Teaching about the U.S. Congress. ERIC Digest.
by Vontz, Thomas S. - Drake, Sarah E.
The United States Congress is a central institution of government in
the United States. It is also a central focus in many social studies classrooms.
This ERIC Digest treats constitutional foundations of Congress, development
of Congress, and World Wide Web resources for teaching about Congress.
Disagreements about the structure, functions, and powers of Congress
were prominent at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Two proposals,
the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, framed debates about Congress.
In response to the impotence of Congress under the Articles of Confederation,
both plans were designed to increase the power of the national government,
The Virginia Plan called for a two-house legislature: one to be elected
by the people and the other to be chosen by the first house. The plan also
called for proportional representation based on the population of each
Delegates from states with small populations vehemently opposed the
Virginia Plan because it diminished their power in Congress relative to
the states with large populations. According to the New Jersey Plan, each
state would continue to have equal representation in the unicameral Congress
of the United States.
Settling the disagreement over representation in Congress was crucial
to the success of the Convention. The Convention eventually made the "Great
Compromise." It provided for a two-house legislature in which states were
represented on the basis of population in the House of Representatives
and represented equally in the Senate.
The structure of Congress set forth in the Constitution (see Article
I, Sections 1-4) provides for a bicameral legislature consisting of two
distinct houses. The House of Representatives is composed of members elected
by the eligible voters of each state for a two-year term of office. It
is led by a Speaker and has the exclusive power to raise revenue. The Senate
is composed of fewer members, two from each state, selected by the state
legislatures (this provision was amended in 1917 with passage of the 17th
Amendment, which provides for election of Senators by popular vote). The
Senator's term of office is six years. It is led by the Vice President
of the United States and has the exclusive power of advice and consent
with regard to Presidential appointments and treaties. The disparity between
respective term lengths for the two Houses of Congress serves as a mutual
The Constitution also creates a government in which power is divided
between the national and state governments, separated and shared among
three branches of government, and limited by the supreme law of a written
Constitution. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates seventeen
powers of Congress and an eighteenth power enabling Congress to do whatever
is "necessary and proper" to carry out its enumerated powers. The 10th
Amendment reserves other powers, not in conflict with the Constitution,
to the states or to the people.
Power is separated and shared among the Congress, President, and Supreme
Court. Each branch has a distinct major function (legislative, executive,
and judicial), but each branch also can "check," or limit, the power of
the other two. The President, for example, may veto legislation passed
by Congress, or the Supreme Court may rule legislation passed by Congress
to be unconstitutional and therefore null and void. Several specific provisions
of the Constitution limit the power of Congress, including the enumeration
of powers in Article I, Section 8, the prohibitions on Congress's power
in Article I, Section 9, and the enumeration of individual rights in the
Bill of Rights. The framers of the Constitution attempted to give the new
Congress enough power to govern effectively yet provide sufficient limitations
to ensure the newly created institution would not abuse its authority.
DEVELOPMENT OF CONGRESS.
During the First Congress, Representatives and Senators focused most
of their attention on establishing procedures and precedents for the institution,
many of which continue to this day. The legislative highlights of the First
Congress included the authorization of a patent office, a census, and a
provisional system of government of the western territories. In 1791, a
total of 142 clerks assisted members of Congress (Davidson and Oleszek,
1998, 26). By today's standards, few bills were proposed or passed. Service
in Congress was a part-time occupation as its first members finished their
work in two brief sessions.
Today, being a member of Congress is a full-time job for 435 representatives
and four delegates (from the District of Columbia, Guam, the Virgin Islands,
and American Samoa) and 100 senators, most of whom split their time between
Washington DC and their home district or state. More than 17,000 staff
members serve individual members and committees. Members of Congress today
must devote considerable time to committee meetings, staff meetings, party
functions, floor votes, constituent services, and campaigning. By most
measures (including hours in session, committee meetings, and floor votes)
the congressional workload has almost doubled since the 1950s (Davidson
and Oleszek, 1998, 28). Of 44,195 bills passed by Congress in over 200
years, only 3,163 were passed in its first 50 years and 41 percent were
passed in the last 50 years. The legislation passed by Congress has also
increased in scope and complexity.
The average bill in the Eightieth Congress (1947-48) was 2.5 pages long;
during the One-hundred fourth Congress (1995-96), the average bill was
19.1 pages long. Today, the average senator or representative works an
11-hour workday when Congress is in session. During the One-hundred fourth
Congress, the House of Representatives was in session 289 days and the
Senate 343 days (Davidson and Oleszek, 1998, 28).
A variety of factors explain the expansion of Congress. The population
and complexity of life in the United States has grown dramatically since
1789. The First Congress was responsible for making laws for roughly 3.5
million people. A majority of the people lived in rural areas, and the
economy was based primarily upon agriculture. Today's Congress is responsible
for making laws for more than 275 million people. The vast majority of
people live in urban areas, and the economy is based largely upon providing
information-based services and industrial goods.
Broad interpretations of Congress's constitutional authority and amendments
to the Constitution expanded the role of Congress. In an early Supreme
Court decision, McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Court broadly interpreted
the powers of Congress implied by the necessary and proper (elastic) clause.
Subsequently, Congress drew upon this ruling to increase federal power.
The 16th Amendment, giving Congress the authority to enact income tax laws,
also contributed to an expanded Congressional role. The federal funds derived
from the income tax provide the necessary financial support for social
welfare programs legislated by Congress.
The role of Congress has also increased through the expansive policies
and active government philosophies of several presidents. The presidencies
of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt,
Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson have helped to expand the role of Congress.
During the Great Depression, for example, Congress passed many of Franklin
Roosevelt's proposals to combat unemployment, poverty, and poor working
conditions. This legislation not only helped to create a New Deal for the
American people, it also meant that Congress became more active and involved
in American life.
WORLD WIDE WEB RESOURCES FOR TEACHING ABOUT CONGRESS.
The following Web sites are recommended to teachers and students:
Center on Congress at Indiana University. This Web site, sponsored by
the Center on Congress at Indiana University, provides information about
the history of Congress and Congress today. The Center is directed by former
U.S. Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, and the Web site features links to sites
on House and Senate floor activity, speeches by Hamilton, and information
on "how Congress works." http://Congress.indiana.edu/
The Dirksen Congressional Center. The Dirksen Congressional Center's
Web site seeks to enhance civic engagement by improving students' understanding
of Congress and its leaders. The site offers links to the Dirksen Center's
archival holdings, which include documents about the achievements of the
late Senator Everett Dirksen and information about educational opportunities
for students and teachers. CongressLink, Congress in the Classroom, and
Congressional Insight are examples of Web sites promoted by the Dirksen
Center that facilitate student-centered, inquiry-based learning. http://www.pekin.net/dirksen/
House and Senate Web Sites. These sites provide historical information
about the House and Senate, display the Congressional calendar, and enable
students to communicate directly with their Representatives and Senators.
Thomas. This site, sponsored by the Library of Congress, summarizes
legislation, the Congressional Record, and current committee work. It also
features links to Congressional documents and debates throughout history.
Capweb. This general information site features live video and audio
links to CNN's coverage of House and Senate proceedings. It also enables
students to track how their Representatives and Senators vote and provides
daily access to "The Hill," the capitol newspaper. http://cw2k.capweb.net/voteweb/
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of resources includes references used to prepare
this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are available in microfiche
and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS).
For information about prices, contact EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite
110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; telephone numbers are (703) 440-1400
and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number, annotated monthly
in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE), are not available through
EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal section of most larger
libraries by using the bibliographic information provided, requested through
Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from commercial reprint services.
Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. CONGRESS AND ITS MEMBERS,
6th ed. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998.
Hunt, Richard. "Using the Records of Congress in the Classroom." OAH
MAGAZINE OF HISTORY 12 (Summer 1998): 34-37. EJ 572 681.
Martin, Fenton S., and Robert U. Goehlert. AMERICAN GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS:
A GUIDE TO BOOKS FOR TEACHERS, LIBRARIANS, AND STUDENTS. Washington DC:
Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1997. ED 420 618.
Rimmerman, Craig A. "Teaching Legislative Politics and Policy Making."
POLITICAL SCIENCE TEACHER 3 (Winter 1990): 16-18. EJ 409 538.
Ritchie, Donald A. "What Makes a Successful Congressional Investigation."
OAH MAGAZINE OF HISTORY 11 (Spring 1997): 6-8. EJ 572 628.