US Congress

CMC Gov 101, Spring 2010 

Monday and Wednesday 2:45-4:00 Classroom:  Bauer 23

J.J. Pitney -- Office: D16 Center Court

Telephone: 909/607-4224

Office Hours:  Monday and Wednesday 11AM-noon, 4:15-5:15 PM 

If these times are inconvenient, please make an appointment

 Email:  Alternate email:


See also my Congress Links page.



Like a vast picture thronged with figures of equal prominence and crowded with elaborate and obtrusive details, Congress is hard to see satisfactorily and appreciatively at a single view and from a single stand-point.  Its complicated forms and diversified structure confuse the vision, and conceal the system which underlies its composition.  It is too complex to be understood without effort, without a careful and systematic process of analysis.       

             -- Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government 

In this course, we shall undertake such analysis.  We shall ask how lawmakers behave at home and on Capitol Hill.  We shall study Congress's procedures and structures, with an eye to explaining why some bills pass while others languish. 


Class sessions will include lecture and discussion.  Finish each week's readings before class because our discussions will involve those readings.  We shall also talk about breaking news stories about Congress, so you must read a good daily news source such as The Politico or Real Clear Politics.


Our class blog is at  I shall post videos, graphs, news stories, and other material there.  We shall use some of this material in class, and you may review the rest at your convenience.   You will all receive invitations to post to the blog.  (Please let me know if you do not get such an invitation.)  I encourage you to use the blog in these ways:

As part of your class participation grade, all students must post to the blog at least twice.


 The following will make up your course grade:

One three-page essay                             


One five-page essay                              


Legislative simulation                                


Final exam                            


Class participation/blog                     




Required Books

Schedule  The schedule is subject to change, with advance notice. 

Jan 20:  Introduction

"Ron Howard is about to make a risky career move. His friend and collaborator, Russell Crowe, is waxing poetic about Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal and laws passed by Parliament to battle the Great Depression when Howard musters the courage to interrupt the star. `Pssst,' Howard says, leaning over, his mouth cupped. `It's Congress. Congress passes the laws in the U.S.'" -- USA Today 5-24-05

What are the major functions of Congress?

Jan 25, 27: Two Chambers, Two Congresses     

"Larry, you know, one of the things that's most troublesome to me, having come from a state legislature, is the lack of interaction between the House and the Senate. You know, there's just an institutional barrier there. And I tell you this, I'm not really sure what's going on." -- Rep. Barney Frank (D--MA)

What are the "two Congresses"?  Do lawmakers present different faces on Capitol Hill and at home? What are the major differences between the House and Senate? 



Feb 1, 3: Elections              

"I think Katrina just did us a big favor, to be crass about it." -- Then-DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel, 2005.

Who runs for the House and Senate? How do House and Senate elections differ?

Feb 8, 10: Leaders, Followers and Parties

"Having five children in six years is the best training in the world for speaker of the House.   It made me the ultimate multitasker and the master of focus, routine and scheduling."  -- Nancy Pelosi

Do leaders drive the rank-and-file members, or merely reflect their views?  What is the connection between congressional parties and electoral parties? How does majority or minority status change the way lawmakers do their work?

Feb 15, 17: Legislative Process I

"The problem with hotlining bills is they don't get due deliberation. Here is a stack of bills that were offered by unanimous consent in the Senate before the August break. Most of the Senators had never read the bills, didn't know what was in the bills. Thankfully, many of them were objected to by Members of the Senate. It is not a good way to legislate." -- Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Do lawmakers actually read or write the bills?  What are the strategies and tactics of legislative drafting? What do committees do?  How do they differ from one another?



Feb 22, 24:  Legislative Process II  

“If you let me write procedure and I let you write substance, I'll screw you every time.” -- Rep. John Dingell (D-MI)     

How does the majority try to control the floor?  How can the minority overcome the majority's procedural advantage?  How does Congress deliberate on issues?     

Mar 1, 3: Congress and the President

"A reporter reminded the San Francisco Democrat that in 2008, then-candidate Obama opined that all such negotiations be open to C-SPAN cameras.  `There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail,' quipped Pelosi, who has no intention of making the deliberations public.  People familiar with Pelosi's thinking wasted little time in explaining precisely what she meant by a `number of things' – saying it reflected weeks of simmering tension on health care between two Democratic power players who have functioned largely in lock-step during Obama’s first year in office.: -- The Politico 1/1/10

In the struggle between Congress and the president, what circumstances favor each side?  How does the president try to influence Congress?

Mar 8, 10:  Congress and the Bureaucracy

"Can I quit now? Can I go home?" -- FEMA director Michael Brown, during Hurricane Katrina

How do bureaucratic and congressional structures affect each other?  Do "iron triangles" actually exist?  How well does Congress oversee the bureaucracy?

Mar 15, 17: Spring Break

Mar 22, 24:  Congress, Courts, and Interest Groups

"Depending on whose party is running the show, the arguments about how judges should be confirmed has gone back and forth like a windshield wiper. When the GOP was out of power, Republicans pounded the table about their responsibility to study the records of the nominees, while the Democrats insisted the president deserved deference. Flip things around and — boom — the Republicans want deference and the Dems bust out the Federalist Papers." -- Jonah Goldberg

How do interest groups try to influence judicial confirmations and other decisions?

Mar 29-Apr 1: Legislative Simulation -- Legislative sessions may run from Monday through Friday nights.  Leave evenings open. 

“Termination of fecundation.” -- 1998 simulation

April 5, 7: Congress and Interest Groups

"At least 166 former aides from the nine congressional leadership offices and five committees involved in shaping health overhaul legislation – along with at least 13 former lawmakers – registered to represent at least 338 health care clients since the beginning of last year, according to the analysis. Their health care clients spent $635 million on lobbying over the past two years, the study shows. The total of insider lobbyists jumps to 278 when non-health-care firms that reported lobbying on health issues are added in, the analysis found."  - Chicago Tribune, 12/20/09

In the relationship between Congress and interest groups, which is more prevalent:  bribery by lobbyists, or extortion by lawmakers?

April 12, 14: Budgets and Domestic Policy 

"They sought to secure money for their favorite causes outside of the congressional appropriations process -- a practice that lobbyists and appropriations insiders call `phonemarking.'" -- Washington Post report on how lawmakers reacted to curbs on "earmarking"

How does Congress manage budgets, appropriations, and revenue legislation?  How much federal spending is controllable?  How do budgetary and policy goals shape each other?


April 19, 21: National Security, Homeland Security, and Foreign Policy 

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball. -- Jeff Stein interview with Silvestre Reyes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee


Can Congress effectively check the executive branch in wartime?  Do lawmakers have the expertise and information to make decisions about national and homeland security?

Apr 26, 28: Reviewing Congressional History I

"It quickly became clear that there is nothing new or unusual about the pattern of sharp partisanship shown in the past two presidential elections and in the frequent battles on Capitol Hill. David Brady of Stanford University made the point that the late 19th century and parts of the 20th century were also times of party warfare; the anomaly was the relative truce for roughly 25 years after World War II."  -- David Broder

How does today's Congress compare with that of the past?  Have lawmakers gotten better or worse?

May 3, 5:  Reviewing Congressional History II

"It may take courage to battle one's president, one's party, or the overwhelming sentiment of one's nation; but these do not compare, it seems to me, to the courage required of the Senate defying the angry power of the very constituents who control his future."  -- John F. Kennedy

Will Congress yield more ground to the White House? Have the two chambers become more alike?  Are the two Congresses ultimately compatible? 



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