The Constitution created the powers and institutional framework that have guided Congress since 1789. But, as we learned in the previous three modules, the framers left many of the details about lawmaking, representation, bicameralism, and separation of powers to the future. This module focuses on the development of three essential decision making institutions of Congress: committees, political parties, and party leadership. The framers were familiar with the utility of committees, concerned about the dangers of political parties, and aware of the importance of leadership. But with the exception of a few leadership offices—the Speaker of the House, the Vice President and president pro tempore as presiding officers of the Senate—the Constitution does not mention those institutions. How and why have committees, parties, and leaders developed over time?
We will begin with a few general points about the purposes of congressional institutions and the causes and consequences of development and change. Then we will describe and explain the major developments in the roles of committees, parties, and leaders during seven time periods from 1789 to the present.
[One caveat is worth noting. Scholars have defined historical periods of congressional development in various ways, typically focusing on one of the three institutions: committees, political parties, or party leadership. The approach here is to specify time periods based on major developments in all three institutions. Since political history is rarely neat and tidy, one can certainly imagine different classification schemes and place major developments in different time periods than we will in this module. Moreover, since we will be skimming the surface of history, some tolerance for omissions is in order. Curiosity knows no bounds, though, so please consult additional sources for more information and analysis of each historical period.]