By Valerie Reich
Onward and Upward
The ethical implications of Democracy and Capitalism have always garnered fierce debate. Regardless of stance, it is clear that the United States government has a dedication to both of these systems, yet has also bred a societal expectation for blind patriotism that has lead it’s citizens to know very little about their government’s functions. According to VOA News, “Only 20.6 percent of Americans were able to identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution, with more than 60 percent naming Thomas Jefferson, who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.” (Full study here.)
Though the voter turnout for the 2016 election was higher than the previous two elections, the discrepancy between who voted and who didn’t are astonishing. The gap between college educated voters and non-college educated voters was astonishing and continues to grow. According research conducted by the Pew Research Center, policy and candidate support was clearly correlated to educational background.
This lead me to once again question the overarching question of “who gets what kind of education.” If we live in a country devoted to state’s rights, is it truly possible for each child - no matter their location - to get an equal education? Do we have the capacity as a government and society to ensure that the citizens of our country have ample understanding of the system that governs them? If one does not understand something, can one begin to question said system? Furthermore, if one does not understand something, can they have the confidence to fight for the change and betterment of a system if they believe there is something wrong?
Yes, there are more factors to our understanding of the American political system outside of traditional classroom educations. The media is targeted and news can be biased. Yes, the government is an intricate system that manages millions of people so it must be, and needs to be, somewhat relatively complicated and nuanced. Yet when voter turnout is at the equivalent of D- on an academic paper and there is a staggering difference between the popular vote, electoral vote, and the results of the election - something is clearly wrong. There is a lack of understanding about how the government works and how each vote, no matter how seemingly small, really does impact the entire system.
This series of articles will map out the Legislative branch of the government from Congress to local elections. The goal is to provide you, the reader, with a clearer understanding of how the Legislative Branch of the government works and how you, as a voter, can use your voice to change it.
How The Fuck Does It All Work?
The United States government is separated into three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. The Legislative branch, also known colloquially as Congress, is a bicameral legislative entity composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
How Big Is Big?
The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives serves to directly reflect the population by allotting representatives based on the proportional size of districts, whereas the Senate represents citizens in a state equally. The House holds 435 members from each state. U.S. territories such as D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam, have a singular non-voting representative. Representatives, known as Congresswo/man, are elected for two year terms, yet often win on incumbent tickets. A candidate needs to be at least 25 years of age and have been a United States citizen for the last 7 years. A candidate can only run if they are an inhabitant of the state that they are representing.
Members of the House are elected based on their districts created and sized for a variety of reasons. The ethical nature of these districts is consistently called into question. Gerrymandering, or the creation and manipulation of district lines, is an intricate and complicated issue. You can read more about that issue throughout this series. In short, districts have historically been manipulated to decrease the power of minority votes and ensure the continued success of incumbent campaigners.
A collection of positions beyond that of Congressman or Congresswoman exist within the House. An individual can become majority or minority leader, an assistant leader, or a whip.
The Majority and Minority leaders work together to ensure the functionality of Congress as a whole. Each leader is elected by their individual parties. As the representatives for each of their parties, their responsibilities include proportioning the various committees in the House, implementing bills submitted by the President, management of the House committees, and scheduling the House’s floor legislative calendar. An assistant leader is in essence exactly what their title suggests they are; an assistant to the majority or minority leader. House Whips are the enforcers within a party. They ensure discipline within the legislator and keep the voting policies of a party on track.
And What’s The Point?
The House of Representatives has three main goals: to write and pass federal law, to organize and implement committees, and to create federal advisory commissions.
Congressional work itself is enacted through proposals which can exist in four different formats: bill, joint resolution, concurrent resolution and simple resolution. Bills are proposed legislation stemming from the House or Senate and eventually land on the desk of the president. To pass a bill, the House or the Senate need a simple majority in favor. Joint resolutions are legislative measures that need support from both the House and the Senate to the President.
The only difference between a bill and a joint resolutions is that joint resolutions have bipartisan support. In style the differences between bills and joint resolutions are for their usage. Bills are used traditionally to add to the law, while joint resolutions are used to slightly alter law, create appropriations or commissions, and can continue resolutions already in the process of being solved. Concurrent Resolutions primarily are resolutions that deal with both the House and the Senate whereas in a Simple Resolution effects the House or Senate singularly.
Committees are an incredibly important part of the House of Representatives and are used to bring specialized focus on important issues that affect the American public. Committee assignments are made based on a party proportion ratio set by the Majority and Minority leaders. There are currently 20 standing committees that have different legislative jurisdictions. These committees consider bills and issues that affect their specializations and have the responsibility monitor public agencies, programs, and activities. These committees are solely composed of House members.
Author’s Note: If the committees which influence the creation of legislation are based on a proportion of the parties in the House of Representatives, theoretically we could end up with committees that are biased towards one side of an issue. For example, if we have a majority republican house (due to impart because of gerrymandering) that supports the removal of agriculture from America, we could unfairly have one very strong opinion defeating what might be more greatly supported by the public.
Current committees include:
Education and the Workforce
Oversight and Government Reform
Science Space and Technology
- Transportation and Infrastructure
Ways and Means
Committee of the Whole House - rather a fancy label for when the entire house assembles.
The House is also responsible for the creation of commissions that serve as advisory bodies for investigative / policy related issues OR to carry out administrative, interparliamentary, or commemorative tasks. Commissions can be composed of private citizens, House members, or a mix of the two. Examples of these commissions include the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe aka the Helsinki Commision, and the House Page Board. There are a variety of ethical and legal debates on the inclusion of private citizens on committees. The issue overall is attempting to keep personal interest out of the government.
As always, please feel free to comment with questions, concerns, or discussion points.