Organization of Congress

Party Leadership in the House

Party leaders and whips of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected by their respective parties in a closed-door caucus.

Learning Objectives

Explain in detail the power of the Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader and the Party Whip

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The current House Majority Leader is Republican Kevin McCarthy, while the current House Minority Leader is Democrat Nancy Pelosi. The current House Majority Whip is Republican Steve Scalise, while the current House Minority Whip is Democrat Steny Hover.
  • The Majority Leader’s duties and prominence vary depending upon the style of the Speaker of the House and the political climate within the majority caucus.
  • The Minority Leader of the House serves as floor leader of the opposition party and is the counterpart to the Majority Leader.

Key Terms

  • majority leader: a partisan position in a legislative body; often the chief spokesperson for the party in power, who sets the floor agenda and oversees the committee chairmen
  • Speaker of the House: the presiding officer (chair) of the House of Representatives
  • minority leader: the floor leader of the second largest caucus in a legislative body; the leader of the opposition

Party leaders and whips of the United States House of Representatives are elected by their respective parties in a closed-door caucus by secret ballot. The party leaders are also known as floor leaders. The U.S. House of Representatives does not officially use the term “Minority Leader” although the media frequently does. Instead, the House uses the terms “Republican Leader” or “Democratic Leader” depending on which party holds a minority of seats.

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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy

The current House Majority Leader is Republican Kevin McCarthy, while the current House Minority Leader is Democrat Nancy Pelosi. The current House Majority Whip is Republican Steve Scales, while the current House Minority Whip is Democrat Steny Hoyer. The Majority Leader’s duties and prominence varies depending upon the style of the Speaker of the House and the political climate within the majority caucus.

The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader

The House Majority Leader’s duties and prominence vary depending upon the style and power of the Speaker of the House. Typically, the Speaker does not participate in debate and rarely votes on the floor. In some cases, Majority Leaders have been more influential than the Speaker, notably Tom DeLay who was more prominent than Speaker Dennis Hastert. In addition, Speaker Newt Gingrich delegated to Dick Armey an unprecedented level of authority over scheduling legislation on the House floor. As presiding office of the House of Representatives, the Speaker holds a variety of powers over the House but usually delegates them to another member of the majority party.

The Speaker in the United States, by tradition, is the head of the majority party in the House of Representatives, outranking the Majority Leader. However, despite having the right to vote, the Speaker usually does not participate in debate and rarely votes. The Speaker is responsible for ensuring that the House passes legislation supported by the majority party. In pursuing this goal, the Speaker may use his or her power to determine when each bill reaches the floor. They also chair the majority party’s steering committee in the House. While the Speaker is the functioning head of the House majority party, the same is not true of the President pro tempore of the Senate, whose office is primarily ceremonial and honorary. The Speaker may designate any member of the House to act as Speaker pro tempore and preside over the House. During important debates, the Speaker pro tempore is ordinarily a senior member of the majority party who may be chosen for his or her skill in presiding. At other times, more junior members may be assigned to preside to give them experience with the rules and procedures of the House. The Speaker may also designate a Speaker pro tempore for special purposes, such as designating a Representative whose district is near Washington, DC to sign enrolled bills during long recesses.

The Minority Leader

The Minority Leader of the House serves as floor leader of the opposition party and is the counterpart to the Majority Leader. Unlike the Majority Leader, the Minority Leader is on the ballot for Speaker of the House when Congress convenes. If the Minority Leader’s party takes control of the House and the party officers are all re-elected to their seats, the Minority Leader is usually the party’s top choice for Speaker for the next Congress, while the Minority Whip is typically in line to become Majority Leader. The Minority Leader usually meets with the Majority Leader and the Speaker to discuss agreements on controversial issues.

The floor leaders and whips of each party are elected by their respective parties in a closed-door caucus by secret ballot. The Speaker-elect is also chosen in a closed-door session although they are formally installed in their position by a public vote when Congress reconvenes.

Party Leadership in the Senate

The party leadership of the Senate refers to the officials elected by the Senate Democratic Caucus and the Senate Republican Conference.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the leadership structure in the Senate

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Each party is led by a floor leader who directs the legislative agenda and is augmented by an Assistant Leader and several other officials who work together to manage the floor schedule of legislation, enforce party discipline, oversee efforts to elect new Senators, and maintain party unity.
  • The titular, non-partisan leaders of the Senate itself are the Vice President of the United States, who serves as President of the Senate, and the President pro tempore, the most senior most member of the majority who theoretically presides in the absence of the Vice President.
  • Unlike committee chairmanships, leadership positions are not traditionally conferred on the basis of seniority but are elected in closed-door caucuses.

Key Terms

  • caucus: A meeting, especially a preliminary meeting, of persons belonging to a party, to nominate candidates for public office, or to select delegates to a nominating convention, or to confer regarding measures of party policy; a political primary meeting.
  • titular: One who holds a title.
  • seniority: refers to the number of years one member of a group has been a part of the group, or the political power attained by position within the United States Government

The party leadership of the United States Senate refers to the officials elected by the Senate Democratic Caucus and the Senate Republican Conference to manage the affairs of each party in the Senate. Each party is led by a floor leader who directs the legislative agenda of his caucus in the Senate, and who is augmented by an Assistant Leader or Whip, and several other officials who work together to manage the floor schedule of legislation, enforce party discipline, oversee efforts to elect new Senators, and maintain party unity.

The titular, non-partisan leaders of the Senate itself are the Vice President of the United States, who serves as President of the Senate, and the President pro tempore, the most senior member of the majority who theoretically presides in the absence of the Vice President.

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Capitol Hill: Capitol Hill, where bills become laws.

Unlike committee chairmanships, leadership positions are not traditionally conferred on the basis of seniority, but are elected in closed-door caucuses.

Since January 3, 2007, the Democratic Party has constituted a majority in the Senate. The Senate Majority Leader is Harry Reid (Nevada) and serves as leader of the Senate Democratic Conference and manages the legislative business of the Senate. The Senate Majority Whip is Dick Durbin (Illinois) who manages votes, communicates with individual senators, and ensures passage of bills relevant to the agenda and policy goals of the Senate Democratic Conference. Since January 3, 2007, the Republican Party has constituted the minority of the Senate. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) is the Senate Minority Leader and Jon Kyl (Arizona) is the Senate Minority Whip.

Bicameralism

Bicameralism is the practice of having two legislative or parliamentary chambers.

Learning Objectives

Describe bicameralism and the Founding Fathers’ understanding of its role in American federalism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Founding Fathers of the United States favored a bicameral legislature. The idea was to have the Senate be wealthier and wiser. The Senate was created to be a stabilizing force, elected not by mass electors, but selected by the State legislators.
  • A conference committee is appointed when the two chambers cannot agree on the same wording of a proposal, and consists of a small number of legislators from each chamber. This tends to place much power in the hands of only a small number of legislators.
  • State legislators chose the Senate and senators had to possess a significant amount of property in order to be deemed worthy and sensible enough for the position.
  • As part of the Great Compromise, the Founding Fathers developed a form of bicameralism in which the upper house would have states represented equally, and the lower house would have them represented by population.

Key Terms

  • bicameral: Having, or pertaining to, two separate legislative chambers or houses.
  • Great Compromise: An agreement reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that in part defined the legislative structure and representation that each state would have under the US Constitution. It called for a bicameral legislature, along with proportional representation in the lower house, but required the upper house to be weighted equally between the states.

Bicameralism

In government, bicameralism is the practice of having two legislative or parliamentary chambers comprise bills. Bicameralism is an essential and defining feature of the classical notion of mixed government. Bicameral legislatures tend to require a concurrent majority to pass legislation. A conference committee is appointed when the two chambers cannot agree on the same wording of a proposal that consists of a small number of legislators from each chamber. This tends to place much power in the hands of only a small number of legislators. Whatever legislation, if any, the conference committee finalizes must then be approved in an unamendable “take-it-or-leave-it” manner by both chambers.

The Founding Fathers of the United States favored a bicameral legislature. The idea was to have the Senate be wealthier and wiser. The Senate was created to be a stabilizing force, elected not by mass electors, but selected by the State legislators. Senators would be more knowledgeable and more deliberate—a sort of republican nobility—and a counter to what Madison saw as the “fickleness and passion” that could absorb the House.

State legislators chose the Senate and senators had to possess a significant amount of property in order to be deemed worthy and sensible enough for the position. In fact, it was not until the year 1913 that the Seventeenth Amendment was passed, which “mandated that Senators would be elected by popular vote rather than chosen by the State legislatures. ” As part of the Great Compromise, they invented a new rationale for bicameralism in which the upper house would have states represented equally, and the lower house would have them represented by population.

During the 1930s, the Legislature of the State of Nebraska was reduced from bicameral to unicameral with the 43 members that once comprised that state’s Senate. One of the arguments used to sell the idea at the time to Nebraska voters was that by adopting a unicameral system, the perceived evils of the conference committee process would be eliminated. During his term as Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura proposed converting the Minnesotan legislature to a single chamber with proportional representation, as a reform that he felt would solve many legislative difficulties and impinge upon legislative corruption. Ventura argued that bicameral legislatures for provincial and local areas were excessive and unnecessary, and discussed unicameralism as a reform that could address many legislative and budgetary problems for states.

Legislative Agendas

An agenda is a list of meeting activities in the order in which they are to be taken up in the legislature.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between two uses of the word agenda

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A political agenda is a set of issues and policies laid out by an executive or cabinet in government that tries to influence current and near-future political news and debate.
  • In parliamentary procedure, an agenda is not binding upon an assembly unless its own rules make it so, or unless it has been adopted as the agenda for the meeting by majority vote at the start of the meeting.
  • If an agenda is binding upon an assembly and a specific time is listed for an item, that item cannot be taken up before that time, and must be taken up when that time arrives even if other business is pending.

Key Terms

  • adjourn: Temporarily ending an event with intentions to complete it at another time or place.
  • docket: A short entry of the proceedings of a court; the register containing them; the office containing the register.
  • town meeting: a form of direct democratic rule, used primarily in portions of the United States since the 17th century, in which most or all the members of a community come together to legislate policy and budgets for local government

An agenda is a list of meeting activities in the order in which they are to be taken up, by beginning with the call to order and ending with adjournment. It usually includes one or more specific items of business to be discussed. It may, but is not required to, include specific times for one or more activities. An agenda may also be called a “docket. ”

A political agenda is a set of issues and policies laid out by an executive or cabinet in government that tries to influence current and near-future political news and debate. In parliamentary procedure, an agenda is not binding upon an assembly unless its own rules make it so or unless it has been adopted as the agenda for the meeting by majority vote at the start of the meeting. Otherwise, it is merely for the guidance of the chair.

If an agenda is binding upon an assembly, and a specific time is listed for an item. That item cannot be taken up before that time and must be taken up when that time arrives even if other business is pending. If it is desired to do otherwise, the rules can be suspended for that purpose.

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Gerald Ford Papers: Gerald Ford set the Republican legislative agenda.

The political agenda while shaped by government can be influenced by grassroots support from party activists at events, such as a party conference, and can even be shaped by non-governmental activist groups which have a political aim. Increasingly, the mass media can have an effect in shaping the political agenda through its news coverage of news stories. A political party can be described as shaping the political agenda or setting the political agenda if its promotion of certain issues gains prominent news coverage. For example, at election time, if a political party wants to promote its polices and gain prominent news coverage in order to increase its support.

The Committee System

A congressional committee is a legislative sub-organization in Congress that handles a specific duty.

Learning Objectives

Describe the committee system, its growth, and that growth’s effect on Congress’s power

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Committees monitor on-going governmental operations, identify issues suitable for legislative review, gather and evaluate information and recommend courses of action to their parent body.
  • Congressional committees provide invaluable informational services to Congress by investigating and reporting about specialized subjects.
  • Since 1761, the growing autonomy of committees has fragmented the power of each congressional chamber as a unit. This centrifugal dispersion of power has, without doubt, weakened the Legislative Branch relative to the other branches of the federal government.
  • Today the Senate operates with 20 standing and select committees. These select committees, however, are permanent in nature and are treated as standing committees under Senate rules.

Key Terms

  • Ways and Means: The Committee of Ways and Means is the chief tax-writing committee of the United States House of Representatives

A congressional committee is a legislative sub-organization in the U.S. Congress that handles a specific duty. Committee membership enables members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction. Committees monitor on-going governmental operations, identify issues suitable for legislative review, gather and evaluate information and recommend courses of action to their parent body. It is neither expected nor possible that a member of Congress be an expert on all matters and subject areas that come before Congress. Congressional committees provide invaluable informational services to Congress by investigating and reporting about specialized subjects.

Most legislation is considered by standing committees which have jurisdiction over a particular subject such as Agriculture or Appropriations. The House has twenty standing committees; the Senate has sixteen. Standing committees meet at least once each month. Almost all standing committee meetings for transacting business must be open to the public unless the committee votes, publicly, to close the meeting. A committee might call for public hearings on important bills. Each committee is led by a chair who belongs to the majority party and a ranking member of the minority party. Witnesses and experts can present their case for or against a bill. Then, a bill may go to what’s called a mark-up session where committee members debate the bill’s merits and may offer amendments or revisions. Committees may also amend the bill, but the full house holds the power to accept or reject committee amendments. After debate, the committee votes whether it wishes to report the measure to the full house. If a bill is tabled then it is rejected. If amendments are extensive, sometimes a new bill with amendments built in will be submitted as a so-called clean bill with a new number.

Congress divides its legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks among approximately 200 committees and subcommittees. Within assigned areas, these functional subunits gather information, compare and evaluate legislative alternatives, identify policy problems and propose solutions, select, determine, and report measures for full chamber consideration, monitor executive branch performance and investigate allegations of wrongdoing. While this investigatory function is important, procedures such as the House discharge petition process are so difficult to implement that committee jurisdiction over particular subject matter of bills has expanded into semi-autonomous power.

Since 1761, the growing autonomy of committees has fragmented the power of each congressional chamber as a unit. Over time, this system proved ineffective, so in 1816 the Senate adopted a formal system of 11 standing committees with five members each. With the advent of this new system, committees are able to handle long-term studies and investigations, in addition to regular legislative duties. With the growing responsibilities of the Senate, the committees gradually grew to be the key policy-making bodies of the Senate, instead of merely technical aids to the chamber.

By 1906, the Senate maintained 66 standing and select committees—eight more committees than members of the majority party. The large number of committees and the manner of assigning their chairmanships suggests that many of them existed solely to provide office space in those days before the Senate acquired its first permanent office building, the Russell Senate Office Building. By May 27, 1920, the Russell Senate Office Building had opened, and with all Senate members assigned private office space, the Senate quietly abolished 42 committees. Today the Senate operates with 20 standing and select committees. These select committees, however, are permanent in nature and are treated as standing committees under Senate rules.

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Russell Senate Office Building: The Russell Senate Office Building houses several Congressional staff members, including those on the United States Senate Committees on Armed Services, Rules and Administration, Veterans’ Affairs, and others.

The first House Committee was appointed on April 2, 1789 to prepare and report such standing rules and orders of proceeding as well as the duties of a Sergeant-at-Arms to enforce those rules. Other committees were created as needed, on a temporary basis, to review specific issues for the full House. The House relied primarily on the Committee of the Whole to handle the bulk of legislative issues. The Committee on Ways and Means followed on July 24, 1789 during a debate on the creation of the Treasury Department over concerns of giving the new department too much authority over revenue proposals. The House felt it would be better equipped if it established a committee to handle the matter. This first Committee on Ways and Means had 11 members and existed for just two months. It later became a standing committee in 1801, a position it still holds today.

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Ways and Means Committee Logo: The Ways and Means Committee has been an important committee in the U.S. since 1789

The Staff System

Congressional staff are employees of the United States Congress or individual members of Congress.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the roles of different congressional staff; in the Congressional Research Service, Congressional Budget Office, and Government Accountability Office

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the year 2000, there were approximately 11,692 personal staff, 2,492 committee staff, 274 leadership staff, 5,034 institutional staff, 3,500 GAO employees, 747 CRS employees, and 232 CBO employees.
  • Every Representative hired 14 staff members, while the average Senator hired 34. In 2000, Representatives had a limit of 18 full-time and four part-time staffers, while Senators had no limit on staff.
  • Majority and minority members hire their own staff except for two committees in each house: the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the House, and the Select Committee on Ethics and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the Senate.

Key Terms

  • Congressional Budget Office: The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is a federal agency within the legislative branch of the United States government that provides economic data to Congress.
  • Congressional Research Service: The Congressional Research Service (CRS), known as Congress’s think tank, is a public policy research arm of the United States Congress.
  • appropriation: Public funds set aside for a specific purpose.
  • Government Accountability Office: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of the United States Congress.

Congressional staff are employees of the United States Congress or individual members of Congress. The various types of congressional staff are as follows: personal staff, who work for individual members of Congress; committee staff, who serve either the majority or minority on congressional committees; leadership staff, who work for the speaker, majority and minority leaders, and the majority and minority whips; institutional staff, who include the majority and minority party floor staff and non-partisan staff; and the support agency staff, who are the non-partisan employees of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In the year 2000, there were approximately 11,692 personal staff, 2,492 committee staff, 274 leadership staff, 5,034 institutional staff, 747 CRS employees, and 232 CBO employees, and 3,500 GAO employees. Every Representative hired 14 staff members, while the average Senator hired 34. Representatives had a limit of 18 full-time and four part-time staffers, while Senators had no limit on staff.

Each congressional committee has a staff of varying size. Appropriations for committee staff are made in annual legislative appropriations bills. Majority and minority members hire their own staff, with the exception of two committees in each house: the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the House, and the Select Committee on Ethics and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the Senate. These committees have a single staff.

In 2000, House committees had an average of 68 staff, and Senate committees an average of 46. Committee staff includes staff directors, committee counsel, committee investigators, press secretaries, chief clerks and office managers, schedulers, documents clerks, and assistants.

The Caucus

A caucus is a meeting of supporters or members of a political party or movement.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between two different types of political caucus

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The term caucus is often used to discuss procedures implemented by states, including Iowa and Texas, to select presidential nominees.
  • Depending on how the caucus is organized, the caucus system may require voters to publicly announce the candidates they support. Voters have the option to draft resolutions introduced at later divisional caucuses or conventions.
  • A caucus can also be a sub-grouping of officials who convene to advocate, agitate, lobby or vote collectively on policy.

Key Terms

  • bicameral: Having, or pertaining to, two separate legislative chambers or houses.

A caucus is a meeting of supporters or members of a political party or movement. Members of a political party or subgroup may meet to coordinate actions, choose group policy or nominate candidates for various offices. The term caucus is often used to discuss procedures implemented by states, including Iowa and Texas, to select presidential nominees.. Since 1980, caucuses have become an important component of the nomination process.

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Iowa Caucus: The Iowa Caucus is the first major electoral event of the nominating process for President of the United States.

Despite a Democratic Party rule that delegates are allocated proportionally rather than “winner takes all,” some caucus groups decide individually how to allocate their group’s delegates. Discussion of party rules is not necessarily part of the caucus experience, while few rules govern the actual process. In the “winner-take-all” scenario, a group’s delegate allocation may be reported as unanimous while ignoring minority votes. Depending on how the caucus is organized, the caucus system may require voters to publicly announce the candidates they support. Voters have the option to draft resolutions introduced by delegates at later divisional caucuses or conventions.

A caucus can also be a sub-grouping of officials with shared affinities or ethnicities. These officials convene to advocate, agitate, lobby or to vote collectively on policy. At the congressional and legislative levels, Democratic and Republican members organize themselves into a caucus.

There can also be smaller caucuses in a legislative body, including those that are multi-partisan or bicameral. One of the best-known is the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of African-American congressmen. Another prominent example is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose members advance issues affecting Hispanics. In a different vein, the Congressional Internet Caucus is a bipartisan group promoting the growth and advancement of the Internet. Other congressional caucuses like the Out of Iraq Caucus strive to achieve political goals, generally organized around a single issue.

Congressional Districts

The quantity and boundaries of the 435 districts are determined after each census gauges the population shifts in each state.

Learning Objectives

Describe what determines the quantity and boundaries of congressional districts

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The boundaries of districts often shift with each redistricting. Over time, the region and demographics represented in a district can change substantially.
  • As of the 2000 census, the average population per district is 646,946 people. California, with 53 districts, has the most. States with only one district include Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.
  • Alaska is the district with the greatest area and New York’s 15th district has the smallest area. Montana’s district has the largest number of people (905,316) and Wyoming has the fewest number of people (495,304). Delaware is the oldest district.

Key Terms

  • apportion: To divide and distribute portions of a whole.
  • apportionment: The act of apportioning or the state of being apportioned

Congressional Districts

The quantity (apportionment) and boundaries (redistricting) of districts are determined after each census, although in some cases states have changed the boundaries more than once per census. The census is used to gauge each state’s population and thus, proportional need for representation. Due to the shifts in population a state may gain or lose congressional districts. For example, since the 2000 census, Nebraska has had three districts, but it used to have as many as six. Texas currently has 32 districts, but will be adding 4 due to reapportionment as a result of the 2010 census. Other states will lose districts since the number of congressional seats has been set at 435 by statute.

The boundaries of districts often shift with each redistricting. Over time, the region and demographics represented in a district can change substantially. Furthermore, districts sometimes retain the same boundaries while changing their district numbers.

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U.S. District Map: This map shows the U.S. Congress House Districts for the 110th-112th Congresses.

As of the 2000 census, the average population per district is 646,946 people. California had the most, at 53 districts. States with only one district include Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Alaska, Delaware, and Wyoming are the only states that have never had more than one district. Alaska is the district with the greatest area and New York’s 15th district has the smallest area. Montana’s district has the largest number of people (905,316) and Wyoming has the fewest number of people (495,304). Delaware is the oldest district; It has had the same geographical borders since 1789.