Functioning of the US Congress

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: UNDERSTANDING THE US GOVERNMENT

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

The individual members of the United States Congress not only have to serve their constituents, but also have to work with one another. How do they handle this strategically? Read on to learn about the puzzling way the US Congress works.

Photo of the US Congress in session.
A member of Congress may feel the pressure to do one thing for his constituency but something different for his political party. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

A puzzling aspect of Congress is how it can be that Congress sometimes passes legislation that a majority of its members oppose.

An example from public policy in agriculture known as price supports, or subsidies, illustrates how this happens.

Agricultural Subsidies for US Farmers

A tractor moving on a green field.
The US government supports several agricultural industries with subsidies. (Image: vlalukinv/Shutterstock)

For a number of decades, the US government has supported several agricultural industries with financial support. Subsidies come in several forms.

A farmer might be paid for growing—or not growing—a particular crop, in order to control its supply on the market. Or, a farmer might be guaranteed a particular price for their crop, no matter what the current market price is.

Agricultural subsidies benefit American farmers and provide stability in their markets. A member of Congress who represents farmers that benefit from subsidies is under great pressure to ensure they continue.

Learn more about the Electoral College.

Downsides of Agricultural Subsidies

However, there are a number of downsides to subsidies. When prices are kept artificially high for cotton, sugar beets, corn, or milk, any product made from these products will also have higher prices. Subsidies help farmers, but they increase prices for consumer goods.

In addition, a farmer who benefits from subsidies is typically able to bring his product to more markets than he would without that aid. This means that other farmers may be excluded from those markets.

Thus, agricultural subsidies are not great public policy for anyone except the farmers who directly benefit.

So, if only a minority of legislators support them, how do they come about?

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Agricultural Subsidy: An Example

The following example explains how this happens. In a small legislature, members are debating two proposed agricultural bills. One of the bills would create subsidies for sugar, and the other would create subsidies for milk products. In this hypothetical legislature, 25% of the legislators come from districts with sugar producers. Another 30% come from districts with milk producers. And 45% of the legislators have districts that include neither of these industries.

The following table shows the first, second, and third ranked policy choices of each group of legislators:

Sugar supporters (25%)Milk supporters (30%)Opponents (45%)
1. Sugar only1. Milk only1. Neither
2. Sugar & Milk2. Milk & Sugar2. Milk only
3. Neither3. Neither3. Sugar only
(Image: TGCD)

Looking at the chart, it can be seen that the sugar supporters prefer a bill that only includes sugar subsidies. If the sugar folks can’t get that bill to pass, then they prefer a bill that includes subsidies for sugar and milk. If those bills won’t fly, then the sugar representatives prefer to pass nothing. It is similar for the milk supporters, whose first choice is for the legislature to pass a bill that only includes milk subsidies.

Among the opponents, this group’s most preferred choice is that neither bill is passed. If one bill must pass, this group prefers the milk only bill, and then the sugar only bill, as a way of minimizing the total amount of subsidies adopted by the legislature.

If a sugar price support bill came to the floor in this legislature, it would lose. The sugar supporters would vote for it, but the milk supporters and opponents would vote no. Also, if a milk only bill came to the floor it would fail because of a unified coalition of sugar supporters and opponents.

Since none of these three groups has an outright majority, none can control the outcome with only the members of their group.

The sugar and milk supporters find that if they form a coalition, however, they can rally enough votes between the two groups to form a majority. So, the sugar and milk supporters strike a deal for a logroll.

Logrolling is the practice of exchanging favors, in this case, vote trading. The sugar supporters agree to vote for milk, and the milk supporters agree to vote for sugar.

Learn more about the concept of civil liberties.

Logrolling

Logrolling is a form of strategic voting behavior that rational political actors use in the course of pursuing their policy and electoral goals. In practice, this can happen a couple of ways.

Photo of the House of Representatives chamber.
Logrolling is the practice of exchanging favors among the members of Congress. (Image: United States House of Representatives/Public domain)

There might be more than one bill on the floor, in which case the members of the groups would just agree to vote for one another’s bill.

More commonly, the two individual bills would be packaged together in a single bill of agricultural subsidies that would include subsidies for both products.

The Farm Bill: A Logroll and a Coalition

Logrolling and coalition-forming behavior are very common in legislative contexts. Every six years, or so, Congress passes a piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill is essentially one giant logroll, filled with a lot of little goodies for a fair number of agricultural constituencies. As a matter of principle, most members of Congress would probably agree that subsidies are not great public policy. Some will even disagree with the policy openly. But when it comes time to vote on the Farm Bill, a broad coalition of legislators climb on board.

Logrolling and coalition formation are key strategies in legislating. Through these strategies, Congress can sometimes pass legislation that a majority of its members oppose on individual grounds.

Learn more about the role of Supreme Court in policymaking.

US Congress: Working among Challenges

To summarize, Congress is a bit broken. Its staff are overworked and underpaid. Its capacity to handle increasingly complicated social and policy issues is strained. It is enormously unpopular, slow, and seems to be constantly plagued with a particularly sour form of partisanship.

But for the most part, it still manages to get the big things done. It funds the government, even if not always very smoothly. It aims to provide oversight of the executive branch, although its oversight is inconsistent now because party loyalty overcomes branch loyalty for many of its members. It performs its basic functions.

Common Questions about the Challenging and Puzzling Way the US Congress Functions

Q: How do agricultural subsidies affect prices for consumer goods?

An increase in the prices of consumer goods is a downside to agricultural subsidies. When prices are kept artificially high for a product, anything made from that product will also have higher prices.

Q: Which are two key strategies in legislating?

Logrolling and coalition formation are key strategies in legislating.

Q: What is logrolling?

Logrolling is the practice of exchanging favors. It is a form of strategic voting behavior that rational political actors use in the course of pursuing their policy and electoral goals.

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