Saturday, November 5, 2016

11/5 Congress

In the next section of this course we will be looking more at the institutions that make up the government: Legislative, Executive, Judicial, beginning with the legislative branch, the Congress.

We have already covered the basic structure of Congress and how members are elected. The U.S. Congress is divided up into two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House is the larger and more democratic body, made up of 435 representatives drawn from multiple districts within each state. House Representatives serve two-year terms with no term limits meaning there is no limit to the number of times they can be re-elected. Senators serve six-year terms also with no term limits. However, until now we have not spent that much time covering the problematic issue of elections for the House, this is known as gerrymandering. The origins of the term are not important, but the meaning of the term is not very clear (perhaps intentionally?). It really refers to the strategy of dividing up districts in each state to benefit your party. Besides this issue, we should cover how the leadership structure in Congress works, that in many ways is a system of representation within our system of representation, as well as how the system of committees in Congress works.

The House is supposed to be more democratic because they represent smaller districts, so they are supposed to be more accountable to the people who make up those districts. Although overall approval of Congress is low, according to public opinion polls, the re-election rate of members of Congress is almost 90 percent, meaning that once someone is elected to Congress they have an enormous advantage over un-elected challengers. It also suggests that while people may disapprove of the actions (or lack of action) of Congress as a whole, most people seem to be satisfied with their Congressional representation. However, members of Congress do not seem to react the same way in every issue area, meaning in some areas, they are more representative of what the people in district or state want, in some areas they seem to act with more independence. Generally speaking, members of Congress seem to be more receptive to their districts or state on domestic issues, but on foreign affairs issues seem to act more on their own.

As we discussed in class, the number of representatives from each state depends on the population of each state. Changes in the population, changes the number of representatives from each state. So for example a state like New York which has a declining population over the last twenty years has lost representatives, while states like Florida or Texas which have growing populations have seen increases in their representation over the last few decades.

One important consideration in determining electoral districts for the House, is what has come to be know as "gerrymandering." State legislatures in each state are tasked with re-drawing the electoral districts in accordance with population fluctuations in the state. Predictably, this has a partisan bias, meaning simply, that whatever party has a majority in the state will seek to draw the boundaries in the district to benefit their party and disadvantage the other party. This has led to some oddly shaped electoral districts, like this one in Chicago.

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, federal authorities were given the right to redraw districts in Southern states to empower racial minorities and allow them to elect representatives, this is sometimes referred to as "minority-majority" districts, meaning that minority areas are grouped together in order to form a majority in a district.  The 4th district in Illinois, or the "earmuff" district is one such example.

The Senate has a more equal representation with two senators from each state who represent the entire state. There are 100 senators altogether.

Of the two, the House has a more complicated leadership structure, due in part both to its larger size and the rules of debate in the House. At the top is the Speaker of the House who directs the agenda and issues that are debated. In theory the Speaker is supposed to be non-partisan and often refrains from voting on legislation, but over the last twenty years or so the position has become more partisan. Besides the Speaker there is a Majority and Minority Leader, and a Majority and Minority Whip. The leaders then oversee the direction of each party in the House and coordinate the agenda that each party is trying to put forward. The Whips are responsible for making sure party members vote the right way and enforce party discipline. The Senate has a Majority and Minority Leader, but lacks the other leadership positions.

Both houses of Congress are further divided into several committees. It is at the committee level where most of the hard work of passing legislation is done, this is also the level at which so-called special interests or factions have the most influence. Committees are often just a few to maybe twenty or so people, who debate the fine points of each piece of legislation and try to figure out the best ways to make the legislation practical. Due to the smaller number of people in the committees and the relative low visibility of committee meetings, this again allows interest groups to have more influence over the legislation. Before the entire House or Senate votes on a piece of legislation it goes through a committee first. Of course both the House and Senate must past the same legislation before it can become law. There is even a special committee that works to resolve differences in a bill if either part of Congress passes a bill that is similar but somewhat different from the other bill, the final law must be identical in both the House and Senate.

Although most of the committees overlap with each other there are some differences. In the House for example, there is the "Ways and Means Committee, this committee as stipulated in the Constitution is charged with creating all laws regarding taxation. Tax laws must always originate in the House. Once passed, they are referred to the Senate Finance Committee who can either approve or reject the proposed law. All other proposed laws, can originate in either House or Senate and does not have to follow a specific order, although, again, all laws must be approved by both before it becomes an official law. Although the House has a Foreign Affairs committee, it has much less power than the Senate Foreign Relations committee, again because of the Constitution, power is given only to the Senate to approve treaties with foreign countries, the House does not have to approve to make it official. Some other aspects of legislation have changed as well. For example regarding trade, before the Great Depression this was an area that Congress controlled. Trade law involves raising or lowering tariffs on foreign imports. A tariff is like a tax, so this was an area reserved for the Ways and Means Committee. Since the 1930s, more power has been granted to the President to conduct trade deals with Congress taking only a secondary role of approving or disapproving but not directing the content of trade deals. This fairly radical change occurred because Congress tended only to raise tariffs on foreign imports, thus raising the prices of important products for consumers and producers of goods. The reason for this is again due to the influence that lobbyists and interest groups have over members of Congress. The President is not influenced as much by interest groups and so is believed to make trade deals that are more beneficial for the whole of the country and not responsible to specific interests in various states. For example Congressional members in steel producing areas like Pennsylvania would tend to pass laws that would benefit the industry by making foreign imports of steel more expensive, whereas the President might act to lower tariffs on foreign steel since it may be more beneficial for the country as a whole.

Once Congress as a whole has approved a bill it goes to the President for signature, where if signed it becomes an official law. However, the President has what is called "veto power" meaning he can refuse to sign the bill, in which case it will go back to Congress for further debate and amending. Although it is rare, Congress can override a Presidential veto if both parts of Congress approve the bill again with a 2/3 majority in both.

Assignment Choose a section from either of The Washington Post articles. Write out the passage. Explain the meaning of the passage and why you chose it.


  1. "Gerrymandering is at least partly to blame for the lopsided Republican representation in the House. According to an analysis I did last year, the Democrats are under-represented by about 18 seats in the House, relative to their vote share in the 2012 election. The way Republicans pulled that off was to draw some really, really funky-looking Congressional districts.
    Contrary to one popular misconception about the practice, the point of gerrymandering isn't to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it's to give your opponentsa small number of safe seats, while drawing yourself a larger number of seats that are not quite as safe, but that you can expect to win comfortably. Considering this dynamic, John Sides of The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog has argued convincingly that gerrymandering is not what's behind the rising polarization in Congress."

    To me gerrymandering means including equal population size, absence of racial discrimination, compactness and contiguity of districts, preservation of county or municipal boundaries and preservation of communities of interest. Gerrymandering is dividing of the state or county into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.

    To my understanding Gerrymandering can be a benefit the republicans and democrats in various ways it takes on many forms such as political which is typically conducted by the majority party to strengthen or maintain their electoral advantage. Sweetheart or incumbent gerrymander results from an agreement by both major political parties to draw district boundaries to create safe districts known as incumbents. Racial gerrymandering is which was designated to reconstruct poll taxes and literacy tests to suppress African Americans.

    Good Gerrymandering is when you can get compact, evenly distributed districts that on the surface don't look like they're disenfranchising anyone.


    4/18 Assignment - Gerrymandering

    "States can actually control the extent of gerrymandering. Take New York, for example. It's the one state among the eight that has shown a meaningful decrease in the level of gerrymandering across multiple congressional terms. New York also has also set up an independent advisory commission that recommends congressional and state redistricting plans to the state legislature. This commission was set up in 1978, and shortly thereafter the level of gerrymandering in the state peaked and has been declining ever since.

    While the New York legislature is not bound to follow the advisory committee's recommendations, this does suggest that subjecting legislators to some oversight in the redistricting process could rein in their enthusiasm for rigging that process in their favor."

    I chose this passage because a lot of people that I speak to criticize the American government for the systems and policies in place that people will take advantage of. This includes abuse of public assistance; the the freedom for companies to outsource labor while keeping consumer prices high and making a killing off the unrewarded hard work of others; and the notion that lobbying is so effective, that in spite of the Food and Drug Administration in place, we are still sold food that cause cancer, cigarettes are still legal, and drug companies that make fortunes treating, not curing, illnesses at the expense of patients’ lives. Gerrymandering is just another strategy, in which when citizens are not actively involved in the outcome of government actions, individuals in power can and will manipulate the system to best suit the needs of their interests.

    None of this should come as a shock to a civilization that is accepting the proposal to spend billions of dollars to build a stadium in California, while the state is going through a drought that is predicted to eliminate their entire water supply within a year. Our priorities are so out of whack and we are so distracted as a population, that politicians are almost literally carving out the nation we live in at the expense of democracy while we are too busy playing Candy Crush to pay any mind to the results. It took something as simple as a commission, with no real power, that essentially keeps an eye on legislation, to influence the rigging of elections, which I hear is one of the fundamental elements of a democracy. We all want to accept the user agreements and inherit its benefits without reading it. We are past due to get involved, on a massive level, in the systems that govern our lives.