Congress as the Main Legislative Arm of the Government

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 15
Words: 4108
Reading time:
15 min
Study level: College


According to the Library of Congress (2015), the Constitution of the United States stipulates that Congress is the main legislative arm of the government. The framers of the Constitution wanted the law-making process to be led by a group rather than a single person. In this regard, they named the Senate and the House of Representatives as the formulators of government policies. Smith et al. (2013, pp. 1-2) note that a proposed bill can only become law after approval by the Congress, and the process should not be subjected to interference by the executive branch. Additionally, the American President plays a role in determining the bills that go through Congress.

It is the right of the White House to submit domestic and foreign policy proposals for discussion. Although the American Constitution states that the president should play a role in these discussions, this has not been the case in the past. The check and balance role of Congress enables the house to keep the powers of the president in check. According to Lobel (2009, pp. 392-394), every action of the president that relates to policymaking is checked by Congress.

The two parties have to come to an agreement before any actions are taken on both domestic and foreign matters. However, Smith et al. (2013, pp. 5-7) argue that Congress has not been effective in checking the powers of some presidents in the past. An example is President George Bush, who was a Republican. During this era, Congress failed to control the powers of the president, and, as a result, the check balance system was not effective. President’s Bush foreign policy in Iraq caused disagreements among the Republicans and the Democrats in the Congress. While the Republicans seemed to support the plan to disarm Saddam Hussein, the Democrats were against the decision claiming that the United Nations did not support it. In this regard, Straus (2012, pp. 10-11) notes that the party politics in Congress are likely to affect the role of the house in checking the presidential power.

Straus (2012, pp. 5-7) recognizes various ways that Congress can check the power of the president. These include; amending or blocking proposed legislation, amending or blocking the annual budget, overriding a veto, confirming executive officials, confirming judges appointed by the president, ratification of treaties, declaration of war, and investigating or impeaching a president. This means that American presidents should not always rely on their powers in persuading the Congress but also apply informal methods. In respect to overriding a presidential veto, Congress requires two-thirds of the members to object the laws passed by the president. In 1845, the Congress was successful in overriding President John Tyler’s veto.

This marked the first time that the house applied the power to the executive. The veto was based on a Congressional bill that would have allowed him to use public funds to purchase ships without approval from the institution. Congress argued that the executive had to get approval before purchasing any military aircraft. Martin (2001, pp. 363-365) identifies various challenges that affect Congress when overriding a veto. These include; agreeing with the veto, overriding the veto, agreeing with the objections of the president, and resubmitting the same proposal under a new bill. On the one hand, the president was given the veto authority to prevent Congress from being too powerful. On the other hand, the Senate has the right to override the veto. This creates a balance of power between the two bodies. However, it is important to note that the veto power does not allow the president to alter any existing laws.

It only allows him to accept or reject the entire law. Despite the success of the Congress in overriding vetoes in the past, Straus (2012, pp. 11-13) indicates that there are many instances in the history of the United States that the house failed to override the veto power of the president. The author gives an example of the declaration of the war in Afghanistan during George Bush’s administration. Additionally, the author argues that party politics tends to play a role in the decision to override vetoes.

Lobel (2009, pp. 395-399) notes that the ability of Congress to check the power of the president in the past has been dependent on the regime in authority. In addition, the leadership majority and the political influence of the executive have affected its effectiveness. In most of the regimes throughout history, the power seems to be divided between the executive and the Congress. The author notes that George Bush’s administration is one of the examples concerning the ineffective role of Congress in checking presidential power. The era limited Congress’s power to make decisions about the war declaration. Additionally, the administration claimed that the president had the authority to declare war, which was against the Constitution. The government argued that the institution had limited power to regulate the authority of the president over the issue.

Marshall (2008, pp. 507-510) argues that the American presidential power has, in the past, grown exponentially, and Congress has been inefficient in controlling it. During the Framer’s era, the legislature was believed to be the most powerful division within the government. On the contrary, the executive today seems to exhibit more power than Congress. The author argues that the notion that the Congress is the most powerful division is just a fallacy.

The presidential supremacy is evident in matters regarding national and foreign policy formulation. Marshall (2008, p. 506) indicates that Congress has only been effective in the rejection of nominees appointed to the Supreme Court. In conclusion, it is evident that the effectiveness of Congress in checking presidential power has varied throughout history. This research reveals that the notion of Congress is the most powerful arm has also changed throughout history, and the presidents are becoming more powerful. In addition, political ideologies seem to play a critical role in determining the actions of Congress in checking the power of the president. Therefore, Congress has not been fully effective in checking the power of American presidents.

Was the Congress Bound to Lose the Initiative in Policymaking?

As aforementioned, the framers of the American Constitution wanted most of the policymaking power to be vested in the Congress (Library of Congress, 2015). Moreover, Congress has the power to initiate the development of both domestic and foreign policies. This is evident in Article two, section two of the Constitution, which states that Congress has to approve the decisions of the president. Such decisions include the appointment of executive officials, Supreme Court nominees, creation of treaties, and declaration of war, among others. Based on the analysis of the American Constitution, the power to initiate policies does not lie solely with the president but also on Congress. This explains why presidents and lobbyists attempt to persuade Congress to ensure that certain laws are passed.

Hammond (2001, pp. 1-3) indicates that the policymaking process of Congress involves the creation, discussion, and the final approval or disapproval of the proposals. Lobel (2009, pp. 392-393) states that Congress has the power to negotiate with the president concerning certain policies. However, this has not been very effective in the past as the negotiations are not always successful. The members of Congress have their own political ideologies, and hence agreements on some policy initiatives may not be possible. In such cases, the negotiation processes are characterized by challenges in bargaining. As a result, the presidency may face difficulties in the creation of certain laws and programs. Hammond (2001) notes that Congress was very successful in making laws immediately after the creation of the Constitution. However, the current executive seems to diminish that power.

Schickler and Lee (2011, pp. 23-26) state that the Obama Administration provides a perfect example of the minimal role that Congress has played in policy initiatives. After his inauguration, Obama made it clear that his administration would spend most of the time in eliminating the policies that were not working and retaining those that were working. The government is now one of the major promoters of public policy initiatives in history.

Additionally, Straus (2012, pp. 17-19) argues that Congress has not been very efficient in the creation and amendment of social policies during this administration. Congress has been more instrumental in trying to block social initiatives rather than creating them. The level of politics in the house has hindered its ability to initiate programs. The institution has been reported to be more concerned with fulfilling its political ideologies than the passage of laws that are particularly important to the public. However, Lobel (2009, pp. 395-397) argues that Congress played a significant role during President Clinton’s regime. Specifically, the house was accredited for policy initiatives such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, an increase in the minimum wage, and reforms in the housing sector.

Lobel (2009, pp. 401-406) argues that the 21st Century Congress has been weak, and its power compromised by the executive. Constituency pressures have influenced its role in foreign policymaking. According to Smith et al. (2013, pp. 8-14), Congress has clearly abandoned its role in foreign policy initiatives. It seems to have a limited influence on policies involving war and peace. In reference to Bush’s foreign policy on Iraq, the Democrats in Congress were against the policy. Nonetheless, the Republicans gave approval for the Iraq War. Consequently, President Obama and Clinton went to war without seeking approval from the house, an indication of the diminishing power of the body. Although the Republican Congressmen attempted to alter Clinton’s war policy, it was initiated nonetheless.

Mayer and Canon (1999, pp. 11-14) argue that there have been disagreements among the political elites over who has the most power in the initiation of foreign policies in the United States. Despite such arguments, the presidents seem to play a more superior role in the decisions regarding foreign policies. This was evident in the decision to bomb ISIS by the current regime. Congress did not play a role in the decision despite the guidelines defined in the Constitution. Johnson (2013) indicates that the authority of Congress to declare war is no longer respected in America. Article one section eight of the Constitution affords the division the power to declare war. Moreover, there have always been tensions between the Congress and the executive over the War Power Act. The act was passed in 1973 with the purpose of clarifying the actions of the executive in time of war and requires that Congress be involved. Straus (2012, pp. 22-27) notes that Congress seems more interested in addressing the special interest of the members rather than taking part in foreign policy initiatives.

Johnson (2013) notes that the notion of Congressional activism has been absent during the Obama administration. The notion allows Congress to play a part in the formulation and approval of foreign policies. The foreign policy initiatives by Congress have the ability to improve or spoil the relationship between the United States and other nations. Additionally, foreign policies in the United States have affected the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill in the past. Johnson (2013) contends that Congress does not even try to outdo the executive on foreign policy issues. This was not the case in the 1920s when Congress headed the formulation of major foreign policies. An example is the approval of the Treaty of Versailles in 1920, which was rejected by Congress despite presidential support.

According to Indyk et al. (2013, pp. 9-12), the cybersecurity legislation in 2012 was also blocked by Congress. However, its actions reflected its inability to reconcile with the executive on some important policy issues. This is an indication that the relationships and experiences between the Congress and the Executive have limited its initiation of both domestic and foreign policies. Johnson (2013) recommends that the relations between the two arms be repaired to avoid another catastrophe like the war in Iraq. Additionally, Congress’s ability to formulate and pass domestic and foreign policies affects the nation’s security. Therefore, it is clear that Congress has lost its policy-making initiative. Based on the increased political differences in the house, the Congress was bound to lose this power. This is because the differences in political ideologies give the executive the leeway to weaken the role of the Congress in policymaking.

Is the Congress Better in Checking the Presidential Decision Than Making Its Own?

The voting process determines the kind of decisions made by Congress. Additionally, the effectiveness of the process is determined by the factors influencing the members to vote in certain ways. The voting also depends on the criticality of the laws. There are no guidelines in the Constitution that govern the decision-making process of the Congress. However, Chand and Schreckhise (2013, pp. 419-425) outline four factors that determine how Congress’s decisions are made. First, the party affiliation and ideologies determine the kind of support afforded to the various bills. Voting and decision-making are based on the ideologies of the members.

This means that an overwhelming number of members of the right side vote one-way while the left side votes a different way. Moreover, the party with the majority of members in Congress is likely to win the voting most of the time. This was evident during the voting on the Affordable Care bill during President Obama’s administration, where the left and the right had varying opinions. The reasons for their voting were based on the arguments about the parties’ political ideologies. Second, the views of the constituents determine the direction that the voting will take (Chand and Schreckhise, 2013, pp. 422-423).

This has been evident in debates involving gun control, abortion, gay marriages, and military presence in foreign nations. Since the members expect to be re-elected, it is unlikely that they would vote against the demands of their people. Moreover, the decision making of individual members is unlikely to conflict with their beliefs. However, members of Congress have, in the past, voted against their beliefs. Third, pressure from the president has been reported to affect such decisions.

Although Congress claims to be independent, it has been subject to presidential interference in the past. Historically, the executive usually announces its position on a contentious issue, and the supporters are supposed to vote for the issue. Nevertheless, such influence is determined by the popularity of the president and his ability to persuade the members. In the history of the United States, President Lyndon Johnson was known to exert pressure and persuade the Democrats to support his stand on various issues discussed by the Congress. Lastly, vote trading affects the decisions made by Congress. This process involves gaining the support of a vote and agreeing to back the members on another vote in the future.

In reference to Straus (2012, pp. 21-27), the interferences in Congressional decision-making have affected the process and limited its role as the main legislative body. Moreover, the members have often disagreed on certain decisions, and hence delaying the legislation process. The S744 immigration bill was affected by political ideologies, which delayed its discussion in the house despite the efforts by President Obama to pressure the Congress. Political ideologies determine who gets a leeway in the Congress. Additionally, such ideologies ensure that the members do not consider the preferences of the majority of the citizens. Hammond (2001, pp. 7-11) indicates that political ideologies also influence the budget-making processes of Congress. Prior to the introduction of legislation in the house by a member, majority support is important. Such support can only be forthcoming if the legislation supports the political ideologies of the members. These concerns tend to interfere with the decision-making process and usually results in delays.

According to Hammond (2001, pp. 10-11), the Congressional decision-making process is flawed as the members do not pay much attention to the issues in the proposals. Specifically, they rarely attend all the meetings or even read the proposals at all. These members-only put emphasis on issues that are likely to benefits their constituents or parties. Additionally, they have, on several occasions, been accused of failing to collect comprehensive background information relating to particular legislation. Their staffs normally perform such background checks. The lack of a ‘personal touch’ in making decisions alters their effectiveness.

However, the ‘trading of votes’ allows the members to discuss more than 10,000 bills introduced in the house annually. The ability of the president to influence the choices of Congress is an indication that the house is not effective in making its own decisions. Such presidential influences come with promises of financial support during future elections. Chand and Schreckhise (2013, pp. 403-407) report that organized interest groups within Congress provides the members with information concerning the laws being passed. The preferences of the interest groups limit the decision-making process of the institution. Millions of emails and e-mails are sent to Congress for consideration regarding certain laws. Such opinions tend to conflict, and the interest groups play a part in informing the institution about the conflicting voices.

Most members of Congress have, in the past, indicated that they rely Soley on the opinions of the interest groups when making decisions about critical legislation. Generally, the Congressional decision-making process is individualized. Although it has been effective in the past, there are instances that the decisions have been flawed. In regard to checking the decision-making processes of the president, Hammond (2001, pp. 7-11) notes that the institution’s success depends on the president in power. Moreover, the major political party represented in the Congress determines whether the institution is effective in checking the executive power. Past reports have indicated that the recent Congresses have failed in checking the decisions of the presidents. This is evident in President Bush’s decision to alter the American foreign policy to Iraq and Obama’s decision to bomb ISIS. In summary, it is difficult to determine whether Congress has been more effective in making its own decisions or checking the power of the president. This is because both processes have been flawed.

It is clear that its decision-making procedure is dependent upon many factors. Despite such influences, laws are still passed or rejected. However, the institution has failed in checking the decisions of the presidents. This is because the presidents tend to exhibit more power than the Congress and hence fails to get approval on vital issues affecting the country. Therefore, Congress has been better at making its own decisions in comparison to checking the decisions of the presidents.

Is the Congress Dysfunctional?

Mayer and Canon (1999, pp. 1-2) acknowledge that the American Congress is dysfunctional. The authors argue that despite the massive authority of the institution, it does not seem to be effective in the face of the country’s toughest challenges. Additionally, Congress is weak and does very little to promote its checking and balancing function. Congress seems to be paralyzed despite the power conferred upon it by the Constitution. Such paralysis results from variations in political ideologies between the Republicans and the Democrats. Almost every discussion in Congress seems to be based on some form of political difference. Thus, Congress has been reported to be ineffective in improving the lives of the citizens through the passage of significant legislation. Moreover, the personal relationships between the members of Congress seem to interfere with its roles as the legislative body.

Martin (2001) notes that Congress has failed the American people, and very few citizens are optimistic about its roles. The dysfunctional nature of Congress dates years back, and despite the changes in the membership, it remains inactive. In the period between 1965 and 1966, there was a massive decry all over the nation due to the paralysis of Congress’s activities. Smith et al. (2013, pp. 27-31) explain that the Congress during Obama’s tenure has been characterized by Republicans who take advantage of the minority power of the Senate. As a result, the discussion about contentious issues such as gun control, Medicare, and military funding was characterized by massive differences of opinions and ideas. Such decisions took long to be ruled upon by the Congress and hence giving the executive a hard time. These actions were similar to the period during the Franklin Roosevelt rule. During this era, the Congress was accused of being the main barrier to liberal reforms.

Mayer and Canon (1999, pp. 17-19) note that the liberals were angered by the Congress by the time President Kennedy was elected into power. Congress applied all the tactics to block the executive proposals during this period. They took advantage of the calm personality of the president to alter the decision-making procedures. However, Kennedy undertook a massive campaign to pressure Congress to pass the Medicare bill.

In addition, the president announced publicly that he wanted the city’s support on the proposal. Although his announcement educated the public on the proposal, the opposition from the Congress became stronger. This opposition was based on the differences in political ideas. The passage of the Civil Rights legislation provides another example in which the Congress was uncooperative and lured by political party preferences.

According to Martin (2001, pp. 370-372), the legislation was aimed at ending racial discrimination in the United States. The civil rights groups led by Martin Luther King Junior mounted pressure on the president to send their proposal to the Congress. President Kennedy was worried that the proposal would not make it past the Congress committee. Congress stalled most of the proposals made by the Kennedy regime. After his death in 1963, the Congress was accused of accomplishing “practically nothing” during his tenure. Mayer and Canon (1999, pp. 26-29) argue that the Congress during the 1960s was embedded in its own weariness and was resistant to criticism. The institution even refused to pass the routine appropriation proposals.

Chand and Schreckhise (2013, pp. 406-409) note that the Congress during Barack’s administration is as stalling as the one during Kennedy’s regime. The only difference is the lack of massive liberal movements that existed in the 1960s. It is unlikely that the current executive will make much progress on its legislation due to the conflicts with the current Congress. Mayer and Canon (1999, pp. 11-17) indicate that the actions of the people against the 89th Congress are proof enough that the status quo can be changed. The civil rights movement group provides evidence about the power of the people in forcing Congress to work.

Schickler and Lee (2011, pp. 11-13), argue that the current Congress is barely functional. The American people despise the legislative arm of the nation as it rolls from one upheaval to the next. Congress has been criticized for its failure to exercise its role in routine matters such as making budgets and keeping the management offices open. Most scholars use words like ‘unprecedented’ in describing the level of the ineffectiveness of Congress. Moreover, public opinion polls agree that the institution is paralyzed, and the public no longer has faith in it. Mayer and Canon (1999, pp. 7-12) explain the challenges in identifying a single culprit to be responsible for the paralysis. The authors note that the dysfunction is an accumulation of past trends in history. As a result, the appointment of new members dictates that they follow the status quo. Thus, it is unlikely that such trends will change in the future.

Chand and Schreckhise (2013, pp. 404-409) argue that unless the bipartisan nature of the Congress is eliminated, it will always remain dysfunctional. Additionally, the presence of enthusiastic voters compromises the actions of the institution. The Republicans and Democrats continue to elect lawmakers who pledge to support their political ideologies no matter the cost. The two-party system of the United States is supposed to make the politicians set aside their differences and work together. However, Congress is characterized by constant bickering and does very little to cater for the interests of the people.

Chand and Schreckhise (2013, pp. 405-407) note that the bipartisan efforts of Congress have resulted in various catastrophes in the past. In particular, they were the cause of the war in Iraq and the challenges in the financial industry. Furthermore, the efforts have inhibited the passage of proposals to improve the lives of the poor. It is clear that Congress is dysfunctional, and the members cannot work together to enhance the lives of the citizens. The members-only seem to compete over which laws will pass and which ones will not without considering their impact on the people. In conclusion, it is clear that the Congress of the United States has been dysfunctional throughout history. Hence, it has been known to be the most inactive body in the government. Instead of applying its legislative power to pass significant laws, the institution is known to stall the policy-making procedures for its own interest.

Reference List

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Hammond, S. W., 2001, Congressional caucuses in national policymaking, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press. Web.

Indyk, M., Lieberthal, K. & O’Hanl, M. E., 2013, Bending History: Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Washington, DC, Brookings Institution Press. Web.

Johnson, T., 2013. Congress and U.S. Foreign Policy. Web.

Library of Congress, 2015. United States: The Constitution. Web.

Lobel, J., 2009, ‘Conflicts between the Commander in Chief and Congress: Concurrent power over the conduct of war’, Ohio State Law Journal, vol. 69 no.23, pp. 391-467. Web.

Marshall, W. P., 2008, ‘Eleven reasons why presidential power inevitably expands and why it matters’, Boston University Law Review, vol. 88 no. 20, pp. 505-522. Web.

Martin, A. D., 2001,’ Congressional decision-making and the separation of powers’, American Political Science Review, vol.95 no. 2, pp, 361-378. Web.

Mayer, K. R. & Canon, D. T., 1999, The dysfunctional Congress?: The individual roots of an institutional dilemma, Boulder, Westview Press. Web.

Schickler, E. & Lee, F. E., 2011, The Oxford handbook of the American Congress, New York, Oxford University Press. Web.

Smith, S., Roberts, J. & Wielen, R. V., 2013, The American Congress, New York, Cambridge University Press. Web.

Straus, J., 2012, Party and procedure in the United States Congress, Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Web.