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6. Legislatures: Laying Down the Law, Using the Video
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources

Classroom Applications Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion Watch the Video and Discuss Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion



Using the Video Unit 6

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • Can legislatures ever be efficient policymakers?

  • Should they be efficient?

  • How does Congress represent the founders' intent to provide for a series of checks and balances?

  • Legislatures are chaotic places. Why?

  • Should legislators represent their constituents or the larger political system?

Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes) [Top]

The video includes three segments:

1. Campaign Finance Reform

For nearly seven years, a small bipartisan group of reformers in Congress fought to get a bill passed that would deal with the pervasive influence of money in American politics. Their proposed bill represented the first major change in campaign finance rules since Congress passed far-reaching amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1974. The new campaign finance reform bill would prohibit corporations, unions, and other interests from donating unregulated soft money, which includes union dues and shareholder investments, to political parties or to individual politicians. The bill that passed was the result of significant compromise with various interests in and out of Congress. Although the campaign bill wasn't what all of its supporters wanted, it was what could command the support of a majority of Congress.

Discussion Questions

  • After years of pushing for campaign finance reform, supporters were strengthened in their efforts by the scandal that erupted over Enron. Can you think of other times when unpredictable outside forces created the opportunity for major legislative action?

  • The campaign finance bill was, in the end, passed because several legislators were willing to compromise and accept some provisions that they were not happy to support. What does this tell us about legislators and the legislative process?

  • Is the bipartisan support for the campaign finance bill really that unusual?

2. Standing Up for a Cause You Don't Support

This story contrasts the efforts of Oregon's two U.S. senators on the so-called Death With Dignity law, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of controlled substances to terminally ill adults who request them. Through two direct ballot initiatives, one to create the law and one to decide whether or not to repeal it, Oregonians twice voted in favor of assisted suicide. Both Republican Senator Gordon Smith and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden personally opposed the assisted suicide law. But once Congress challenged Oregon's law as a violation of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, the senators had to decide where they stood on Congress's challenge, and how much they should let the views of Oregonians sway their position. In the end, each had to decide if he was a delegate or a trustee.

Discussion Questions

  • What interests should a representative represent?

  • What should a legislator do if the constituents' views clash with the representative's?

  • Should legislators do what is best for their constituents or what is best for the nation?

3. My Door Is Always Open: A Profile of Representative Wayne Gilchrist

One part of a legislator's life that is little appreciated by most of us is the extraordinary amount of time they spend in helping their constituents on a variety of matters including requests for aid in untangling bureaucratic red tape, personal references, and specific information on a wide variety of policy topics. To meet their constituents' needs, most representatives maintain large staffs in their Capitol Hill and home district offices. Although this kind of work is often denigrated as casework or errand running, it is important to recognize it as a form of representation.

Discussion Questions

  • What kinds of services should legislators perform for their constituents?

  • Are there services that legislators should not provide?

  • What is it that constituents want from legislators?


Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes) [Top]

Try the Critical Thinking activity for Unit 6. This is a good activity to use with your students, too.

1. Are Our Legislators Like Us, and Does It Matter? (20 minutes)

While in theory legislatures are primary mechanisms of popular sovereignty that help to carry out the consent of the governed, in demographic terms America's legislators are more white, male, and older than the American population as a whole. Some Americans think that this undermines representation, while others believe that legislators can effectively represent people who are different from them.

The following statistics compare the demographic characteristics of the 107th Congress with the entire population of the United States. Examine the following statistics. Note how certain categories in society are underrepresented in Congress while other categories are over-represented. Then consider whether "good representation" requires that Congress "mirror" the country as a whole, or whether an "atypical" Congress can represent all interests in society. Try to think of examples of this, such as men who champion women's rights, or wealthy legislators who fight for the interests of the poor. Do these examples undermine the view that Congress members and senators should be more diverse? Why or why not? Consider the issue as what "good representation" really means, and what it requires in practical terms.

White Men in Congress
House: 336 (77%)
Senate: 87 (87%)
Congress as a whole: 426 (79%)
U.S. as a whole: 39%

Women in Congress
House: 61 (14%)
Senate: 13 (13%)
Congress as a whole: 74 (14%)
U.S. as a whole: 51%

African Americans in Congress
House: 39 (9%)
Senate: 0
Congress as a whole: 39 (7%)
U.S. as a whole: 12%

Hispanics in Congress
House: 18 (4%)
Senate: 0
Congress as a whole: 18 (3%)
U.S. as a whole: 8%

Asians in Congress
House: 5 (1%)
Senate: 2 (2%)
Congress as a whole: 7 (1%)
U.S. as a whole: 3%

Gays (openly) in Congress
House: 3 (0.7%)
Senate: 0
Congress as a whole: 3 (0.6%)
U.S. as a whole: 12%

Members Over 70 Years Old

House: 34 (8%)
Senate: 9 (9%)
Congress as a whole: 43 (8%)
U.S. as a whole: 8%

Members Under 40 Years Old
House: 42 (9%)
Senate: 1 (1%)
Congress as a whole: 43 (8%)
U.S. as a whole: 46%

Jews in Congress
House: 27 (6%)
Senate: 10 (10%)
Congress as a whole: 37 (7%)
U.S. as a whole: 2%

Catholics in Congress
House: 120 (27%)
Senate: 24 (24%)
Congress as a whole: 144 (27%)
U.S. as a whole: 23%

Baptists in Congress
House: 60 (14%)
Senate: 8 (8%)
Congress as a whole: 68 (13%)
U.S. as a whole: 11.7%

Methodists in Congress
House: 51 (12%)
Senate: 14 (14%)
Congress as a whole: 65 (12%)
U.S. as a whole: 5%

Mormons in Congress
House: 12 (3%)
Senate: 5 (5%)
Congress: 17 (3%)
U.S. as a whole: 2%

Presbyterians in Congress
House: 38 (9%)
Senate: 10 (10%)
Congress as a whole: 48 (9%)
U.S. as a whole: 3%

2. Bringing Home the Bacon and Representing the Constituents (10 minutes)

Members of Congress, state legislatures, and even local government legislators are generally expected to provide financial benefits for their communities. In Congress, this expectation is called bringing home the bacon and the bills whereby special projects or lucrative grants are earmarked for particular districts are referred to as pork. Discuss these expectations as a problem of representation. Should legislators do this? Is this good public policy? If it isn't good public policy, who is to blame: the legislators or their constituents?



Homework [Top]

Read the following Readings from Unit 7 to prepare for next week's session.

  • Introduction-The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: "The Executive Power"

  • Federalist Papers: "Federalist No. 69"

  • Jackson, "On Indian Removal"

  • Lincoln, The Emancipation Proclamation

Read next week's Topic Overview.


Classroom Applications [Top]

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: Are Legislators Like Us, and Does It Matter? and Bringing Home the Bacon and Representing the Constituents. They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.



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