Provisional Syllabus

POSC 310/410

The Legislative Process

Fall Term  2004

(draft as of June 28, 2004)


Professor Joseph White M/W/F 10:30 – 11:20
Mather House 113 Clark 103

Office Hours Mondays/Wednesdays 1:00 – 2:30



Goals of the Course


Legislative politics are one of the basic processes of modern government.  This course focuses on one legislature, the United States Congress, because of its importance in American politics.  Our approach to the functions and internal workings of Congress, however, will be designed to illuminate the role and behaviors of other legislatures.


One subject will be what powers the legislature has.  What is its role within the wider political system?  The Constitution treats Congress as the first branch of the American political system, and arguments for ratification of the constitution emphasized that the legislature was to be the most important branch.  Yet it is executive officials who do the work of government.  The executive and the judiciary exercise the most basic power of government, the use of legitimate force against individuals.   So where does Congress fit in?  One answer, inherent in the term legislature, is that it writes the laws, and we have a government of laws, not men.  But that answer is insufficient in two ways.  Laws do not enforce themselves; people administer laws; so simply writing laws is not enough to guarantee the legislature’s influence on the workings of government.  Therefore Congress and other legislatures do get involved in other ways.  Second, Congress and its members are part of a broad process of public debate in which understandings of what the government should do are formed in a way that complements the formal legislative process.  Members of Congress, for example, may participate in debate about foreign policy in ways that are taken seriously even though legislation is extremely unlikely.  So this course will present a broader view of the functions of Congress.


The second and third subjects involve how power is accumulated, organized, and exercised within Congress.  We will use two definitions of power.  One, analogous to the term’s meaning in physics, is the ability to do work.  In politics, that means the capacity to change the world by making and executing policy.  The second meaning, closer to how the term would be used in psychology and sociology, is a relation of dominance or subordination between people.  The two are related, but each requires some special attention.


The most basic work of Congress is to make decisions: decisions about government’s purposes and methods.  Making any decisions involves both gathering facts and applying values.  Congress makes so many different decisions that most members of Congress neither know nor care much about most of its decisions most of the time.  Even if they have a broad sense of policy direction, they cannot know much about the details.  Congress therefore organizes to aid members’ decision-making, in a form of division of labor.  Among the basic institutions for this purpose are political parties and the committee system, but there are other methods of gathering facts (such as substantial staff) and of considering values (such as ideological or geographic caucuses).  The biggest change in Congress in the past quarter century is an increase in reliance on parties as opposed to committees, and we will consider the extent of and reasons for that change.


Power in Congress has normally differed from power in other political systems, such as a police department or the federal Department of Health and Human Services or a college, because hierarchy is much weaker.  Some official positions, such as Speaker of the House or Majority Leader of the Senate or Chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, do give individuals power over others.  But in Congress, unlike normal hierarchies, the bosses’ jobs depend on support from the other members of the organization.  The President can fire the Secretary of Defense; the Speaker of the House cannot fire a member of Congress.  Leaders may still have a great deal of power – but the amount of power in leaders’ hands has varied substantially over time, according to both institutional arrangements and leaders’ skill.  At present, party leaders seem to have much more power than in the past, and we will consider why that may be true, and whether that is likely to continue.


There are many reasons why the internal processes of Congress may change, but the most basic involve the world outside Congress.  Congress is a representative institution.  There are endless arguments about what representation can be, should be, and is.  But it means at least one thing: members’ jobs depend on winning elections.  For members, relationships to constituents are at least as important as relationships with each other.


Hence a fourth major theme of this course is the “electoral connection.”  Hierarchy is the primary form of power relationship within most organizations because individuals’ jobs depend on their bosses.  In Congress, employment depends on the voters – mostly.  (The perks of employment, such as committee chairmanships, depend on other factors!).  The electoral connection creates incentives for members’ behavior, including how they might choose to organize the legislature.  It is a basic difference between all legislatures and other organizations.


But the electoral connection can take many forms.  It is different in the U.S. Congress than in the British House of Commons, because of differences in electoral and party systems.  There are three reasons why elections do not force politicians to be mere conduits for opinion in their constituencies: on many issues there may be little opinion in their state or district; for others there may be many different and conflicting opinions; and because politicians work to shape how they are viewed.  In seeking approval politicians deploy a wide range of resources, ranging from money for campaign advertising to the ways they advertise positions through their actions in Congress.  In this course we will emphasize two aspects of the electoral connection: how politicians campaign for Congress, and how their behavior within Congress, especially in doing the work of policymaking, is and is not constrained by electoral calculations.

In studying the purposes of Congress, its place within the broader system of government, how it is organized to do work on society, how power is accumulated and exercised within the institution, and the effects of the electoral connection, I hope students will develop a sophisticated understanding of how the institution works, and how any legislature can work. We will not emphasize evaluative issues that, to my mind, usually involve people deciding the system is “undemocratic” or “unfair” if they do not like the policies that are made.  But cynicism about Congress is so deeply rooted in American culture that we will spend some time considering why.  If the students in this course are cynical when it is finished, I hope at least it will be an informed and sophisticated cynicism.


Course Requirements


The work for this course will include reading, lectures, class discussion and independent research.  The work on which undergraduates will be evaluated for a grade will include class participation, three quizzes during the semester, a final exam, a research paper of at least 3000 words in length, and peer review of the first draft of another student’s paper. Graduate students will also be required to prepare book reports of 1500 – 2000 words on two works, to be selected in consultation with the instructor.  They may also be asked to explain those works to the rest of the class.


Overall grades will be calculated based on the following formula:


Undergraduates: Class Participation and Peer Review combined, 10%; Quizzes 10% each; Final Exam 30%; Research Paper 30%.


Graduate Students: Class Participation and Peer Review combined, 10%; Quizzes 8% each; Final Exam 25%; Research Paper 25%; Book Reports 8% each.


Your research paper should be a report on one member of Congress (either a Representative or Senator).  Your assignment is to explain the performance of some member of Congress during the period from 2001-04.  You are expected to improve significantly on the profiles that are available in Politics in America or The Almanac of American Politics, but I strongly urge you to start with one of those texts in searching for an interesting legislator.  You will be doing this study during the heat of the 2004 election.  Those of you who choose a member who faces a significant electoral challenge likely should emphasize the election in your reports.  There will be other members, however, who are relatively safe, and your reports then may focus less on the election.  Among the things to look at are:


  • The constraints and opportunities created by the member’s district or state.
  • The member’s committee positions, and the extent to which her initiatives work through the committee structure.
  • The member’s relationship with party leaders, and voting record.
  • How the member represents himself to the voters, e.g. in campaigns or through his website.
  • The extent to which the member pursues initiatives through methods other than voting.
  • The course of the member’s career within the legislature – such as pursuit of particular committee appointments, or positions within the party hierarchy.


Each student should tell the instructor which member they would like to study no later than September 20.  As some students may want to study the same member, and that can create problems, whoever requests a particular subject first will have their request accepted, and students who pick that member later will need to find another subject.  First drafts will be due on November 5.   Peer reviews will be due on November 8, and final papers on November 29.  Students will be graded on the quality of their peer reviewing as part of their participation grade, and on their responses to their fellow students’ suggestions as part of their paper grade.


Quizzes will be taken in class, but will not necessarily take all of a class session.  For example, I may give a 30-minute quiz and then spend the last part of class providing an introduction to the next section of the course.  Quizzes will focus on facts and concepts from the reading and course discussion.  They will not include an essay. 


The final exam will be held on Wednesday, December 8 from 9:00 – 11:30 a.m., in our regular classroom.  It will definitely include at least one essay.


Course Responsibilities[1]


Academic honesty is strictly enforced in this course.  Plagiarism is a very serious offense and any infractions will be taken up with the appropriate university judicial proceedings.


According to the MLA Handbook (New York: MLA, 1988), to plagiarize includes two activities: (1) repeating “as your own someone else’s sentences, more or less verbatim” and (2) “paraphrasing another person’s argument as your own, and presenting another’s line of thinking as though it were your own.”  One rule of thumb: never copy as many as five consecutive words from another author without putting those words in quotation marks and citing them appropriately.


Students must document all sources used in writing the research paper according to an accepted style guide.  The best-known guide is the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).  Others are available: any standardized documentation style is acceptable.


All work should be done and/or submitted on the due dates stated.  Grades will be reduced if work on the stages of the research paper is not submitted at the times required in this syllabus, unless the instructor announces a change that applies to the entire class.  If for any reason you cannot be in class for the quizzes, you must inform the instructor and make an alternative arrangement in advance.  Failure to do so will result in failure for the quiz, unless you can document a medical emergency.  Absent a prior arrangement, only the Dean of Undergraduate studies can make exceptions to the schedules for Final Exams.


The instructor will keep track of attendance, and more than five absences from class will result in a reduction of your participation grade, unless said absences have been excused based on written documentation, e.g. a note from a physician about a medical emergency, or from a coach about a university competition.


So long as you attend, however, the participation grade will not under any circumstances reduce your overall grade for the class.  It will only be applied in a way that either helps or has a neutral effect on your overall grade.




Readings for this course will include four texts and assorted other articles.  The texts, all available from the university bookstore, are:


  1. Douglas Arnold. The Logic of Congressional Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

Robert A. Caro.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).

Roger H. Davidson and Walter J. Oleszek.  Congress & Its Members, 9th ed. (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2004).

Paul S. Herrnson.  Congressional Elections: Campaigning at Home and in Washington (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2004).


An explanation on Caro: I am only assigning portions of this very long book.  I am assigning enough, however, that it would be more expensive to include them in a reader than to just buy the book.  It is also part of one of the great works of American history and biography (3 volumes and counting), though a little scary in its description of the personality of our 36th President.  This book is well worth owning, and nothing – ever – has matched its description of how an individual leader created legislative power.


In addition to these books, readings will include an assortment of articles, available in a reader or from websites.


Schedule of Readings and Assignments


NOTE: It has become common for books to be organized with endnotes, so that notes that apply to a chapter are printed at the end of the entire book.  When the listing below includes a chapter or a set of pages of text, you are also expected to review the endnotes even if the pages on which they appear are not listed.  In most cases the notes will provide sources rather than information, but you do need to check.

Introduction to the Course


8/23     Discussion of syllabus; no reading assigned.      


8/25     Gerhard Loewenberg, “Legislatures and Parliaments,” from Seymour Martin Lipset ed., The Encyclopedia of Democracy vol. 3 (Washington, DC: CQ Press 1995), pp. 736-747

  1. Rosenthal, “Legislatures: United States,” from International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 4th ed., vol. 13 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2001), pp. 8697-8700


8/27     The Federalist Papers, Numbers 51, 53, 62, 63, 64, 70, 72.  Available on the web from many sources, including:


8/30     Congress & Its Members, Chapters 1 & 2 (pp. 2-37)

            Master of the Senate, Introduction (pp. ix – xxiv).


9/1       Master of the Senate, Chapters 2 & 3 (pp. 50-105)


No Class on September 3 (Professor White must be at the American Political Science Association Meeting in Chicago)


No Class on September 6 (Labor Day)


Power, Skill, and Leadership


9/8       Master of the Senate, 149-64, 169-86, 194-202, 439-62


9/10     Master of the Senate, 306-33, 345-50


9/13     Master of the Senate, Chapter 17, 383-419; Chapter 20, 473-87; Chapter 21, 488-515


9/15     New Yorker piece on current Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-IL; CQ Weekly Report piece on current House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-TX


9/17     Bernard Grofman, William Koetzle, and Anthony J. McGann, “Congressional Leadership 1965:96: A New Look at the Extremism versus Centrality Debate” Legislative Studies Quarterly 27 (February, 2002) 87 – 105


9/20     Students Should Submit Their Choice of Research Paper Subjects to Professor White by the Beginning of Class Today.


            Master of the Senate, pp. 890-1005


9/22     Master of the Senate, Chapter 22, 519-41; Chapter 26, 597-614; pp. 1035-40


9/24     FIRST QUIZ


Getting to Congress (And Staying There)


9/27     Congress & Its Members Chapter 3, 38-79

            Congressional Elections Introduction, Chapters 1&2, 1-68


9/29     Congress & Its Members Chapter 4, 80-116


10/1     Congressional Elections Chapters, 3& 4, 69-128


10/4     Congressional Elections Chapters 5-7, 129-212


10/6     Congressional Elections Chapter 8, 213-237


10/8     Congressional Elections Chapter 9, 238-264


10/11   Congressional Elections Chapters 10-11, 265-308


10/13   Congress & Its Members Chapter 5, 118-148.





No class on October 18, Fall Break


The Organization of Congress and Its Relationship to Other Centers of Power


10/20   Congress & Its Members Chapter 6, 150-191


10/22   Congress & Its Members Chapter 7, 192-227


10/25   John H. Aldrich and David W. Rohde, “The Republican Revolution and the House Appropriations Committee,”Journal of Politics 62 (February 2000), 1-33.

            Forrest Maltzman, “Contending Theories of Congressional Committees” and “Conclusion” from Maltzman,Competing Principals: Committees, Parties, and the Organization of Congress (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997) pp. 9-40, 157-162


10/27   Congress & Its Members Chapter 8, 228-259


10/29   Congress & Its Members Chapter 10, 290-317


11/1    Congress & Its Members Chapter 11, 318-343


11/3     Congress & Its Members Chapter 12, 344-364






11/10   Congress & Its Members Chapter 13, 366-389


11/12   Congress & Its Members Chapter 14, 390-417

            Martha Coven and Richard Kogan, “Introduction to the Federal Budget Process,” Center for Budget and Policy Priorities Issue Brief (August 1, 2003), downloadable from

            Joseph White, “Making Connections to the Appropriations Process,” ms. 47pp.


11/15   THIRD QUIZ


11/17   Logic of Congressional Action Chapters 1-2, 1-36.


11/19   Logic of Congressional Action Chapters 3-4, 37-87



11/22   Logic of Congressional Action, Chapters 5-6, 88-146.

            Joseph White, “Making ‘Common Sense’ of Federal Budgeting,” Public Administration Review March/April 1998, 101-108


11/24   Logic of Congressional Action, Chapter 8, 193-223


No Class November 26 due to Thanksgiving Break


11/29   Logic of Congressional Action, Chapter 9, 224-61

            Congress & Its Members Chapter 9, 260-89


12/1     Congress & Its Members, Chapter 15, 418-44


12/3     Congress & Its Members, Chapter 16, 447-63

            Logic of Congressional Action, Chapter 10, 265-76


DECEMBER 8:  FINAL EXAM, IN CLASS, 9:00 a.m. TO 11:30 a.m.

[1] In a spirit of consistency, I should admit that I have copied or adapted language about plagiarism from syllabi designed by Professor F. Lee.