The Importance of Congressional Structure

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According to David Mayhew, author of Congress: The Electoral Connection, Congress has many different functions that it performs including: “ . . .legislating, overseeing the executive, expressing public opinion, and servicing constituents” (Mayhew 2004, 8). While all these are important to the role Congress plays, the most important ability is the authority to create laws. Congress derives its power to perform its functions and to create laws, from Article I of the Constitution. Although Article I may be oft overlooked, the authority given to Congress from it is critically important to understanding legislative politics. Without structures and rules, Congress would be unable to make laws, would have little authority and could not function properly as a check to the other branches of government.

The structure of Congress consists of several parts including: offices, committees, and parties. Congress consists of 525 offices, which include staff and sizeable salaries. These offices work to not only help the Congressmen while in office but also to aide in campaigning for reelection. Each member of Congress is granted the same office resources, which are huge advantage to incumbents (Mayhew 2004, 84-85).

A second structure of Congress is committees. There are twenty-one standing committees in the House and seventeen in the Senate; each committee serves an important function. Ultimately, the committee system helps the members of Congress by allowing for a division of labor. Congress at large simply does not have the time or expertise needed for every piece of legislation, which is why committees are so important. The small groups can make things happen more effectively than if Congress as a whole had to work on the legislation. A congressional seniority system exists in the committees where over time congressmen can rise to more powerful positions but with increased incumbency and members of Congress staying on longer there is less room for members to move up in the system. A final important part of committees is the ability for congressmen to take credit and feel accomplishment for bills they have worked on and it adds value to their work (Mayhew 2004, 85-96). This can be important when running for reelection because the congressman can promote his participation in certain pieces of legislation he worked on.

A third structure of Congress consists of parties. According to Mayhew, “What is important to each congressman, and vitally so, is that he be free to take positions that serve his advantage” (Mayhew 2004, 99). No member of Congress wants to be told how to vote so parties typically keep the pressure to a minimum. The party leaders do however counsel members to vote one way or another, however it is ultimately up to the congressman to decide how to vote (Mayhew 2004, 97-101). However, some partisan pressure does still remain but is minimal.

All three structures play an important role in the way Congress acts. Without the support of the office, congressmen would have much more difficult time doing their jobs and running for reelection. Not only that, but the offices serve as an equalizer to all Congressmen. It does not matter how much or how little funding the Congressman has, they will be given the same resources. This prevents the richer candidates from having more opportunities and staff than poorer candidates.

Committees and parties also have a great impact on Congressmen. The ability of members of Congress to not feel pressured to vote along party lines is vitally important. The members are elected to represent the constituency not tow the party line. By allowing congressmen the ability to take their own positions it allows them more freedom to stand up for what they feel their voters want and to not be afraid to take certain measures such as, filibustering harmful legislation. Party’s can have some effect on legislation if the President and Congress...
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