US Congress

CMC Gov 101, Spring 2019

Monday and Wednesday 11AM -12:15 PM Classroom:  Bauer 36

J.J. Pitney -- Office: 232 Kravis, Telephone: 909/607-4224

Office Hours: Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 1-2 PM, Friday 11 am - noon.

If these times are inconvenient, please make an appointment

 Email:  and Web:

See also my Congress Links page.



Woodrow Wilson wrote: "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."  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 Required Books [Make sure that you get the correct editions of the Davidson and Thurber books.]

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


Jan 23:  Introduction

"The art of the compromise,
Hold your nose and close your eyes.
We want our leaders to save the day,
But we don't get a say in what they trade away."
-- Lin-Manuel Miranda, "The Room Where It Happens," -- our class anthem

What are the major functions of Congress?


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

"In the House of Representatives, an institution of 435 people that is incredibly diverse, getting enough people in common cause – 218 people to pass anything – is a real challenge. But particularly one of the big differences between the House and the Senate is if you’re in the House of Representatives, and you happen to be in the minority party, whatever that might be’s almost an abject minority because the rules of the House control the process in such a way that the majority largely controls everything primarily through a traffic cop called the Rules Committee
." -- Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ)

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




Feb 4, 7:  Congressional Elections

"Everyone up here has politics in his blood. Kind of like herpes." -- Senator John Neely Kennedy (R-LA)

How do congressional candidates emerge onto the scene? What accounts for the party balance in the House and Senate?

Feb 11, 13 : Parties and Leadership

"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 leaders and followers influence each other on Capitol Hill?

Feb 18, 20: Process  I

"The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting." -- Chief Justice John Roberts


Who writes the bills, and how?  What is the role of congressional committees? 


Feb 25, 27:  Process II  

"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. Spare me the indignity of actually speaking to Democrats. Spare you the exposure and liability."  -- William Seward (David Strathairn) in Lincoln

How do members decide how to vote?  What is the relative influence of leadership, constituency, and ideology?  How the "outside game" of media politics complement the "inside game" of legislative maneuvering?

Mar 4, 6:  The Art of the Political Deal

"When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game
But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game."
-- Lin-Manuel Miranda, "The Room Where It Happens" 

How do lawmakers engage in deliberation and bargaining?
Mar 11, 13: Congress and the Executive I

"It's a temper tantrum by the president. I'm a mother of five, grandmother of nine. I know a temper tantrum when I see one."-- Speaker Nancy Pelosi

How do the executive and legislative branches check each other? Do they intrude on each other's legitimate authority?
Mar 18, 20:  Spring Break

Mar 25, 27:  Congress and the Executive II

"It is often difficult to separate the merits of the underlying policies from the means used to achieve them. It so happens that I agree with many of the goals of the Administration in the various areas where the President has circumvented Congress. However, in the Madisonian system, it is often more important how you do things than what you do." -- Prof. Jonathan Turley

How does Congress try to control the bureaucracy?


Apr 8, 10:  Oversight and the Courts

"Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request..." 26 U.S. Code 6103

How does Congress try to influence the composition of the judiciary?  How do the branches battle over control of information?  

Apr 15, 17: Budgets and Domestic Policy

"This Act may be cited as the `Stop the Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In The coming Years Act.'" [aka, The "Stop STUPDITY Act"] -- Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)


What is domestic policy?  How does Congress makes decisions on issues such as employment and health care? 

Apr 22, 24: National Security, the Two Congresses, and Political Courage


"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? What is political courage?


Apr 29, May 1: Reviewing Congressional History I


"[B]etween 1830 and 1860, there were more than seventy violent incidents between congressmen in the House and Senate chambers or nearby streets and dueling grounds, most of them long forgotten...I found canings, duel negotiations, and duels; shoving and fistfights; brandished pistols and bowie knives; wild melees in the House; and street fights with fists and the occasional brick." -- Joanne Freeman, The Field of Blood.


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? 


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