The Constitution’s framework for lawmaking reflects the primary role of Congress in a process that involves the President. The institutions, rules, and procedures that have been incorporated over time have made lawmaking complex, multi-faceted, and political. It is worth pausing to identify a few major consequences First, lawmaking takes time, usually a lot of time. Second, there is no single, one-size-fits-all legislative process; rather, a bill can take several different paths through the Congress. Third, lawmaking requires compromise and bargaining among members of Congress and stakeholders of a bill, including relevant executive agencies and interests groups. Finally, lawmaking requires skillful leaders to maneuver bills through the process, leaders who listen to arguments, find consensus, persuade others, and deploy tactics to build coalitions.
Reconciling the Two Congresses
Congressional scholars have highlighted the tensions between the two primary functions of Congress. Representation and lawmaking require different modes of action that are often in conflict with each other. As the table below indicates, representation requires individual member actions geared mainly toward serving local, constituent interests, and it favors expression of ideas, minority rights, and decentralized decision-making structures. Lawmaking requires collective action on national issues, and it favors integration of ideas, majority rule, and centralized leadership.
Conflicting Functions of Representation and Lawmaking
Representation – Lawmaking
Promote Individual Interests – Pursue Collective Action
Expression of Ideas/Opinions – Integration of Diverse Preferences
Allow for Minority Interest – Facilitate Majority Rule
Decentralize decision making – Centralize Power under Party Leadership
Favor Local/Constituent Interests – Address National Interests
Executive Agency Oversight as Constituent Service – Oversight to Improve Laws and Policy Implementation
However, the functions of Congress are not always at odds, for several reasons:
First, decisions made by individual members of Congress are not always based on constituent opinions. Representatives have no choice but to deal with national issues, and in such cases members may take a trustee approach to representation. Member decisions may be based on any one or a combination of several factors: constituent interests, party affiliation, ideology, personal beliefs, or knowledge of a bill’s anticipated effects based on facts derived from deliberation in the lawmaking process.
Second, congressional leaders may deploy tactics or strategies that combine representation and lawmaking. Party leaders may use committee assignments to advance an individual member’s prospect of winning re-election, or perhaps to improve lawmaking. For example, party leaders in the House have traditionally favored appointing members from electorally-safe districts to prestigious committees that deal with important national issues like taxes or budgeting. This gives the members leeway, if necessary, to make unpopular decisions on divisive issues. Leaders may also facilitate both representation and lawmaking by scheduling floor votes for bill that advance the party’s collective priorities but do not harm local opinions of the members.
Finally, on some occasions, individual members are linked to the collective performance of the institution. When one party hold majorities in both houses, especially if it is the same party as the president, the public can assign credit or blame to members of the majority party. In such situations, the fate of incumbents running for re-election can depend as much on the voters’ impressions of Congress as those of individual representatives. The majority party has the potential to fuse together the two congresses, for better or worse.
Our goal has been to go beyond basic notions of Congress, describe the complex nature of representation and lawmaking, and evaluate the relationship between the two congresses. Just as there is no single “Congress,” there is no single approach to representation or lawmaking. The two functions are often at odds with one another because the pursuit of representation by individual members often conflicts with the demands of lawmaking by a collection of individuals. The dual nature of Congress poses challenges for members of Congress and party leaders. But the functions of representation and lawmaking are not always incompatible—the policy agenda, member goals, leader actions, and party control are the primary means of reconciling lawmaking and representation.