Congress and the Constitution

The Nature of Representation in the U.S. Congress

Clock 90 minutes

The framers of the Constitution set up a system of representation for the United States, which although informed by the experiences of other republics, was different from them. The Constitution establishes the legislature and the executive as two independent, but closely connected, branches. Members of the U.S. Congress experience a fundamental tension between being a trustee for the interests of the people and being their delegate. They also must balance the demands of the district with the interest of the nation, as well as determining the appropriate level of political party loyalty.

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.

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

Mr. Mason [Virginia] argued strongly for an election of the larger branch [of the legislature] by the people. It was to be the grand depository of the democratic principles of government. It was, so to speak, to be our House of Commons—It ought to know and sympathize with every part of the community; and ought therefore to be taken not only from the different parts of the whole republic, but from different districts of the larger members of it, which have in several instances, particularly in Virginia, different interests and views arising from difference of produce, of habits, etc. etc…. We ought to attend to the rights of every class of people. - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (MAY 31, 1787)

Overview

The framers of the Constitution set up a system of representation for the United States, which although informed by the experiences of other republics, was different from them. Outside the U.S. today, the main system of representation in republics is the parliamentary system, which lacks separation between the executive and the legislative branch. Under a parliamentary system, the chief executive, usually called a prime minister, is a member of parliament, but the Constitution establishes the legislature and the executive as two independent, but closely connected, branches. Members of the U.S. Congress experience a fundamental tension between being a trustee for the interests of the people and being their delegate. They also must balance the demands of the district with the interest of the nation, as well as determining the appropriate level of political party loyalty.

Objectives

  • Students will identify the chief differences between the U.S. congressional system and a parliamentary system of representation, and evaluate the relative merits of each.
  • Students will identify the chief characteristics of a single member election district and a proportional representation system and evaluate the relative merits of each.
  • Students will distinguish between representation by trustee and representation by delegate, and evaluate the relative merits of each.
  • Students will describe the different competing interests facing a member of the U.S. Congress, and evaluate which interest should supersede the other in different situations.

Materials

  • Handout A: Background Essay— The Nature of Representation in the U.S. Congress
  • Handout B: Two Hypothetical Countries
  • Handout C: Proportional or Single Member Districts?
  • Handout D: Delegate or Trustee?
  • Handout E: Congressional Voting Scenarios: Competing Interests
  • Answer Keys

Key Terms

  • Parliamentary system
  • Chief executive
  • Prime minister
  • Legislature
  • Executive
  • Political party
  • Delegate
  • Trustee
  • Competing Interests

Standards

  • C3 Framework (NCSS): D2.Civ4:6-8; D2.Civ4:9-12; D2.Civ5.6-8; D2.Civ5:9-12; D2.Civ8.6-8; D2.Civ8:9-12; D2.Civ11:6-8; D2.Civ.11:9-12
  • Center for Civic Education (CCE): II.C.2; II.D.4; III.B.1; III.E.6
  • UCLA Department of History (NCHS): Era 3, Standard 3

Background Homework15 min.

Prior to the lesson, have students read Handout A: Background Essay—The Nature of Representation in the U.S. Congress, and answer the Critical Thinking Questions.

Warm-up 5 min.

Students should respond to this question in their class journal or notebook: What are six things that make the job of a member of the U.S. Congress a challenge? Have students share their list with a partner or with the class as time permits.

Activities 85 min. total

Activity I: Two Hypothetical Countries » 10 minutes

  1. Divide students into small groups of 3-5 students.
  2. Give each group a copy of Handout B: Two Hypothetical Countries
  3. Have each group read the handout, and discuss the questions:
    1. In which country does the system of representation most closely resemble a parliamentary system? Why?
    2. In which country does the system of representation most closely resemble the U.S. congressional system? Why?
    3. Encourage students to refer to the background essay as they decide each case.
  4. Have each group share their conclusions with the whole class. Point out why Transalpinia represents the U.S. system, why Tutonia represents a parliamentary system.

Activity II: Proportional or Single Member Districts? » 30 minutes

  1. Distribute a copy of Handout C: Proportional or Single Member Districts? to each student.
  2. Have students read the handout individually and record on their own paper:
    1. List the arguments in favor proportional representation. In your opinion, which of these arguments is the strongest? Why?
    2. List the arguments in favor of single member districts. In your opinion, which of these arguments is the strongest? Why?
    3. Divide students into small groups of three to five students and have each group discuss the question: Which system is better? Why?
  3. Ask students to form an opinion continuum (Take a Stand!)
    1. Have the students “take a stand” or form an “opinion continuum” across the room, with those who most strongly support proportional representation at one end, and the students who most strongly support single member districts on the other. In between, have students arrange themselves according to how strongly they support one system or another. Rather than have undecided students in the middle, you might allow them to keep their seats until students on each side have explained their positions, at which time the undecided students should also take a stand somewhere along the continuum.
  4. Invite students to explain why they are standing where they are standing and dialogue with one another regarding advantages and disadvantages of the positions they have taken. Students may shift positions in the continuum, but must articulate their reasons.

Activity III: Delegate or Trustee? » 15 minutes

  1. In groups or individually, have students review the background essay on the nature of representation. Have them list one or two characteristics of representation as a trustee, and one or two characteristics of representation as a delegate.
  2. Then, with students working either individually or in groups, distribute the cards that make up Handout D: Delegate or Trustee?—a profile of two representatives.
  3. Have the student read the description of each member of Congress, and then write down which representative is acting as trustee, and which is acting as a delegate, and explain why.
  4. Have the students, either individually or in groups, explain the reasons for their choice.

Activity IV: Congressional Voting Scenarios: How do representatives deal with competing interests? » 30 minutes

  1. Have students review the background essay section on competing interests.
  2. Divide students into small groups of three to five students
  3. Give each group the five scenario cards (Handout E: Congressional Voting Scenarios—Competing Interests). For each card have each student read the scenario and then write or discuss the following:
    1. List the competing interests: What are the interests of the district? Of the nation? Of the member’s political party? The member’s own principles?
    2. Explain how they would vote in that situation and why.
    3. Explain whether and in what ways each congressperson is acting as a delegate or as a trustee in making the decision about how to vote.
  4. Hold a class vote on each scenario, and allow students to explain why they are voting in the way they are.
    1. Extension: Have students research a controversial bill or other important vote to write their own scenarios similar to Handout E: Congressional Voting Scenarios: Competing Interests. This could be given in very simple form as a homework assignment, or it could be done in more extensive form as a research paper, depending on the time available in your classroom. Consult resources such as http://billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/headlines/ and http://billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/headlines/separation-of-powers/.

Wrap-up Discussion 5 min.

  1. Have students reflect on the four activities they completed during the lesson, identifying constitutional principles at issue in each one.
  2. Have students write in their class journals, or on another sheet of paper:
    1. Having completed the lesson, is the job of being a representative harder or easier than you thought it might be? Why or why not?
    2. Do you have more or less respect for the way politicians do their job? Why or why not?

Extensions

Have students research a controversial bill or other important vote that has occurred in the U.S. Congress, either in the recent past or the distant past, and have them write their own scenario, indicating the competing interests faced by two different members of Congress, how those representatives voted, why they voted the way they did, and the students assessment of whether they were acting as a delegate or a trustee.

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