Government Structure: 3. The US Legislative Branch

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The US congress consists of the Senate, with 100 members (two from each state) and the House of Representatives, with 435 members. While the total number of House members is capped under law at 435, the number each state has is periodically apportioned based on population, subject to a minimum of 1 Representative per state (like Vermont).

House districts are formed by the states with a requirement that they each have roughly the same population. Typically, redistricting occurs every 10 years after each national census.

Gerrymandering, where districts are designed to hold compelling majorities of registered voters for a particular party, is a longstanding and common practice in many states. States with Republican controlled state governments (now the majority of states) will tend to have a majority of House districts that are strongly Republican and states with Democratic controlled state governments the reverse.

This is one reason why we have the “red state/blue state” distinction so often mentioned in the media. So, even as public attitudes and opinions shift from right to left and back again, the ability to change the composition of the House of Representatives is restrained and slowed.

The US congress operates much like the legislature of Vermont, with leadership vested in the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Temp of the Senate, Committee Heads and each chamber’s majority and minority leader. There are 21 standing committees in each house, a number of permanent joint committees, specialized select committees formed from time to time and conference committees to focus on specific pieces of legislation.

The agenda of Congress and its ability to pass new legislation is very much dependent on which political party holds a majority in both houses and which party the President represents. In the last thirty years, the majority party controlling both houses has changed four times. During four of those years, different parties controlled different houses. Only during ten years was the President in the same party as the congressional majority.

It is rare to get major legislation passed when the President and Congress represent different parties. If recent history is any guide, US voters seem to prefer a President in one party and a congressional majority in another. Given the extreme wings of both parties, perhaps this is not a bad outcome.

Under the constitution, legislation can be passed with a simple majority vote of both houses. However, parliamentary rules in the Senate permit filibusters. Any senator, under the rules, is allowed to speak as long as he/she wants on any topic whatsoever. These filibusters are used to prevent legislation from ever coming to a vote.

To stop a filibuster, 60 of 100 senators must vote to do so. As a result, many pieces of major legislation require 60% approval in the Senate to pass. The last time a single political party controlled 60% of the Senate was in 1977. This rule tends to give the minority party a voice in decision making leading to compromise. However, when partisan spirits are running high, it can lead to gridlock.

Our Senators and Congressmen make a salary of $174,000 per year, with the Speaker, President Pro Temp and Majority/Minority leaders all making a bit more.

In the House, there is a Members Representative Allowance for staff and out of pocket expenses. This ranges from $1.25 to $1.5 million each. On average, just over $900,000 of this allowance is for staff costs, and each member is allowed a staff of up to 18 people. That leaves $300 to $400 thousand a year for expenses.

The Senate has the Senators Office Personnel and Office Expense Account. This ranges from $2.9 million to $4.7 million depending on the size of the state. There are no limits on staff size. None of our congressmen are going hungry.

Contrary to popular perceptions, our Congressmen do not get paid for life after serving only one term. Congressmen participate in a defined benefit pension plan that vests after 5 years of service, so House members need to serve in a third term and Senators need serve only one term. The pension pays out a percentage of the top three years of salary based on a scale tied to the total number of years of service once retirement age is reached.

They also participate in the federal government health insurance scheme and their subsidies are no greater than the average federal employee. All in all, taking into account pay, expense accounts, staff and benefits, not a bad job. Unfortunately, the need to get elected every two or six years costs a lot of money, but there is plenty of cash waiting to help.

Trade unions, public interest groups and businesses have long sponsored lobbying efforts in Washington as well as state and local governments. There was for a long time a balance of power between the competing interests of unions, public interest groups and businesses. Today, business lobbying outspends all other interests by a wide margin.

From 1998 to 2016, all of the top twenty spending lobbyists were business interests. The top spenders during this period were the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, the American Medical Association, General Electric, the American Hospital Association, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, AARP, Northrop Grumman and Boeing.[1] It should be no shock that real estate (national mortgage insurance), healthcare (Medicare & Medicaid) and defense (the largest defense budget in the history of mankind) comprise the bulk of the top ten lobbyists.

There are over 10,000 registered lobbyists in Washington and they spent $2.6 billion in 2015, more than the combined budget for the House and Senate.[2]

They hire professional staffs, conduct studies, hold seminars, finance public relations campaigns and generally advocate to a) influence the legislative agenda, b) propose language on specific legislation and c) defeat or pass legislation up for a vote. The lobbyist organizations have offices in Washington and operate 365 days a year. They have the resources to assemble a team of experts on any topic or issue that they choose. While the law prohibits gifts to congressmen, lobbyists can become the “experts” on complex legislation and provide their legislative allies with the arguments and data they need to win the day.

While gifts to congressmen are banned, nothing stops a business from both being a lobbyist and a PAC, or, since 2010, a Super PAC. Indeed, most corporations who lobby also have PAC’s. So, Washington now combines advocacy with campaign money. This can’t be good for the country.

[1] Lobbying Spending Database, OpenSecrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=s

[2] “How Corporate Lobbyists Conquered American Democracy”, The Atlantic, April 20, 2015

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