Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rules and Normal Behavior in the United States Congress

Throughout the course of our study of the structure and function of congress, one characteristic that interested me the most was the norms of Congress as well as the written and unwritten rules that Congressmen follow. As in the case of any organized institution rules and regulations are needed in order to ensure that the said organization achieves goals and operates efficiently. The interesting thing about the rules and norms of Congress is the fact that these rules and norms change as the institutions members change. Because the institution is just a tool for it’s’ members to use to benefit their constituents, it is no wonder that the right for Congress to set their own rules is granted within the Constitution. The regulations made by Congress allow for stability, division of labor, and distribution of power between different members of the house. While rules do play their vital role, the behavioral norms of a Congressman are clear. These social norms are something that every member of Congress needs to follow in order to increase the longevity of their career. Some of these norms include holding friendly relationships with other representatives (senators), never personally criticizing a colleague on the floor, and the fact that freshman should serve apprenticeships before they hold more important roles within Congress. Of all of the rules, regulations, and behavioral norms, there are four main behavioral norms in which stand out above the rest. These behavioral norms are the most prevalent and include Seniority, Specialization, Reciprocity, and Institutional Loyalty. Through the course materials as well as video from C-SPAN these rules and behavioral norms are very easy to see.
Although there is no mandate that grants increased power to senior Congressmen, the rules of Congress have shifted over time to allow preferences for members who hold seniority. Seniority does not come from the age of the Congressmen, but rather from a few different factors, most importantly the amount of time they have served as either a State Representative or a Senator. Some of the power that senior members can wield is the right to choose which committee assignments they will work on. This form of seniority is based upon the amount of time that the Congressman has been a member of that particular committee, not based upon their overall time spent as a Congressman. Other rights that senior members have are less important such as the right to choose a desk closer to the front of the Senate Chamber as well as the ability to claim better offices as they become emptied. A visual aid to the importance of seniority can be seen in the following video clip. The video contains the opening of a speech delivered by Democrat Senator Jack Reed talking about the importance of Democratic Senator Robert Byrd. Senator Byrd became the longest serving member of Congress ever in November 2009, and is currently both the senior Senator and the President pro tempore.

Seniority plays a key role in the way Congressmen act towards each other as well as the differing rights they have between them. While a senior Congressman may be able to choose which particular committee they will serve on, many of the other aspects of being a senior Congressman are for lack of a better word perks. This is where the second major norm of behavior fits into Congress. Specialization pays more attention towards what a representative has done and what knowledge they have gained through their service in either the Senate or House of Representatives. At the same time it pays no attention to what a representative has done or the knowledge he gained prior to the beginning of his service. While it may be true that most senior representatives have more knowledge than most junior representatives, they may be specialized towards another project leaving room for younger representatives to fill their slots. Because Congressmen have to balance a variety of different issues specialization has huge importance. For example a senator can be specialized towards bills dealing with economic sanctions. One of his colleagues knows less about economic bills but is specialized towards bills dealing with the protection of wildlife. When the bills these senators are working on come to a vote each one will probably know very little about the others bill. In order to ensure that voting is efficient these senators focus on their own bill, and then rely on one another’s expertise to make the correct vote on the their colleagues bill. This division of labor allows for more work to be done in less time because not everyone has to be an expert on every issue.
Because Congressmen rely on the support of their fellow colleagues for support there is a strong behavioral norm of Reciprocity. If you assist one of your fellow congressmen then he will likely do the same and support you. Another important aspect of reciprocity is to never speak out against another person’s project; otherwise you could face stronger opposition when you are looking for support for your project. Another form of reciprocity can come in the form of an earmark or a ‘pork project’. An earmark would refer to a congressman adding a portion to an appropriation bill that would both be tax free as well as would cause the appropriation bill to cause a greater cost. One way that a congressman could reciprocate support for another congressman would be to allow his to earmark his project. Many Congressmen opposes the concept of earmarks. In the video clip posted below Senators DeMint and McCain show their support for the ending of earmarking bills.

Another form of reciprocity comes in the form of a ‘pork project’. A pork project is a way for a congressman to receive funding for a specific area yet the bill that passes spreads the taxation over the rest of the population. Examples often include large scale building projects that really don’t benefit anyone but the people living within a close proximity to the project. The video clip below is about The Congressional Pig Book. This book described by Tom Schatz is a list of all of the pork projects issued by the U.S. Congress in 2007. Schatz often sites that the spending is both wasteful and does not benefit the vast majority of taxpayers.

The final major norm of behavior that all Congressmen follow is the behavior of Institutional Loyalty. Institutional Loyalty is the concept of supporting your political party because it increases the strength of your voting power. For example if a Congressman was to vote the opposite of the rest of the way his fellow constituents did he would be showing institutional disloyalty because he chose to vote in a manner that supported his opinion, rather than the opinion of his party as a whole. It is important to have institutional loyalty especially if you are the minority party within either the House of Representatives or Senate. If you are the majority it is also important because even though you should already have an advantage, institutional disloyalty can lead to a victory for the minority party.
While the previous paragraphs have described the major norms of behavior, there are also consequences for not following these norms. One risk that a Congressman would be taking would be ruining his chances for re-election. Another would be limiting his role in projects and on committees. Some of the more severe penalties for breaking procedure and conduct codes can lead to censures, reprimands, and even expulsion. If a Congressman breaks a code of conduct or behavioral norm he can even resign as in the case of Trent Lott. On the 100th birthday of Senator Strom Thurmond, Senator Lott spoke positively about a man who had once run for presidency while supporting racial segregation. Obviously Senator Lott felt that he had acted inappropriately in the chamber and resigned.
In closing the importance of the rules of congress and the understood way to behave in congress are very apparent today. In order for such a powerful organization to function in a proper and efficient way, these rules and regulations must be followed. Without the structure that Congress has created for itself, it would not be able to effectively serve the people. Whether it is from simple behavioral norms like conducting yourself in a positive manner, or one of the four major norms, they are there for a reason. In short, I believe that if Congressmen did not have the freedom to conduct it in the manner it sees fit, it would not accomplish enough to appease the American public.


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