US Congress

CMC Gov 101, Spring 2016

Monday and Wednesday 11AM-12:15 PM Classroom:  Roberts South 102

J.J. Pitney -- Office: 232 Kravis

Telephone: 909/607-4224

Office Hours:  Mon, Tue, Wed, & Thu 1-2 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:

Details Plagiarism or any other form of academic dishonesty will result in referral to the Academic Standards Committee.  See:  Ponder what our registrar said at the end of last semester:

Just in case you find yourself tempted to cut corners, remember that it’s better to turn in your work late, or not to turn it in at all, than it is to turn in something you’ve cheated on.  Since the fall of 2012, we’ve seen an average of 19 academic dishonesty cases per year. These cases resulted in dozens of failing grades, 16 suspensions, and 3 permanent dismissals for students who were found responsible. 
Think about what kind of student you want to be and the value of the degree you’re working so hard to earn, and then act accordingly.

Required Books (make sure that you get the right edition of each book

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


Jan 20:  Introduction

"Congress' approval rating is probably even lower than the Ministry of Magic's when Cornelius Fudge was running the show, so Jimmy Kimmel set out to find out exactly what we all think of our representatives. And by that, we mean he just wanted to see if anyone could name one person in Congress. Yeah, just one. You can probably guess where this is going. Not only could people not name their representatives, but Kimmel's crew also convinced them fictional characters were in office, including Ash Ketchum and Neville Longbottom. "  -- Bill Bradley, Huffington Post.

What are the major functions of Congress?

 Jan 25, 27: Two Political Branches, 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 1, 3: Leaders and Parties           


"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 of legislative leaders, parties, and the rank-and-file?

Feb 8, 10: Elections I

"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 15, 17: Elections II

"Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.'' -- From a tall tale about an attack that Rep. George Smathers purportedly used against Sen. Claude Pepper in 1950

What strategies and tactics do congressional candidates use?  How do campaigns and outside groups raise and spend money?

Feb 22, 24: Legislative Process 


“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? 


Feb 29, Mar 2: Power of the Purse

"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

How does the actual practice of appropriating and budgeting differ from the flowchart?


Mar 7, 9: Oversight

"[House Oversight Chair Jason] Chaffetz, who is now entering his fourth term in Congress, says he sought out [former chair Henry] Waxman when he arrived in Washington in 2009. `I just proactively went up and shook his hand and said I care about this and I admire what he’s done,' Chaffetz says. `Although I disagree with him on just about everything,' Chaffetz says, Waxman is “passionate about [Congress as an] institution, the process by which you do oversight, and the elements and keys to success.' `If you look at his effectiveness, ouch,' Chaffetz says. `He took a bite out of the [Bush] administration and, from that respect, I admire what he did.'" -- Eliana Johnson

Is there a bright line between institutional oversight and partisan warfare?Mar 14, 16: Spring Break

Mar 21, 23: Congress and the Executive I

"I just want to repeat, I'm president, I'm not king. If Congress has laws on the books that says that people who are here who are not documented have to be deported, then I can exercise some flexibility in terms of where we deploy our resources, to focus on people who are really causing problems as a opposed to families who are just trying to work and support themselves. But there's a limit to the discretion that I can show because I am obliged to execute the law. That's what the Executive Branch means. I can't just make the laws up by myself. So the most important thing that we can do is focus on changing the underlying laws." -- President Obama, October 25, 2010.

How do the executive and legislative branches check each other? Do they intrude on each other's legitimate authority?

March 28-31: Legislative Simulation --  Leave evenings open.

Apr 4, 6: Congress and the Executive II

"Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) was prepped for an appropriations hearing on the defense budget when he took his turn Wednesday afternoon, flipping papers on his lap, reading from them and commending the witness for his department’s prompt response to a letter Coats had sent about a military accounting office in his home state. It was all fairly innocuous except for one problem: Coats was in the completely wrong hearing complimenting the wrong witness. After he’d finished a lengthy opening to his question, a staffer slipped Coats a piece of paper. Coats read it to himself, looked up, and said, “I just got a note saying I’m at the wrong hearing."  -- Washington Post, April 3, 2014.

Apr 11, 13: Congress and Others


"But, let’s be honest. Not every bill we are asked to vote on will be perfect and there will be times when the choices we face are less than ideal. We are Members of Congress— that’s part of the job. Too many in our Conference are falling into the pattern of voting no on tough bills while actually hoping the bill passes because they know that the outcome will be even worse if the bill fails." -- House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA)

How do members decide how to vote?  What is the impact of interest groups? What is the relationship of Congress and the judiciary?


Apr 18, 20: National Security 


"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 25, 27: 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 2, 4:  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? 



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