How Congress Operates

How Congress Operates

William B. Turner

It seems clear that a lot of the U.S. public does not know how Congress operates. There was a story circulating recently about a group who got arrested for occupying the office of Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip, a Democrat who represents a district in Maryland.

This is silly. Protest, up to and including civil disobedience, is an important part of the political repertoire of the United States. We founded the Republic on protest. But to be effective, protest needs to be smart and strategic.

A lot of people are disgusted with Congress right now, but the problem is not with Congress as a whole. The problem is with the Republicans. The Democrats are far from perfect. They’re humans, and humans are not perfect.

But the Republicans have controlled both Houses of Congress since January 2015. In both Houses, the Party with the majority chooses the leader of the House. So both the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader (note – *majority* leader) of the Senate have been Republicans since that time. Those two individuals set the agendas for their respective Houses. They decide which bills will come up for a vote when. If they do not want to consider a bill, there is almost zero chance of the bill getting a vote. There are ways for members to force the issue, but that happens only very rarely.

If you really want to keep track of what Congress is doing, the web site for that purpose is here.

Both Houses depend heavily on committees to do their work. Every bill that anyone introduces gets referred to a committee, which can hold hearings and take various other steps to consider the bill and decide if they want to recommend it to the rest of the House. The committees are very powerful. They especially have the power to prevent bills from advancing. All of the chairs of the committees come from the majority Party.

Especially with the Republicans in control, we have seen a lot of stories in the press about maneuvering by congressional leadership to gather enough votes to ensure passage of a particular piece of legislation. On the one hand, Party loyalty is the only advantage Republicans have in governing. On the other hand, Republicans also have a prominent, recalcitrant rump of “conservatives” who will not hesitate to defy the Party leadership in pursuit of their crazy partisan agenda.

The whips in Congress are the people who’s job is to keep track of which member is voting which way on a bill and to try to persuade members to vote with the leadership. It can be an important position, but mostly only for the Party that holds the majority. The minority whip, in contrast, only barely has any more power than any ordinary member. To occupy that person’s office is a complete waste of time.

At the moment, however, the key concern is the crazy man who is playing at being president, and doing it badly. Democrats have forced one vote on articles of impeachment in the House, which failed, as everyone knew it would, and they now plan another one, in light of the notorious “shithole” comment. This one will likely fail as well, but it does put the issue in front of the House and put members on record about it.

But the take home message here is that the minority Party can accomplish very little in Congress. The Senate does have the filibuster option for the minority to stop legislation, but the House has nothing comparable.

So save your fury and your protests for the majority Party in Congress.