As several scholars, including the author of a leading textbook on Congress, have observed, the United States Congress can be thought of as two different congresses. By two congresses, we do not mean the bicameral nature of the Congress, one House and one Senate; we will address that subject in the next module. By two congresses, we mean that there is one Congress, an institution in Washington, D.C. that is designed to make laws for the nation, but there are also individuals from a diverse range of districts and states across the nation who are elected to represent their constituents at home. Hence the book is entitled Congress and Its Members, emblematic of Congress as the lawmaking institution and Congress as the collection of representatives who occupy it.
We all know something about lawmaking and representation. You might recall the “How a Bill Becomes a Law” diagram from civics class. Perhaps you have watched the class short film “I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock. You also might have met, heard about, read about, or seen your senator or representative. Some of us have made a donation, volunteered on a campaign, contacted our representative to voice an opinion about an issue, or asked a representative for help with a government-related problem. The representative’s job is to be responsive to constituents and, presumably, to vote the way constituents prefer on bills that make it to the House or Senate floor. Notwithstanding strong partisan feelings, most of us like our individual member of Congress, even though we don’t particularly care for the institution of Congress.
The impressions most people have about Congress and its members are valid, but they are often incomplete; they only begin to describe the processes of lawmaking and representation. In this module, we describe the multi-dimensional nature of representation, compare the Federalist and Antifederalist perspectives of what constitutes good representation, and consider contemporary notions of the concept. We will also explore the constitutional moorings of lawmaking, the legislative decision-making processes and institutions—committees, political parties, and leaders—that have evolved since the Founding, and conventional and unconventional aspects of lawmaking. Finally, we will evaluate the compatibility of the two congresses by considering more closely how they are different and how they might be reconciled.
Throughout this module we want to keep in mind that members of Congress, whether acting as representatives or legislators, are goal-seeking individuals. In varying degrees, members wish to gain re-election, making “good” public policy, and have influence within the House or Senate. Lawmaking and representation are affected by the goals of the members and by the institutional constraints and opportunities presented by the Congress.