6. Congress: The People's Branch?
The United States Capitol building, the home of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Congress makes laws.
Despite promises made by presidential candidates, the President has no direct power to pass any legislation. This very important power lies solely with the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The People's Influence
Americans elect their Senators and Representatives. One very important question posed by a democratic government involves how elected representatives should behave once sworn into office. Should members of Congress reflect the will of the people, or should they pay attention to their own points of view, even if they disagree with their constituents? Many considerations influence the voting patterns of members of Congress, including the following:
Congress is a symbol of the people's political power. Here, a Texas Congressman talks with students about violence in schools.
- Constituents' Views. Members of Congress often visit their home districts and states to keep in touch with their constituents' views. They also read their mail, keep in touch with local and state political leaders, and meet with their constituents in Washington. Some pay more attention than others, but they all have to consider the views of the folks back home. Completely ignoring one's constituency would be foolhardy if the politician hoped at all to be reelected.
- Party Views. Congress is organized primarily along party lines, so party membership is an important determinant of a member's vote. Each party develops its own version of many important bills, and party leaders actively pressure members to vote according to party views. It is not surprising that Representatives and Senators vote along party lines about three-fourths of the time.
- Personal Views. What if a Representative or Senator seriously disagrees with the views of his constituents on a particular issue? How should he or she vote? Those who believe that personal views are most important argue that the people vote for candidates whose judgment they trust. If the people disagree with their decisions, they can always vote them out of office.
The Nature of Democratic Discourse
Gridlock can occur when the legislative branch of Congress and the executive branch of the President are led by different political parties. Coming to agreement on new legislation during these periods of divided government can prove difficult. American voters can become frustrated by the inability of their leaders to move forward.
The Continental Congress (1774-1789) began as a tool to organize against Britain, but became the body that would discuss the responsibilities of independence.
Yet this expectation for a smoothly running government contradicts the very nature of democratic discourse. How can representatives resolve the differences if they do not discuss them, argue about them, and eventually take sides on a solution? The nature of democratic discourse is to hear from everyone, hammer out compromises, and make decisions based on the process.
Voters may think of their own Representatives or Senators as good people fighting the corruption and selfish greed of the others. Incumbent candidates often encourage this thinking like by claiming to have "saved" the district from disaster through their good works. It helps them win elections.
Despite all the complaints about divided government, Americans seem to prefer it based on their voting patterns. Since 1981, the same party has controlled the presidency, the House, and the Senate for only two years. Divided government prevents any one party from moving too quickly with their legislative agenda. Perhaps this cautious approach to new legislation is exactly what Americans want.