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Congress is frequently referred to as the first branch of government. It was the first branch created by the Framers of the Constitution. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was more often than not the more important of the federal triad. Congress has two major overarching missions. The first is representation. Congress represents states and the localities within states. The second major mission is lawmaking.
Theodore Lowi holds that there are two models in his theory on representation, sociological and agency representation. Sociological representation offers leadership that is a sociological composite of the district represented. Agency representation offers leadership which is service based. The legislator is an “agent” for their district or state. The need not be similar to the majority of the inhabitants. Most members of Congress operate under the agency representational model.
Neil Reimer argues there are four role models in representation, the trustee, the delegate, the partisan, and the partisan-politico. The trustee model is a hire and fire representative chosen by the voters to make independent decisions for them. If they make bad decisions, the voters fire them in the next election. The delegate is the servant leader who holds office to meet the needs of all their constituents, often an impossible task. Additionally, Reimer calls the representative who follows his party leadership in the legislature in making decisions a partisan. Finally, the partisan-politico is a situational response political needs. Certain legislative decision-making requires principled stands on issues which the public do not share, such as civil rights legislation. Other times, a legislator simply makes decisions the way his constituents want, as to avoid political suicide. Finally, given the organizational nature of Congress, a legislator must cooperate with his/her party leaders to advance their legislative agenda for his/her district. The partisan-politico is a more practical approach to representation.
Lawmaking is the next most important duty of Congress. It is a complex process with many components. The components include political parties, committees, the staff, the caucuses, the rules, and the presidency. Other salient groups include the public and interest groups. There are only two constitutional officers in Congress, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate (the Vice-President), the method of conducting business had to be devised by the members. The Constitution left internal organization up to the members.
Political parties were organized early and leadership roles are developed around them. The majority party controls the legislative process in both the Senate and the House. The titles and roles are very similar in each House. They are based upon majority and minority leadership axes. The majority and minority leaders have deputy leaders known as whips. Each party assigns members to the various committees.
The committee structure is how most work gets considered in Congress. Very little legislation is considered by the whole body of each house. Legislation is assigned to specialize committees in each house. Standing committees are the primary workhorses of the Congress. They are permanent in nature and consider specific legislative areas such as foreign policy, commerce or agriculture. Often they will refer legislation to sub groups called subcommittees. These are part of a standing committee. Select or special committees often are investigative in nature. They are temporary in nature. An example of a special committee would be the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, which investigated alleged communism in America during the 1950’s. Finally, conference committees exist to work out the differences between Senate and House versions of similar bills. A bill cannot go the President for signature or become law unless both Houses agree on all the text provisions.
Congress also creates its own internal rules to operate by. The Senate, which is the smaller of the two bodies, is designed to be deliberative. It allows unlimited debate. Filibusters are a means by which Senators delay or kill a piece of legislation by talking it to death. The only means to stop this procedure is invoking a Senate rule called cloture. This requires at least sixty (60) Senators vote to kill debate.
The House of Representatives has 435 members. It has restrictions on debate, twenty minutes per member. Members specialize even more than the Senate to gain influence and power in the lower house. It is more difficult for Representatives to be noticed and gain credit for legislation than the 100 member upper house.
Each body has specialized powers. The Senate’s power of “advice and consent” allows it to approve or disapprove presidential treaties with foreign countries. This process also controls Presidential appointments to the federal judiciary, the Executive Cabinet, and ambassadorial appointments. Advice and consent on treaties requires two-thirds majority (67) Senatorial votes to approve. Presidential appointments require a simple majority (51). The House specific powers include all appropriation bills must originate from the House. Also, all Presidential impeachments must arise in the House.
Finally, Congress has the power to investigate. Frequently in the past the power has had great impact on political processes. The Watergate committee and the Truman committee during W.W.II are just two examples.
Members do rely heavily upon their staff to accomplish much on Capitol Hill. Most of the drafting of legislation, constituent relations, and dealing with interest groups is done by staff. Often members of Congress are accused of being out of touch with their districts. However, given the formidable nature of ongoing constituent relations, the burden of lawmaking, and the pressure of special interests, it is fair to say their “plate is full”. The ultimate question really is- Who do they represent?
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Adjective-1What Congressional barriers do legislation have to overcome before becoming law?
1. Two of Congress’s chief responsibilities are representation and lawmaking. Describe the ways in which these two responsibilities might conflict with one another. How do these responsibilities support or reinforce each other? What would Congress be like if it’s sole function were representative? What would it be like if it were solely legislative?
2. Describe the process by which a bill becomes a law. At the various stages of this process, access who- both within government and without- makes and influences decisions. Are there stages at which the process is more democratic than it is at others? Are their stages at which the people have less influence? In your judgment, is the overall process democratic?