An Introduction to the U.S. Congress

An Introduction to the U.S. Congress

An Introduction to the U.S. Congress

An Introduction to the U.S. Congress


What does Congress do? How does it do it? Why is it such a complicated institution? This concise primer offers students and general readers a brief and systematic introduction to Congress and the role it plays in the US political system. Drawing on his experience as a former Congressional staff member, the author explores the different political natures of the House and Senate, examines Congress's interaction with other branches of the Federal government, and looks ahead to the domestic and foreign challenges that are likely to drive the Congressional agenda for decades to come. The book provides revealing insights into the sometimes-contradictory Congressional responsibilities of representation and lawmaking; oversight and appropriation; and managing and organizing the government. It includes a case study (on the formation of the Department of Homeland Security) that sheds light on Congress's often-complicated procedures. The book also includes boxed features on Congressional action - highlighting such topics as file sharing and student loans - that show students how Congress's work affects their lives. Chapter-ending lists of web resources add to the book's usefulness.


In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily
predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the
legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different
modes of election and different principles of action, as little
connected with each other as the nature of their common functions
and their common dependence on the society will admit

—Federalist No. 51

Why is Congress such a complicated institution? What does Congress do, and how does it do it? Will it be able to meet the policy challenges of the next few decades?

Ever since beginning my study of Congress in 1992 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have been trying to figure out good answers to those three questions. After my graduate studies, during which I examined the role of congressional leaders in setting defense policy, I went to work in professional politics for several years, a sort of practical postdoctoral fellowship in real-world congressional politics. I worked on a congressional campaign during the 1996 election and spent two years working for Rep. David Price (D-NC) as a legislative assistant, working on a variety of issues in the fast-paced environment of a Capitol Hill office—still seeking answers to those three questions. The campaign and the staff work made the central importance of serving constituents come alive for me and helped me to see the powers and limitations of political science as a means of explaining our complicated political system in the United States. Following my time on the Hill, I worked as a lobbyist and as a consultant in Washington for several years and saw firsthand how Congress sits at the center of the decision-making network. Congress is the mechanism that connects politics and policy in Washington, DC, and Congress provides the forum for discussing all the important issues in the national government. Since 2001 I have been working on understanding how Congress brings policy and politics together at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management . . .

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