Legislatures: Laying Down the Law
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Identify the variety of legislative bodies in the U.S.
- Explain the founders' views on the role of Congress in American
- Identify the full range of meanings attached to the term representation.
- Describe the need for compromise in a legislative body.
- Illustrate the conflict between what constituents want and what
legislators believe is right.
For the founders of the Constitution, Congress was the central organ
of government. In this unit, the role, including the contradictory
expectations that Americans have of legislators, is explored in
some depth. This unit illustrates the need for compromise in a body
filled with individuals representing a wide variety of interests.
The unit also explores the contradiction that occurs when legislators
find themselves at odds with their constituents. Finally, the unit
shows a different, but very important, kind of representation that
legislators routinely provide.
Legislatures are a primary instrument of representative democracy.
They are highly contentious places where elected officials try to
balance the diverse views of their constituents in addressing problems
through legislation and other activities. Article I of the
U.S. Constitution provides for a bicameral Congress composed
of two houses-a Senate and House of Representatives. A reflection
of the many compromises made during the Constitutional Convention,
Congress's bicameral structure includes equal representation of
states in the Senate (two senators per state) and proportional
representation based on state populations in the House of Representatives.
All states in the U.S. have bicameral legislatures except Nebraska,
which has a one-house (unicameral) legislature. In many counties,
cities, and townships, elected councils also represent local citizens
and legislate on their behalf.
Americans often criticize their legislatures for being paralyzed
by partisan struggles and legislators' self-interest. However, many
Americans praise the performance of their individual legislators,
and often reelect them at high rates. These contradictory attitudes
can be explained in part by noting the differences between the lawmaking
and representation functions of America's legislatures.
Lawmaking involves translating Americans' often conflicting
or unarticulated policy preferences into public policy by passing
bills. This requires extensive public debate, committee work, and
parliamentary maneuvering to achieve majority legislative support
for public policy. The relatively low regard that many Americans
hold for Congress reflects in part the complexity of national problems
and the legitimate differences people have over what to do about
Representation, in contrast, only requires that representatives
express the interests of their constituents, or take positions on
issues that they think are best for their constituents or the larger
public interest. Activities associated with representation include
introducing legislation on behalf of constituents, voicing constituents'
views and interests through speeches and other public statements,
and meeting with constituents and interest groups to hear their
concerns. Thus, legislators can represent their constituents in
many ways without actually passing new laws.
Building on their English parliamentary heritage, America's constitutional
framers placed Congress at the center of national policymaking and
required that each state adopt a representative form of government.
Congress originally was conceived as the preeminent branch of government
with the power to set and enact domestic and foreign policy agendas,
and which was supposed to function "closest to the people."
The relative powers between America's legislatures and its chief
executives, including the president and the 50 governors, vary from
state to state, and even from one presidential administration to
another. During the twentieth century, however, Congress has lost
or ceded powers to the president, including the power to make war
and to command national attention.
Besides performing their lawmaking and representative functions,
Congress, the state legislatures, and many legislative bodies at
the local level engage in other activities including constituency
casework and oversight of executive departments and agencies. Casework
involves individual legislators helping their constituents solve
individual problems with the bureaucracy, such as helping a military
veteran receive his disability benefits, or performing other services
such as writing a letter of recommendation for a local constituent
or providing an office visitor with a complimentary flag. Casework
is a non-controversial activity that often endears legislators to
individual voters, and ultimately helps them gain support for re-election.
It should also be noted, however, that casework is a form of representation.
Sometimes, constituents just want to know that someone in the legislature
is there to help them.
Another permanent function of legislatures is to evaluate the programs
of executive departments and agencies. This function, called legislative
oversight, stems from legislatures' budgeting and appropriations
responsibilities. Oversight techniques include public hearings to
evaluate agency budget requests, audits of agency finances, and
investigations of executive agency personnel.
To carry out their legislative responsibilities, individual legislators
must balance several interests, including those of their party's
leadership, their constituents and organized interests, and their
own desire to gain re-election. In fulfilling their responsibilities,
some legislators perceive themselves primarily as delegates
of their constituencies, doing what their constituents want whether
or not they personally believe it's good policy. Other legislators
see themselves more as trustees who follow their own judgment
on what is right even if it clashes with a majority's preferences.