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Legislative Branch (Congress)

Legislative Branch (Congress)

Home Civics Legislative Branch (Congress) Teaching Discussion and Essay Questions

Discussion and Essay Questions

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Sample of Discussion and Essay Questions


  1. What is Congress?
    • Why is Congress described in Article I of the Constitution?
    • Was this symbolic on the part of the framers?
    • Do you consider Congress still "first among equals"?
      • Which branch is?
  2. Bicameral Structure of Congress
    • Why couldn’t the framers of the Constitution copy the British form of bicameralism?
      • Were the problems more social or ideological?
    • How democratic is the representational scheme of the Senate?
    • How fair is the representational scheme of the Senate?
    • Should it be revised?
    • The framers agreed to grant all states equal representation in the Senate in order to appease the small states—can this decision be philosophically defended?
    • Why did the large states agree to this representation scheme in 1787?
    • Would the small states have enough clout to block an attempt to restructure the Senate today?
  3. House of Representatives
    • The House was designed to be the people’s chamber—the scale of representation was fairly small (1:30,000) and the framers expected a high turnover in House membership. But today, the scale of representation is roughly 1:700,000 and turnover is very low.
      • Is this a problem?
      • How might the House be made more responsive to the public?
      • Could the scale of representation be reduced?
      • Could something be done to increase turnover?
        • What about term limits—i.e., no more than three terms for any member?
          • Would the House be more responsive to the voters?
          • Would this unfairly deny voters the right to re-elect an effective representative?
          • How would term limits impact the operations of the House?
            • For the better?
            • For the worse?
  4. Senate
    • The filibuster is one of the unique features of the Senate—on what principle is it based?
      • Should one member have this much power?
      • Is this the price for preserving the important principle of thorough and unlimited debate?
    • Filibustering has increased in frequency. During the 1960s, there were, on average, seven filibusters per term. Since 2000, the Senate has averaged 49 filibusters per term. In 2007-2008, there were more than 100.
      • Why do you suppose senators filibuster more frequently?
      • Is this a problem?
      • How does this rising use of the filibuster affect the work of the Senate?
      • A filibuster can be broken through a cloture vote of 60 senators. In other words, major legislation now needs 60 votes, not just 51.
        • Is this a problem?
        • Is this consistent with the intentions of the framers?
        • Does this undermine the Senate’s effectiveness?
        • Or does it ensure thorough debate and well-structured, bipartisan legislation?
  5. Powers of Congress/Expressed Powers/Implied Powers
    • What are the implied powers?
    • What is the “necessary and proper” or “elastic” clause?
    • Are these necessary or dangerous?
    • Without an elastic clause, would Congress be able to adapt to changing times?
      • How would Congress find the authority to address unanticipated needs?
        • What is wrong with relying on the amendment process?
    • What are the limits of the elastic clause? How elastic should it be?
      • Who gets to define these limits?
        • Congress?
        • The Supreme Court?
          • Is this too much power for such a small group of life-tenured judges?
  6. Strict Constructionism v. Broad Constructionism
    • Would you consider yourself a strict or broad constructionist?
    • What basic philosophy or fear underlies each of these positions?
    • Why has the trend over the centuries been toward broad constructionism?
      • Has this been demanded by the times?
      • Have those in power pushed for more?
      • Have the people demanded more from government?
      • Have the states been unable to address public needs?
  7. Non-Legislative Functions
    • Do the provisions regarding the election of the president in the House seem appropriate to you?
      • Why was the House, rather than the Senate, given the authority to select the president if no candidate receives the necessary number of Electoral College votes.
      • What potential problems do you see in granting this power to the House?
        • What sorts of states gain influence under this method?
          • (Remind students that each state’s delegation receives one vote regardless of size.) Why not just hold a second election?
    • Is the list of impeachable offenses long enough?
      • Should incompetence be an impeachable offense?
      • Should Congress be allowed to impeach a president for policy differences?
    • How would increasing Congress’s impeachment powers affect the relationship between the branches?
      • Would this be good or bad?
      • Would government become more or less effective? Efficient?

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