservative and Labour parties.
  • Other legislatures--illustrated by the old Supreme Soviet in the USSR--fulfill the role of LEGIMATING decisions made elsewhere.
    • They don't meet often enough or long enough to actually make legislative policy.
    • They don't take many votes, and virtually all measures introduced in the chambers pass.
    • According to the architectual principle, form follows function, these legitimating legislatures look like theaters--with major players on the stage and ordinary legislatures in the role of an applauding audience.
  • A few other legislatures--like the U.S. Congress--fulfill the role of REPRESENTING interests.
    • They defend particular interests in making decisions on matters of national policy
    • This may be why individual members of Congress are evaluated very highly, but why Congress itself rates rather low for voters overall.
  • The ability of a legislative body to make national policy depends on constitutional limitations on the legislature.
  • In Britain, there are no constitutional limitations on the policy making capabilities of Parliament.
    • There is no written constitution required extraordinary majorities to decide certain issues.
    • Royal assent to laws is always given since 1707.
    • Although Parliament has two chambers, the House of Lords essentially checks the Commons temporarily in law-making.
    • The courts, including the Lords as the highest appeals court, cannot declare an act of parliament invalid.
    • The "government" within the Commons enacts more than 95 percent of the bills it introduces, being strongly supported by nearly all the members of its party and opposed by nearly all of the opposition paties.
  • In the United States, Congress operates under severe constitutional limits of its legislative powers.
    • Some of these are not very consequential today.
      • The Constitution cannot suspend writ of habeas corpus, not enact ex post facto laws.
      • It cannot tax articles for export.
      • For many years, the 10th Amendment, which reserved to the States powers not delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution, was used to curb the attempts of Congress to control interstate commerce in particular.
      • But in general, the current mind of the court is quite permissive in granting the powers of Congress to legislate.
  • Other constitutional checks on Congress are quite effective:
    • Presidential veto of legislation
    • Judicial review of legislation by federal courts
    • The co-equal status of the House and Senate in the Constitution also checks the power of Congress.
      • Framers thought that the House would represent popular opinion -- would be the more "liberal" body.
      • Senate would represent quality, wealth, and virtue -- thus being the more conservative chamber.
      • Most observers see an inversion of this role: that the Senate has been the more liberal body.
      • Nevertheless, clearly the houses tend to differ in opinion on legislative issues, thus limiting the legislature's capacity to make definitive policy decisions.
  • Compared with the British Parliament, the U.S Congress is far less likely to pass legislation requested by the head of government--i.e., the Prime Minister and the President.
    • Studies done over a 20 year period (from 1954 to 1974), Congress passed only 44% of legislation that the president requested.
    • From 1956 to 1969, Parliament approved 96% of all executive-sponsored legislation.

Moreover, legislation passed by Parliament was far more likely to be in its original form.