Informal Practices of Congress

In contrast to European parliamentary systems, the selection and behavior of U.S. legislators has little to do with central party discipline. Each of the major American political parties is basically a coalition of local and state organizations which join together as a functioning national party -- Republican or Democratic -- during the presidential elections at four-year intervals. Thus the members of Congress owe their positions to their local or state electorate, not to the national party leadership nor to their congressional colleagues. As a result, the legislative behavior of representatives and senators tends to be individualistic and idiosyncratic, reflecting the great variety of electorates represented and the freedom that comes from having built a loyal personal constituency.

Congress is thus a collegial and not a hierarchical body. Power does not flow from the top down, as in a corporation, but in practically every direction. There is only minimal centralized authority, since the power to punish or reward is slight. Congressional policies are made by shifting coalitions which may vary from issue to issue. Sometimes, where there are conflicting pressures -- from the White House and from important economic or ethnic groups -- legislators will use the rules of procedure to delay a decision so as to avoid alienating an influential sector.

A matter may be postponed on the grounds that the relevant committee held insufficient public hearings. Or Congress may direct an agency to prepare a detailed report before an issue is considered. Or a measure may be put aside ("tabled") by either house, thus effectively defeating it without rendering a judgment on its substance.

There are informal or unwritten norms of behavior that often determine the assignments and influence of a particular member. "Insiders," representatives and senators who concentrate on their legislative duties, may be more powerful within the Halls of Congress than "outsiders," who gain recognition by speaking out on national issues. Members are expected to show courtesy toward their colleagues and to avoid personal attacks, no matter how extreme or unpalatable their opponents policies may be. Members are also expected to specialize in a few policy areas rather than claim expertise in the whole range of legislative concerns. Those who conform to these informal rules are more likely to be appointed to prestigious committees or at least to committees that affect the interests of a significant portion of their constituents.