Congress and the Constitution

Congress in the Modern Era

Clock 105 minutes

Congress was designed to be a slow and deliberative body with the intention that it provide stability and place the public interest at the center of its decisions.  Over time, however, Congress has changed and become a less deliberative body, focusing more on individual members’ interests rather than the interests of the nation as a whole.

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.

Quotes

Gouverneur Morris [Pennsylvania]: The best course that could be taken would be to leave the interests of the people to the representatives of the people. - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (MAY 31, 1787)

Overview

The Founders created a Congress designed to protect the public interest while balancing the conflicting views and concerns of citizens. Accordingly they designed the legislative process to be slow and messy. The goal was for Congress to be a deliberative body rather than a decisive one. This slow pace provides some of the checks that the Founders wanted to achieve. At times, the elected officials operate in turbulent and contentious waters; at other times, the members of the opposing parties reach collegial arrangements that place the interest of the public at the center of the decision. But over time Congress has changed and become a less deliberative body, focusing more on individual members’ interests rather than the interests of the nation as a whole.

Objectives

  • Students will evaluate the practical functions of congressional offices.
  • Students will explain how the day-to-day operations of a congressional office affect the congressional re-election of the candidate.
  • Students will evaluate the purpose and performance of the modern Congress.

Materials

  • Handout A: Background Essay: Congress in the Modern Era
  • Handout B: Chart-Congressional Member’s Staff
  • Handout C: Political Cartoons
  • Handout D: Walter J. Oleszek, “Congressional Oversight: An Overview”
  • Chart or butcher paper or poster board
  • “Congressional Decisions: Crash Course Government and Politics” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT9ipQdYL-s (time: 6:35)

Key Terms

  • Casework
  • Congressional support staff
  • Dysfunction
  • Oversight
  • Gridlock
  • Patronage
  • Special interest groups (SIGs)

Standards

NCSS C3 Framework: D2.Civ.4.6; D2.Civ.4.9-12; D2.Civ.5.9-12
Center for Civic Education: CCE III, B, 1; CEE III, E, 3; CEE III, 4; CEE III, 5
UCLA Department of History (NCHS): Era 10 (Contemporary U.S. 1968-Present)-Standard 1B; Standard 2E

Background Homework30 min.

  1. Have students read Handout A: Background Essay—Congress in the Modern Era. Direct the students to number the paragraphs as they read, and to annotate the reading to identify key ideas, unfamiliar vocabulary and support information. Students will answer the critical thinking questions at the end of the passage.
  2. Before class, prepare large sheets of chart paper, butcher paper, or poster board for groups of 3-4 students.
  3. Prior to class divide students into groups of 3-4 depending on size of class so they can quickly move into work groups. Teachers might post a list on the board so students may check as they enter to save class time.

Warm-up 5 min.

As students enter, have them check the group assigned. Have students number the paragraphs from 1 to 16. Students will review the annotations from the previous night’s reading individually.

Activities 75 min. total

Activity II: Congressional Staff » 30 minutes

  1. Distribute Handout B: Congressional Member’s Staff Chart to the class and read the directions together; explain that they will find most of the information needed in the essay read for homework. Using Handout A, have students work in their small groups to complete Handout B: Congressional Member’s Staff Chart.
    1. The students will also use the website identified under the directions (http://www.congressfoundation.org/congressional-operations/new-member-resource-center/136-job-descriptions-house-office-sample) to learn about the role of the Home Staff within the member’s district office. Ask the student to answer the questions in the space below the chart.
    2. Discuss students’ answers. Check that they understand that while the focus is different, each of the offices provides support to the member in carrying out his or her roles as an elected delegate. Remind students that in previous lessons, they learned the roles of the member of Congress. The teacher should list those roles on the board: lawmaker/legislator, representative of their constituents, members of committees, caseworker, and politician. Ask students to suggest ways the two kinds of staff members (Capitol Hill and District) help in each of these roles.
    3. As a class, discuss how the day-to-day operations of these congressional offices affect the reelection of the candidate. Have the student give a specific example of how the congressional offices might help and how they could hurt the candidate.

Activity III: Video » 20 minutes

  1. Either show the YouTube video in class or ask students to view for homework. The teacher may download the video before class if YouTube is blocked at their school.
    1. “Congressional Decisions: Crash Course Government and Politics” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT9ipQdYL-s (time 6:35)
    2. Before discussing the video, directly teach the vocabulary. Ask students which terms were presented in the video. Ask for examples.
      1. Casework
      2. Congressional support staff
      3. Dysfunction
      4. Oversight
      5. Gridlock
      6. Patronage
      7. Special interest groups (SIGs)
    3. Remind students to take notes. Briefly discuss why representatives in Congress do what they do.

Activity IV: Political Cartoons » 25 minutes

  1. Review the term dysfunction as a class.
  2. Distribute Handout C: Political Cartoons to each student. Ask students to examine the cartoons, discuss with a partner, and respond to questions.
    • After they write their response, call on several students to explain their answers.
  3. Put the following quote on the board or document camera. Remind students of the Federalist Papers. Have each student write in their note books, or on paper to turn in, what the student believes Madison meant by the statement in Federalist No. 51:

    “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” James Madison, Federalist No. 51

  4. Give students just 5 minutes to write. Then, ask students to skip a line and write a sentence or two that describes how the quote might be linked to the cartoons.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

  1. Use the Gallup Poll from November 2015 to generate reflections on the lesson and how the figures reflect on the dysfunction of Congress. Project on screen or make copies. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx
  2. Ask students to explain the data using these questions:
    1. What trend does the graph indicate?
    2. What might account for the trend?
    3. Since 1974, when did the public record the highest approval rating for Congress?
    4. What might be a reason for the difference in the approval rating?

Homework Options

  1. For homework, ask students to write a one-page description of how the day-to-day operations of a congressional office affect the congressional re-election of the candidate.
  2. Assign students to search online for articles and sources related to congressional dysfunction or reform. Students are to read one of their articles and present a summary to the class. The student should make some connection to the current congressional difficulties.
  3. Have students contact the office of their member of Congress. If they are not certain who that is, they can use the link http://www.house.gov/representatives/find to find the member using the student’s zip code. Clicking on the member’s name will take the student to the Congress member’s webpage, which will contain the mailing addresses and email address for the district and Capitol Hill offices.
    1. Students should write and mail a letter to their representative. Students should determine a central question to ask their representative that is related to this lesson. Possible questions students could ask include:
      1. What is your legislative philosophy? By being a member of Congress, what do you hope to achieve for your constituents and for the nation?
      2. What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a member of Congress? How did you respond to these challenges?
      3. How do you view political parties, and how do they influence, if at all, how you vote on legislation? Do you believe parties help Congress members complete their work, or do they harm the legislative process?
      4. What inspired you to run for office? What goal did you set for yourself that you are most proud of accomplishing?
      5. Do you believe Congress is dysfunctional, or does it function as intended? If you could change the way Congress works, how would you change it?
    2. On their member’s website, students can also see when their member will be in the district to meet and interact with constituents. They may choose to attend an event and ask these questions in person.

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