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House of Representatives

Overseeing the executive and the bureaucracy is an important function fulfilled by Congress as it proves that the President and his cabinet are not immune from the law, as Congress has the power of impeachment to remove the President if he has been proven to have broken the law, although a President would usually resign if they are about to be impeached, such as Nixon’s resignation after the facts of Watergate came to light.

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Aside from the power to impeach a member of the executive when he is already in office, Congress has to ratify the President’s appointments to such bodies as the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. These nominations usually pose no problems, but in recent years Congress refused to allow John Tower to be appointed to the Bush Cabinet, nearly stopped Judge Clarence Thomas from being appointed to the Supreme Court, and are currently voicing great opposition to Bill Clinton’s nomination for Surgeon-General, after contributing to the resignation of the last one.

This area of Congressional power is usually zealously carried out, especially when the President is a member of one party and Congress is controlled by the other. The third major institutional goal of Congress is that of representation, a role that James Madison laid out, “it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that [Congress] should have an immediate dependency on, and an intimate sympathy with the people” (Rossiter [ed] 1961).

This refers to the House of Representatives, as this is a much more representative institution than the Senate, having constituencies of approximately half a million people each in the House, whilst the Senate has two senators per state (a possible constituency of half of California), and is more of a geographical chamber than a representative one. As Congress is supposed to represent the people, it also has the goal of educating them, for if Congressmen are to know what their constituents want, their constituents must know first.

It is therefore natural for Congress to be the major educative body, for it is the major representative body, and representation and education must both be effective to have true representation. The individual and institutional goals in Congress have been laid out, but the question of how they affect each other still remains, as does the question of how to reconcile them if, indeed, they do differ. To begin to answer this question the aforementioned subject of Committees in Congress must be re-examined, along with the American party system and various other pertinent issues.

The Committee system, as has already been mentioned, is a useful area for Congressmen to engage in electorally useful activities such as credit-claiming and position taking. These two activities seem to clash with legislating, but the Committee system, with its division of labour, allows Congressmen to pursue their electorally useful activities and legislate from the same setting, the Committee, thus taking care of the Members’ individual goals and institutional goals at the same time.

In this situation it could be argued that the Committee system serves as a vehicle to unite the individual and institutional goals by enabling them both to be achieved from the same area, as at the same time that Congressmen are working on legislation in their particular Committee, they can also be working on bringing the benefits of that legislation to their particular constituency, thus heightening their chances of getting re-elected .

The problem arising from this scenario is the fact that the Congressman is working on the ways that a piece of legislation can aid his consistuency, and if he succeeds in bringing benefits to his constituency, then he can be said to have made good public policy for his constituents. The difficulty with this is that while he may succeed in making good public policy for his constituents, this is not necessarily the same as making good national public policy.

A distinction must be made here between good local public policy and good national public policy, with the situation being that for electoral reasons, the individual Congressmen are more interested in making good local policy more than good national policy, as it is the voters of his constituency he is responsable to, not voters on a national scale A major factor in causing this state of affairs is the American party system, and through reform of this it would be possible for voters to give their verdict on a party’s performance on a national scale as opposed to an individual Congressman’s performance on a local scale.

As the system stands, it is difficult to promote a cohesive national party programme (the Republican ‘Contract with America’ is the exception, rather than the rule) due to the fact that the parties have little influence over the individual Congressman, instead it is “the Constituency [that] has a virtually unqualified power to hire and fire. If the member pleases it, no party leader can fatally hurt him; if he does not, no national party can save him” (Huitt & Peabody in Mayhew,1974:75).

There are a number of possible ways to strengthen the American party system, such as eliminating primaries so the party could select candidates to contest a particular seat, limiting individual spending, instead having the party dispense funds from the centre, an idea which would no doubt encourage party loyalty, but which would probably encounter problems on the grounds of it being ‘unconstitutional’.

If the party system was strengthened to become more like the British party system it would encourage more cohesiveness, making the public give their vote according to the performance of a party, not an individual, as the current system promotes. These measures to strengthen the party system would change the whole emphasis in American politics from local to national, also changing the emphasis of the individual goals by elevating the goal of making good national policy and working as part of a unit to get all the members of the same party re-elected, instead of spending all the time making sure that only one person gets re-elected.

This would reconcile the two sets of goals, but would mean changing the whole philosophy of American politics to that of communitarianism, instead of the individualism that currently rules and would destroy the unique link between an individual Congressman and his constituents. While changing the party system would be one possible way of reconciling the two sets of goals to a greater extent, another possible solution to the problem could be longer terms for House members.

This would give them some breathing space from their constant electioneering to concentrate on making national policy as well as local, and could be achieved without totally changing the whole system like a large-scale reform of the party system would. The current Congressional system is very fragmented, with 435 Representatives all trying to get a good deal for their constituents to the detriment of legislating for the national benefit.

It is surprising that such an institution that “bleeds from 435 separate cuts” (Fenno,1978 in Mayhew,1974:43) still functions and does not fragment further into 435 Representatives at perpetual war with each other, each trying to secure benefits for their constituents to the detriment of everything else.

The reason that it does not is that a Member who is going to make a career in Congress does not want it to get completely devalued as an institution because he, by association, would also become devalued, so he has an interest in keeping the institution as a whole from becoming diminished in the eyes of the public, an interest which can conflict with his re-election goal, but helps Congress continue to function.

To conclude, the fact that the individual and institutional goals in Congress can conflict with one another has been proved, but they do not necessarily conflict all the time, as in some circumstances they can overlap and even complement each other, depending on how a situation is viewed.

What may look like two totally opposite goals can, in a certain situation, complement each other so that Congressmen who are working for their own interests can also be working for the interests of the institution as a whole.


Cain, B et al : 1987 “The Personal Vote. Constituency Service and Electoral Independence” Harvard University Press, Mass. , U. S. A. Davidson R. H. & Oleszek W. J. : 1985.


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