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Legislative Process

Q: What are the causes of public discontent over the legislature?

A: The public discontent of congress has been on a steady decline for many years, and this present congress has a public approval rating of 12%. Surprisingly, individual congressmen generally enjoy higher approval ratings than congress as a whole. Keefe and Ogul discuss in “The American Legislative Process” some of the reasons for this discontent. Let’s look at what they say.

1.The legislature is not sufficiently responsive to majority preferences either in the electorate or within the institution itself. What they are saying is that many times public policy is shaped by a select coalition of individuals regardless of what the majority of voters want, or what the majority of members of congress want. The status quo is what is preferred many times, therefore sharp changes in policy rarely occur. An example are issues like stem cell research, gay marriage, and abortion. Most public opinion polls show that the majority of citizens are in favor of these “hot button issues”, but congress resist changing public policy in response to majority opinions. The current health care debate is an example of how majority preferences in congress are ignored because of a small coalition of congressmen that have the power to block legislation.

2. Legislative politics and public policy formation are dominated by organized special interest groups. Interest groups or lobbyist are people who represent a particular organization whose sole job is to influence legislators in Washington. They not only have the power to changet public policy, but they also have the power to decide who wins elections. Political endorsements are key to getting elected, and certain interest groups have the power to sway elections. For example, a candidate in a conservative district can gain more votes by getting the endorsement from the NRA(a special interest group which supports individual gun rights and usually backs conservative candidates). Along with the NRA, some other major interest groups are labor unions, teacher unions, farmers unions, along with many more.

3. The legislature is seldom a force for innovation. This criticism rests on the belief that few if any significant changes are likely to result from a new session of the legislature. The caution and conservatism of the legislature, its unwillingness to experiment, and its inability to cast free from conventional ties have served to stunt the interest of the public. The evolution of congress is generally much slower than the evolution of ideas amongst the public.

4. Institutional arrangements in the legislature obscure the publics view of the decision-making process and, moreover, make it difficult to fix responsibility for actions taken by government. What they are saying here is that the legislative functions in a way that makes it hard to follow the course of a bill through the legislative process. It goes through many committees and changes many times, that it is hard to give credit or place blame on one particular legislator or political party as a whole.

5. The legislature is populated by insecure and timorous individuals whose principal aim is to stay in office. Most legislators are career politicians, meaning their main goal is to get elected in a political office and to either stay in office, or move up the political ladder. This causes some politicians to lose touch with their voters and become more responsive to institutional leaders.

Q: How does a bill become a law?

A: The first step is the origination of bill by resolution, joint resolution, or concurrent resolution by an executive agency, political interest group, individual member, or a bill drafting agency. The bill is then introduced by a member of the House of Representatives. The constitution specifies that revenue bills originate in the House and custom dictates that appropriation bills originate in the House as well. The bill is then referred to a standing committee by House leadership. While in the committee the bill can possibly be referred to a subcommittee or be debated in a closed or open hearing. The committee can disregard, defeat, accept and report, amend and report, or rewrite the bill. The bill then goes to the House floor for debate. There are several readings of the bill, and then it is either passed or defeated. After this process, the bill goes to senate and goes through the same process as in the House. After floor debate in the Senate, a bill can go to a conference committee which may be requested if House and Senate versions of the bill differ. These committees are composed of managers from each house who vote separately and each house must concur in the conference report. If passed, the bill is signed by the Speaker and Vice-President. Then the bill goes to the President’s desk where he or she has the power to approve, veto, “pocket veto”, or permit the bill to become law without signature.

Q: What are the functions of the legislature?
A: There are many functions the legislature must cary out, but the most important is making laws. As mentioned earlier, the law making process is very complicated and goes through a strict process that takes up much of legislators time. Another function of the legislature is to check the administration. Their supervisory role consists of questioning, reviewing and assessing, modifying, and rejecting policies of the administration. For example, Congress has the power to override a Presidents veto power by 2/3 majority vote. Congress also has the power to appoint or reject the President’s appointments for administrative or judicial positions. The American political system calls for a process of checks and balance, and congress adheres to this by checking the executive branch. Also a function of the legislature is to educate the public. Legislators have the responsibility to inform the public on policy decisions. The law making process is so complicated that it must be explained in a way that average citizens can understand. This is however a two way street, and the public must also be engaged in political matters. Representing constituents, localities, and interest is another major function of the legislature. It should be the duty of legislators to work for and in the interest of their constituents. They are supposed to represent the ideals and values that the people who voted for them share. However, many legislators are not responsive to their districts needs or request because they are able to get elected anyway. Two minor functions of the legislature is the judicial function and leadership selection. This judicial function occurs when congress judges the election and qualification of its members, punishing and expelling members for contempt or disorderly behavior, and impeaching and removing from office members of the executive and judicial branches. The process of counting electoral college votes falls under the leadership selection function. The constitution also devolves to Congress the power to determine the order of presidential succession to be followed in the event that the offices of presidency and vice-presidency are vacant.

Q: What is a legislative norm? Discuss the key norms that guide legislators in their duties.
A: All human institutions seek to maintain and guarantee their survival by establishing norms of conduct that apply to their members. These norms preserve the status quo and hinders any kind of major reform in how congress operates. Here are some of the key norms of congress.
1. Until recently, apprenticeship was an especially powerful norm in Congress. New members were expected to serve under existing ones to learn the ropes and rules of the game before engaging in any legislative matters.
2. Another norm is members should give substantial attention to legislative work, even though much of it is tedious and politically unimportant.
3. Specialization is another key norm that is less potent than in the past. Members of Congress are expected to restrict their interest, and focus on limited fields of legislation, ordinarily those that fall within their committee assignments or those that have major significance for their states or districts.
4. The norm of reciprocity is an outgrowth of the need of both individual legislators and legislative blocs to aggregate support for their positions. Reciprocity activates the legislature, prompts members to examine problems from the vantage point of their colleagues, underlines bargains of all kinds, helps members to extricate bills from legislative bogs, promotes state delegation unity, and explains voting behavior on numerous proposals.
5. The idea of institutional patriotism is the final congressional norm. Members are expected to display loyalty to the institution and publicly criticizing the institution is frowned upon