Congress and the Constitution

Congress in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Clock 130 minutes

Following the Civil War, the United States would established itself as a world economic power. The promises of freedom and opportunity offered by the United States would attarct many immigrants to the country. These demographic and economic  changes created social pressure which lead progressive reformers to advocate for changes to government. During this period, Congress would passed various reform laws, including  Constitutional amendments which would fundamentally alter the functioning of Congress. Additonally, Congressional rules would change in such a way that would change the internal working of Congress. This lesson examns this period of congressional history and the impact of these reforms on the legislative process.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.

Separation of Powers image

Separation of Powers

A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.


James Madison [Virginia]: Mr. Madison said, that he had brought with him into the Convention a strong bias in favor of an enumeration and definition of the powers necessary to be exercised by the National Legislature; but had also brought doubts concerning its practicability. His wishes remained unaltered; but his doubts had become stronger. What his opinion might ultimately be, he could not yet tell. But he should shrink from nothing which should be found essential to such a form of government as would provide for the safety, liberty and happiness of the community. This being the end of all our deliberations, all the necessary means for attaining it must, however reluctantly, be submitted to. - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (JUNE 6, 1787)


As the United States entered a new century, it found itself a new country. Reborn from the ashes of the Civil War, the nation was establishing itself as a world economic power. The promise of freedom and opportunity had brought millions of European immigrants to the United States, and more were coming. These sweeping changes led many progressive reformers to advocate change at the state and national level. The Congress of the United States, too, was swept up in the spirit of reform. Constitutional amendments passed during this era fundamentally altered how the Congress functions. In addition, Congress changed its rules to reduce the influence of party leadership and decentralize power, distributing it to individual members and committees. As the century progressed, the legislature continued to shift and adapt to better respond to its everexpanding reach.


  • Students will analyze twentieth and twenty-first century reforms of Congress.
  • Students will analyze the difference between constitutional reforms and the reforming of congressional rules.
  • Students will assess the arguments for and against congressional reforms.
  • Students will analyze the effects and significance of these reforms on Congress.


  • Handout A: Background Essay: Congress in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
  • Handout B: Critical Reading Graphic Organizer
  • Handout C: The Indirectly Elected Senate
  • Handout D: The Directly Elected Senate
  • Handout E: The Seventeenth Amendment Class Discussion
  • Handout F: Filibuster
  • Handout G: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Answer Keys

Key Terms

  • Reform
  • Progressivism
  • Vetting
  • Revolt
  • Transformative
  • Reins
  • Seniority
  • Deliberative
  • Interpose
  • Impetuous
  • Impartial
  • Coopted
  • Privileged
  • Coincide
  • Democratize
  • Electoral
  • Filibuster
  • Procedural
  • Coalition
  • Contemptible
  • Cloture
  • “Lame duck”
  • Antiquated


  • NCSS C3 Framework: D1.1.9-12, D2.Civ.2.9-12, D.2.Civ.4.9-12, D2.Civ.5.9-12, D2.Civ.10.9-12, D2.His.2.9-12
  • CCE: I:B, I:D, II:D, III:A, V:C, V:D
  • NCHS: Era 7: Standard 1, Era 7: Standard 3, Era 9: Standard 3, Era 10:Standard 1

Background Homework30 min. total

Background and Warm-up Activity » 20 minutes of Homework, 10 minutes of class time

  1. Prior to the lesson, have your students read Handout A: Background Essay: Congress in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.
  2. When students arrive in class, pass out Handout B: Critical Reading Graphic Organizer.
  3. Have students complete the handout individually or in groups. Then discuss the answers as a class.

Activities 110 min. total

Activity I » 50 minutes

  1. Divide the class in half.
  2. Distribute Handout C: The Indirectly Elected Senate, to one half of the class. Have them read the quotes and answer the questions at the bottom of the page.
  3. Distribute Handout D: The Directly Elected Senate, to the other half of the class. Have them read the quotes and answer questions at the bottom of the page.
  4. Now, switch the sides. Have those who first completed Handout C read Handout D and have those who read Handout D complete Handout C, and answer the questions at the bottom of the page.
  5. Once both sides have completed the handouts, pass out Handout E: The Seventeenth Amendment Class Discussion, and conduct a Socratic discussion with your class.

Activity II » 30 minutes in class, 30 minutes homework

  1. Distribute Handout F: Filibuster to the class.
  2. Distribute the two articles on Handout F or read them together as a class.
  3. Have your students complete the critical reading questions.
  4. As a class, discuss how political views on filibusters change over time.
  5. Have students write letters to the editor outlining their positions regarding a hypothetical controversy explained on Handout F.


  1. Distribute Handout G: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  2. Have your students watch the filibuster clip from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. ( and lead your class in a discussion about the themes in the clip.
  3. After the discussion, have students reassess the letters to the editor that they wrote at the end of Handout F. Did their position change or did it stay the same? Take a class vote to determine the outcomes.

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