US Congress

CMC Gov 101, Spring 2013

Monday and Wednesday Noon-1:10 PM Classroom:  Bauer 23

J.J. Pitney -- Office: 232 Kravis

Telephone: 909/607-4224

Office Hours:  Tuesday and Thursday 1-3 PM 

If these times are inconvenient, please make an appointment


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 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:



The following will make up your course grade:


Two four-page essays    

20% each  

Take-home final 


Simulation & writeup


Class participation/blog:  




Required Books

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


Jan 23:  Introduction

"When asked if they have a higher opinion of either Congress or a series of unpleasant or disliked things, voters said they had a higher opinion of root canals (32 for Congress and 56 for the dental procedure), NFL replacement refs (29-56), head lice (19-67), the rock band Nickelback (32-39), colonoscopies (31-58), Washington DC political pundits (34-37), carnies (31-39), traffic jams (34-56), cockroaches (43-45), Donald Trump (42-44), France (37-46), Genghis Khan (37-41), used-car salesmen (32-57), and Brussels sprouts (23-69) than Congress." -- Public Policy Polling

What are the major functions of Congress?


Jan 28, 30: Two Chambers, Two Congresses, Two Parties     

"The Democrats are the opposition; the real enemy is the Senate." -- Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), repeating an old saying.

 Congress is both a lawmaking bodies and a representative assembly.  It has two distinct chambers with majority and minority parties.  How do these dualities affect its work?

Feb 4, 6: Elections, Hill Style, Home Style

"So why is compromise so hard in the House? ... [The answer could be this instead: individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives. Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk." -- Nate Silver

How do members win election and reelection? Do they present different faces at home and on the Hill?




Feb 11, 13: Leaders and Parties I             


"In all bodies, those who will lead, must also, in a considerable degree, follow. They must conform their propositions to the taste, talent, and disposition, of those whom they wish to conduct: therefore, if an assembly is viciously or feebly composed in a very great part of it, nothing but such a supreme degree of virtue as very rarely appears in the world, and for that reason cannot enter into calculation, will prevent the men of talent disseminated through it from becoming only the expert instruments of absurd projects!" -- Edmund Burke


What is the relationship between legislative leaders and the rank-and-file?

Feb 18, 20: Leaders and Parties II


"When I asked Boehner whether he saw the Republican victory of 2010, which was at least as decisive as Gingrich’s, as a mandate, he seemed almost to recoil. `No, no, noooooo,' he said. `I have watched people in the past deal with this issue, whether it’s Speaker Gingrich, or Speaker Pelosi, or President Obama. And we made a very conscious decision that we were not going to go down that path. The tone that we set is very important. You saw it on Election Night, and you’ve seen it since.'" -- Peter J. Boyer


How have the roles of parties and leaders changed in recent decades?





Feb 25, 27:  Process I  


“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? 

Mar 4, 6: Process II


"The Senate was meant to be a counterbalance for the passions embodied in the House. If some Republicans had their way, and overruled the Senate parliamentarian, and the rules of the Senate were illegally changed so that the majority ruled tyrannically, then the Senate -- billed to all as the world's greatest deliberative body -- would cease to exist." -- Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)


How does procedure affect the quality of deliberation in both chambers?

Mar 11, 13: Decision Making in Congress

"The U.S. Senate voted 89-8 to approve legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff despite having only 3 minutes to read the 154-page bill and budget score. Multiple Senate sources have confirmed to CNS that senators received the bill at approximately 1:36 AM on Jan. 1, 2013 – a mere three minutes before they voted to approve it at 1:39 AM." -- Matt Cover, 1/2/2013

How do members decide how to vote?  What is the relative influence of leadership, constituency, and ideology?

Mar 18, 20: Spring Break


Mar 25, 27: The Public Congress


"Congress is followed by a lot of phonies: a new study shows a large percentage of accounts following legislators on Twitter are fake." -- Alicia M. Cohn, The Hill


How the "outside game" of media politics complement the "inside game" of legislative maneuvering?

Apr 1-4: Legislative Simulation --  Leave evenings open.


Apr 8, 11: Congress and the Other Branches


"If procuring votes with offers of employment is what you intend, I'll fetch a friend from Albany who can supply the skulking men gifted at this kind of shady work." -- William Seward (David Strathairn), in Lincoln.


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

Apr 15, 17:  Lobbies, Budgets, and Domestic Policy


"In phonemarking, a lawmaker calls an agency to request financing for a project. More indirectly, members of Congress make use of what are known as soft earmarks, which involve making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project. Members also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in a federal agency’s budget and then forcefully request that the agency spend the money on the members’ pet project." -- Ron Nixon, New York Times


What is domestic policy?  How does Congress makes decisions on issues such as employment and health care? How do interest groups affect these decisions?




Apr 22, 24: National Security and the Two Congresses


"Politics are changing and you don't want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes." -- "Dan" (Jason Clarke) to "Maya" (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty


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 29, May 1: 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 6, 8:  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


How had divided government worked since the Second World War?  Why has polarization waxed and waned? 



Return to homepage