Starter Kit: Legislative Branch

There are 535 people who meet in the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill. They go in, legislation comes out. You can watch the machinations of the House and Senate chambers on C-SPAN, you can read their bills online. But what are the rules of engagement? Where does your Senator go every day, and what do they do? What does it mean to represent the American people?

Our guides to the U.S. Legislative branch are Congressman Chris Pappas, Eleanor Powell, Stefani Langehennig and Emmitt Riley.

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 Please note: this transcript was created using a combination of human and computer transcription – there may be some discrepancies.

Starter Kit: Legislative Branch

CPB: [00:00:00] Civics 101 is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:00:04] You know, as someone who is new on the job. I don't pretend to have all the answers.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:09] This is Chris Pappas on the phone with me a few weeks ago. He's a first term congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he also just so happens to be my representative in New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District. I called him up to ask. In short, what he does all day. What does it mean to be a representative? He get voted into office. You head off to Washington and then what?

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:00:32] You know, there are really two ways that you look to be a good representative. One is by working on legislation here in Washington that can be of help to people back in New Hampshire.

[00:00:46] Another major way is by serving the constituents very directly and helping them with issues that they may have before government.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:52] Lawmaking and problem solving, hashing it out with politicians in Washington and then hashing it out with the public in your district. Being a member of Congress is all meetings and handshakes and promises. It's two houses, 535 people, lots of money and very few laws passed. This is the Civics 101 Starter Kit. This is our legislative branch. I'm Hannah McCarthy.

Nick Capodice: [00:01:19] And I'm Nick Capodice.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:21] We're going to come back to Chris Pappas, Capitol Hill and this idea of the good representative in just a moment, because the whole point of Congress is representation. But first, let's set the stage. The House, the Senate,.

Nick Capodice: [00:01:35] Two houses, both alike in dignity.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:38] Not quite.

Eleanor Powell: [00:01:38] The two chambers actually used to be much more similar originally in Congress. And they've sort of evolved along different paths.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:46] Eleanor Powell stopping us from going full. Romeo and Juliet here.

Nick Capodice: [00:01:50] Darn it.

Eleanor Powell: [00:01:50] So they used to both be so these sort of freewheeling chambers without a lot of rules and without a lot of structure. The House used to look a lot more like the Senate.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:57] Eleanor Powell is the Booth Fowler, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. So constitutionally, states are given two senators each and representatives are apportioned based on population. The first House of Reps had 64 members, all men and the Senate 26 members.

Eleanor Powell: [00:02:16] And over time, they've diverged with the House, had so many people, they had to sort of corral folks and create more rules to have more structure and order the Senate, because they had a small number, a smaller number of delegates sort of maintain their sort of relatively loose structure.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:31] So by way of example, here's a vote on the floor of the House.

House Vote: [00:02:35] Those in favor say I. Those opposed say no. The no's have it. The motion is not the speaker. Mr. Speaker, the gentleman from Texas is right. He now as the recorded vote.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:50] And here is a vote on the floor of the Senate.

Senate Vote: [00:02:52] Mr. Boehner, Mrs. Blackburn, Mr. Blumenthal. Mr. Blunt. Mr. Booker.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:03:05] So the Senate with its 100 members, is considerably quieter than the 435 member House and trying to corral nearly 500 people with lots of very strong ideas means you need rules, lots of rules.

Eleanor Powell: [00:03:25] The House is so big with 435 members. If you let everyone talk endlessly or even talk a fair bit about any piece of legislation, it would just take you forever to pass it. And so the two chambers evolved along these very different paths where, you know, if you actually look at the text of the rules of the two chambers the House has, rules are twice as large as the Senate's just in terms of the number of words. There's just a lot more structure in place for the majority party to try to control what happens in the House.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:03:52] Now, the internal rules of the House may seem like small potatoes, but changing the structure of legislating can have a massive impact on our laws. It means things as mundane as you know. A representative isn't allowed to walk around while the speaker of the House is talking or take out their cell phone. But it can also mean how long a rep can spend debating a bill or how long they have to read that bill before it goes to debate.

Nick Capodice: [00:04:18] Like if you give legislators more time to read a bill, then you eliminate those situations where a bill gets jammed through the House last minute with a bunch of sneaky stuff thrown in.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:27] Exactly. And alternatively, the House could pass a rule that shortens review time to like an hour or two, which would mean that it's easier to get legislation passed without your fellow congresspeople knowing exactly what's in it. One of the first things a new Congress does and we get a new one every two years because representatives search on your terms is ratify the rules for the term. They keep a lot of what the preceding Congress had in place, but they change a lot, too. You do need a two thirds vote to make that happen. But with some concessions to moderates, the majority can get it done. And because the House has this two year turnover, the rules change pretty frequently. Things are a little different in the Senate, though.

Eleanor Powell: [00:05:10] The Senate, by contrast, because senators are elected to six year terms and those are staggered six year terms. So they don't adopt new rules every two years. They essentially their rules continue throughout the course of the Senate. So that means that's actually a little bit harder to change the rules in the Senate, whereas in the House, you can just make whatever shifts you want. At the start of the new Congress, the Senate, you have to decide how you're going to change the rules. And it's pretty hard to technically change the rules.

Nick Capodice: [00:05:41] All right. So if the house's dealer's choice poker where have a majority names the game at the start of every hand.

[00:05:47] The Senate's like a night of Texas Hold'em.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:05:50] Unless, of course, the dealer, a.k.a. the Senate majority leader, opts to go nuclear.

Eleanor Powell: [00:06:07] So the nuclear option, what we've seen in the Senate is actually changing the interpretation of a precedent in terms of how a rule is applied or what the rule applies to. And it turns out you can sort of change the interpretation of a precedent with just a simple majority rule, whereas technically they like do more substantial rule changes. You'd need a larger number of folks on board.

Nick Capodice: [00:06:29] So the Senate majority leader can pretty much turn Texas Hold'em into acey deucey.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:06:34] Final votes on bills in the Senate can pass with a simple majority. But in order to get to that final vote, you need a supermajority that's two thirds vote to end debate on a bill. The minority party will take advantage of this fact and keep debate going endlessly. This is also known as filibustering in order to prevent the final vote from happening. But the Senate majority leader has the power to issue what is called a point of order, where they suspend that two thirds super majority rule in favor of a simple majority of 51 votes. This is the nuclear option. Basically eliminate the minority's stalling tactic so that they can all get to a final vote.

Nick Capodice: [00:07:20] Ok. Because that final vote is a simple majority. It means the majority party can pass legislation they want to without any trouble from the minority party. So wait, why isn't this happening all the time? It basically grants the majority party absolute legislative power.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:35] Well, think about it this way. Senators do have those six year terms, but the elections are staggered, so they're constantly being replaced and the majority party can always flip. So if a Democratic majority leader uses the nuclear option, one year of Republican majority leader might use it the next.

Nick Capodice: [00:07:53] That is a dangerous little game to play, right?

Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:56] If there's any doubt as to whether the legislative branch is exciting. Just remember that stuff like that can go down and the stakes are high.

Nick Capodice: [00:08:03] But what are those stakes exactly? Are they voting on the same thing in the House? In the Senate?

Eleanor Powell: [00:08:08] So they do have notably different power. So that the big distinction is in the House, spending bills have to originate in the House and the Senate has the confirmation power. So essentially, anytime a cabinet secretary or a lower level appointment or an ambassador, any of those things that go through sort of advise and consent, the confirmation of the Senate that only goes through the Senate, not the House.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:08:33] The House is supposed to be the people's chamber. It's big, it's rowdy, it's proportional. And the framers gave the people the power of the purse. That's money bills. They're also the ones who bring impeachment charges. And that's not just against the president. It could be any civil officer of the United States. Of course, the Senate does have to confirm all of those money bills and they get to act as jury in impeachment cases. And then they also get to give advice and consent on presidential appointments.

Nick Capodice: [00:09:02] It feels like the House is sort of the shoot from the hip reach for the stars chamber and the Senate is the let's sit down and think this over for a while. Chamber, just like that hot tea cup and saucer metaphor that George Washington may or may not have invented, that the house is the hot tea and the Senate is the saucer that cools the tea.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:19] Which makes sense if you think about the House as a microcosm of the country at large and the Senate as a slightly more curated group.

[00:09:27] The House also gets to choose the president. If no candidate gets an electoral majority, the Senate gets to pick the vice president in that situation. Oh, and fun fact. The speaker of the House is actually third in line for the presidency.

Nick Capodice: [00:09:42] That is way more power than I expected the speaker of the House to have. And it brings something up that I would like to get straight. Leadership positions.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:50] Yes.

Stefani Langehennig: [00:09:51] It's I would say unquestionably the most important formal duty for the parties is selecting chamber leadership.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:57] This is Stephanie Langehennig. She researches U.S. politics and policy. And she gave me the rundown on leadership, starting with the speaker of the House.

Stefani Langehennig: [00:10:06] There are a limited set of kind of official duties that are defined by the chamber rules. So these, you know, include deciding who can speak on the floor and how the agenda is going to be structured and how different information is going to be disseminated and controlled.

Nick Capodice: [00:10:20] Does that mean they can prevent any bills from coming to the floor for a vote whatsoever?

Hannah McCarthy: [00:10:25] Exactly. It's a ton of power. And the speaker who gets elected by the House, the beginning of every term, also has political sway over committee appointments, which is also really big because it's in committee that most bills live or die if you get a good appointment. You can have a say in whether the bills that matter most, you actually make it to the floor.

Stefani Langehennig: [00:10:45] Basically, the remaining party leadership structure in the House in the Senate is determined by the party caucus organizations. So in the House, the majority leader and the majority whip. So the person who's whipping up the votes, it's literally call that for that reason. So you go into, you know, the Democratic Party and try to get them to vote on certain pieces of legislation. We're doing the dirty work. I would say, but they operate just below the speaker in terms of party leadership and then below that are these other secondary leadership positions that are also a part of the broader sort of majority party organizations.

Nick Capodice: [00:11:21] Okay, then who's the speaker of the Senate in the Senate?

Stefani Langehennig: [00:11:23] There is no speaker in the Senate.

[00:11:28] So for the Constitution, the president of the Senate is the vice president of the US. So right now, that's Mike Pence. And so the president of the Senate technically presides over the chambers proceedings, though the rules of the Senate get the holder of this position little authority. It's actually pretty ceremonial, I would say. However, I should also say that in recent years we've seen the president of the Senate or the V.P. come in and be the tiebreaker. Right. So we've seen Mike Pence come to the Hill a few times and break ties in the Senate so they can be really important. However, by and large, they don't really do much.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:12:06] Most of the time, actually, the vice president doesn't even show and the Senate has to appoint an interim presiding officer that they call the pro tempore, a president of the Senate, which actually has a really boring job because at any one time there aren't that many people out on the floor.

Stefani Langehennig: [00:12:21] And so the majority leader is actually the most powerful Senate leader, I think, because the majority party leaders have so much power and they they really dictate how the agenda said.

[00:12:35] They hold an enormous amount of influence in the way that policymaking and just the general flow of the day to day plays out.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:12:45] As we know, the majority leader has that nuclear card in their back pocket. But being in charge of the agenda is a huge deal, too, as we know. It means that you get to decide what's going to be debated on a given day, which means you can also decide what will not be debated. The rest of the structure is pretty similar to the House. So the Senate's also got whips, majority and minority, who help the majority and minority leaders respectively. There are caucus chairs who preside over caucus meetings, conference chairs who organized party members.

Nick Capodice: [00:13:13] Hold on the word caucuses.

[00:13:15] I hear that word all the time and I'm not sure exactly what it means.

Stefani Langehennig: [00:13:18] Caucuses are organizations that can effectively be whatever you want them to be, right? You've got really popular ones like the Blue Dog Democrats or the Congressional Black Caucus or, you know, the Freedom Caucus, things like that, where it's pretty easy to find a membership. Well, I should say the Freedom Caucus is not easy to find a membership on record for. But the Congressional Black Caucus, you can find, you know, a Web site and who's in there? Their caucus. And how many people are in it and what their policy priorities are. But some of these other ones are really pretty low key and hard to get a handle on.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:13:55] In the House, caucuses are formal. They receive recognition and funding from the chamber in the Senate. They're informal and they don't. A caucus is basically a club with a focused interest that meets and discusses how to get legislation passed that benefits that interest. There are loads of caucuses and they cover everything from biomedical research and climate solutions to wrestling and bourbon.

Nick Capodice: [00:14:19] I'd join the Bourbon Caucus.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:20] You and me both, pal.

Nick Capodice: [00:14:21] Okay. I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp of how the structure works. But what does the day to day actually look like?

Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:28] I think it's time to bring Congressman Pappas back on.

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:14:30] You know, the average day in Washington will start at between 8:00 and 9:00 at some point.

[00:14:39] And typically, you know, it might start with a caucus meeting for the Republicans and Democrats have caucuses in the morning.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:48] Chris Pappas is co-chair of the LGBT Equality and the New Democrat Coalition caucuses. So he starts the day by meeting with like minded legislators.

[00:14:57] Following that, the House session opens up. And so you might be giving brief remarks on the piece of legislation or something that's happening in your district that you want to raise for your colleagues. Committee meetings happen and sometimes they happen at exactly the same time.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:15:15] If Congress is in session, you show up at the Capitol building and you get to work. Sometimes you're on the floor talking about a bill. Sometimes you're in a committee meeting.

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:15:23] You might be running from one committee hearing where you want to hear a witness, ask them questions and then head off to another one. Or you can be a part of that discussion, too.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:15:32] Committees are where bills are discussed after they're introduced. Congressman Pappas is on the Veterans Affairs Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:15:41] And then typically in the afternoon is when votes will start happening. So. Well, you know, you've been in committee. There's debate happening on the floor. You know, you stay up to date on that through your staff and then you take votes and sometimes back and last throughout the afternoon and into the evening.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:15:58] All of this, by the way, is sound tracked by a system of coded bells that tell legislators about what's. Going on on the floor, though, it typically falls to staffers to learn the codes and make sure their lawmaker doesn't miss a vote.

Nick Capodice: [00:16:11] I want to learn the bell code. I really do.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:14] We'll learn it. Let's learn it. The bell code here.

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:16:17] We have no staff in DC to act in the district and there are committee staff resources that are available to you to help you understand issues that help you draft legislation or amendments to the bill.

[00:16:31] And so, you know, it's really a force multiplier for you to do your job well and to make sure that you're addressing the concerns of folks back home.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:41] Ok. The folks back home. The house has district work, period. The Senate has state work periods. This means they're not in session, but they're supposed to go back home and talk to their constituents. It's easy to think of these as congressional vacations, but during this period, Congressman Pappas is most likely not sitting on a beach with my time. He's back home figuring out what people need and want from him.

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:17:04] Back in New Hampshire, you know, we're invited to attend things seven days a week and we look to be proactive, to add ways to do outreach and to get me in front of constituents.

[00:17:16] And so, yeah, that doesn't really seem to be a typical day there.

[00:17:20] But whatever we're called on to show up and to engage with folks, we're ready and willing to do it.

Nick Capodice: [00:17:26] Okay. Hannah, representation. We come back to right where we started. These legislators are supposed to be listening to us, reflecting what we want and giving us what we want.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:17:36] Right. That's the idea. And I think that this is where things can kind of fall apart. You know, I think of some of these all white, all male state legislatures that often have women and people of color saying, hey, you know, it's not fair that you get to make my laws. You don't reflect me.

Congressman Chris Pappas: [00:17:52] It's critical that here in Washington we have a reflection of the people of this country, the diversity that exists around this nation and what people are looking for out of the public policy making process.

Nick Capodice: [00:18:05] But at the federal level, we've got our most diverse legislature yet. Right.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:18:09] Right. But I guess my question is, what does a reflection of the people really mean? Just because I or a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community or a member of any other number of minority groups can look at our House or Senate and find someone who looks like them or has a similar background. Does that mean that Congress is really, truly representing this country?

Emmitt Riley: [00:18:34] If we were to dissect the concept of representation, the first concept, we have to talk about his formal representation. This is Emmett Riley. No, I'm an assistant professor of Africana Studies and Political Science, and I'm also affiliated faculty with the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at DePaul University in Green Castle, Indiana.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:18:55] I called Emmett up to well, first, just establish our terms. You know, what does representation actually mean?

Emmitt Riley: [00:19:01] Formal representation. And that is the notion that anyone who is elected to an institution formally represents a person. This has nothing to do with their policy preferences. It has nothing to do with their race, their gender. This is the notion that by virtue of being elected to a certain institution, I am formally representing the American people. Then we go a step farther and begin to look at what we call descriptive representation, or most textbooks will call these sociological representation. And that is the degree to which people who are elected share features that we have, such as are race or gender or ethnicity, our heritage, our sexuality, all of those things.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:19:41] So now that we've got the most diverse Congress ever, does that mean that we're really representing, really reflecting the population's wants and needs at the legislative level?

Emmitt Riley: [00:19:51] And so when we look at that and we tie this into the political institution of the United States Congress, we see that the diversity that is reflected within the American population is represented in Congress, despite the fact that this last Congress that we elected is the most diverse Congress in our in congressional history. It still does not mirror the population that we have in the United States.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:20:18] What it saying here is that even though there are more people of color and women in Congress, it's still an institution that is predominantly white and upper class, which is not what America looks like.

Nick Capodice: [00:20:29] So what would happen if Congress did look more like the American population?

Emmitt Riley: [00:20:32] The diversity in the makeup of the composition of an institution has profound consequences on the types of policies that are produced. That is, what types of policies do women pursue if they're given a chance to be to be represented in Congress? Do those interests intersect with black interests or other minority interests? And so the research overwhelmingly supports the notion that having a diverse body in Congress typically leads to a more diversity in the outputs in the type of bills that are introduced.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:21:04] And representation can mean something more than just the bills introduced.

[00:21:10] It can affect us as voters.

Emmitt Riley: [00:21:13] We also have to look at the impact that this representation has on levels of political engagement, in terms of voting, in terms of registration, in terms of campaigning, in terms of donating to campaigns. And so far, people are more likely to vote if there is a candidate in an election that looks like them, that shares their background, that shares their interests or have similar political interests that they have. And so we note it in particular in our scholarship that the more minorities who are running for office typically increases the number of minorities who are engaged.

Nick Capodice: [00:21:45] Okay.

[00:21:45] So having a diverse Congress can mean engaging a more diverse population.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:21:49] And a more engaged, diverse population means more votes for people who really represent us, which ultimately is what this whole mess is about. The legislative branch, as high and mighty and distant as it seems is supposed to be us. And the louder we are and the more we demand that it reflects us, the more it actually does.

Nick Capodice: [00:22:12] So as per usual, Hannah, your advice is get out there and vote.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:22:15] Yeah. Strength in numbers, my friend. Please listen carefully.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:22:24] Now, if you're sitting there thinking to yourself, that's it. You forgot the whole lawmaking part of being a legislator, Hanna, and you'll never work in this town again. Well, pump the brakes. Dear listener, because we've got a whole episode on how a bill becomes a law. In this starter kit, now that you know the framework of Congress, you're ready to learn what goes on inside of it. This episode of Civics, when one was produced by me, Hannah McCarthy with Nick Capodice.

Nick Capodice: [00:22:47] Editing help from Jackie Fulton. Erica Janik is the one who schedules back to back committee meetings and skips them all day to hang out with her dog.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:22:54] Maureen McMurray thinks rules were meant to be broken.

Nick Capodice: [00:22:57] Music in this episode by Yung Kartz, Quincas Moreira, Shaolin Dub, Christian Bjoerklund, Blue Dot Sessions and Jazzhar.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:23:04] There's a lot more to see and hear at our website, including our newsletter subscription sign up every other week. We put all the fun stuff that does not make it into the episodes into our extra credit newsletter that is at civics one to one podcast dot org slash extra credit.

Nick Capodice: [00:23:17] Civics 101 is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and is a production of NHPR.

[00:23:23] New Hampshire Public Radio.

[00:23:24] Dude we're gonna make a game called Senate Bells.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:23:36] That sounds really boring.

Nick Capodice: [00:23:36] It's really called you don't have the bell. The Tin Tin adulation, the Tin Tin adulation of the Senate bells bells . Was it the Senate we're in or in the House? We're in the House bells.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:23:47] It's all Capitol Hill.




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