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6. Legislatures: Laying Down the Law, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources



Topic Overview Unit 6

Legislatures: Laying Down the Law

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Identify the variety of legislative bodies in the U.S.

  • Explain the founders' views on the role of Congress in American politics.

  • Identify the full range of meanings attached to the term representation.

  • Describe the need for compromise in a legislative body.

  • Illustrate the conflict between what constituents want and what legislators believe is right.

For the founders of the Constitution, Congress was the central organ of government. In this unit, the role, including the contradictory expectations that Americans have of legislators, is explored in some depth. This unit illustrates the need for compromise in a body filled with individuals representing a wide variety of interests. The unit also explores the contradiction that occurs when legislators find themselves at odds with their constituents. Finally, the unit shows a different, but very important, kind of representation that legislators routinely provide.

Legislatures are a primary instrument of representative democracy. They are highly contentious places where elected officials try to balance the diverse views of their constituents in addressing problems through legislation and other activities. Article I of the U.S. Constitution provides for a bicameral Congress composed of two houses-a Senate and House of Representatives. A reflection of the many compromises made during the Constitutional Convention, Congress's bicameral structure includes equal representation of states in the Senate (two senators per state) and proportional representation based on state populations in the House of Representatives. All states in the U.S. have bicameral legislatures except Nebraska, which has a one-house (unicameral) legislature. In many counties, cities, and townships, elected councils also represent local citizens and legislate on their behalf.

Americans often criticize their legislatures for being paralyzed by partisan struggles and legislators' self-interest. However, many Americans praise the performance of their individual legislators, and often reelect them at high rates. These contradictory attitudes can be explained in part by noting the differences between the lawmaking and representation functions of America's legislatures.

Lawmaking involves translating Americans' often conflicting or unarticulated policy preferences into public policy by passing bills. This requires extensive public debate, committee work, and parliamentary maneuvering to achieve majority legislative support for public policy. The relatively low regard that many Americans hold for Congress reflects in part the complexity of national problems and the legitimate differences people have over what to do about them.

Representation, in contrast, only requires that representatives express the interests of their constituents, or take positions on issues that they think are best for their constituents or the larger public interest. Activities associated with representation include introducing legislation on behalf of constituents, voicing constituents' views and interests through speeches and other public statements, and meeting with constituents and interest groups to hear their concerns. Thus, legislators can represent their constituents in many ways without actually passing new laws.

Building on their English parliamentary heritage, America's constitutional framers placed Congress at the center of national policymaking and required that each state adopt a representative form of government. Congress originally was conceived as the preeminent branch of government with the power to set and enact domestic and foreign policy agendas, and which was supposed to function "closest to the people." The relative powers between America's legislatures and its chief executives, including the president and the 50 governors, vary from state to state, and even from one presidential administration to another. During the twentieth century, however, Congress has lost or ceded powers to the president, including the power to make war and to command national attention.

Besides performing their lawmaking and representative functions, Congress, the state legislatures, and many legislative bodies at the local level engage in other activities including constituency casework and oversight of executive departments and agencies. Casework involves individual legislators helping their constituents solve individual problems with the bureaucracy, such as helping a military veteran receive his disability benefits, or performing other services such as writing a letter of recommendation for a local constituent or providing an office visitor with a complimentary flag. Casework is a non-controversial activity that often endears legislators to individual voters, and ultimately helps them gain support for re-election. It should also be noted, however, that casework is a form of representation. Sometimes, constituents just want to know that someone in the legislature is there to help them.

Another permanent function of legislatures is to evaluate the programs of executive departments and agencies. This function, called legislative oversight, stems from legislatures' budgeting and appropriations responsibilities. Oversight techniques include public hearings to evaluate agency budget requests, audits of agency finances, and investigations of executive agency personnel.

To carry out their legislative responsibilities, individual legislators must balance several interests, including those of their party's leadership, their constituents and organized interests, and their own desire to gain re-election. In fulfilling their responsibilities, some legislators perceive themselves primarily as delegates of their constituencies, doing what their constituents want whether or not they personally believe it's good policy. Other legislators see themselves more as trustees who follow their own judgment on what is right even if it clashes with a majority's preferences.


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