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This is “My Constitution,” a podcast from the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement at Purdue University. In this episode, we’ll discuss the United States Congress.

Over 12,000 men and women have served in America’s federal legislative bodies throughout our nation’s history. In general, minority women candidates were elected much later than their male counterparts. For example, former slave Joseph Rainey was the first African-American to be elected to Congress in 1870, representing South Carolina. It would be almost a hundred years later before Shirley Chisholm would enter the House as the first African-American woman.

The first Asian-Pacific American representative didn’t come along until 1957 with Dalip Saund of California, followed in 1965 by the first Asian-American woman representative, Patsy Mink. Another “first” often cited is Jeannette Rankin…as explained by Montana State Archivist Jodie Foley:

She was a woman from Montana, the Missoula area, actually. Born in 1880, her biggest claim to fame is that she was the first woman elected to the United States Congress. That was in 1916. She was elected again in 1939 just before we got into World War II. So she served two different terms, but lots of years in between them.

A woman elected to Congress?…in 1916? Well, women could vote in federal elections in Montana in 1916. But as we will see in the last podcast in this series, it was the 19th Amendment, passed in 1920, that gave women the constitutional right to vote nationally. Here’s more from Archivist Foley:

When she came into the Congress, she came in with a bit of fanfare. So there was a bit of a honeymoon in which she was given a standing ovation when she walked into Congress. She was given flowers, so it was a very positive time for her. That quickly ended, however, when she voted no for entry, the U.S. entry, into World War I.

She had company. 49 of her male colleagues in the House also voted against the war resolution. There is evidence that at least some of her constituents supported her decision to oppose the war. She was, however, vilified by others. When she attempted to run for the Senate at the next election, she came in third.

In the first three podcasts in this series, we discussed some of the experiences and ideas that shaped American government, and of necessity the creation of the legislative branch. We also outlined what was called the Connecticut Compromise, which called for the creation of not one, but two legislative chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

As we heard in the second podcast in this series, seats in the House of Representatives are allocated on a proportional basis, meaning based on population. In contrast, each state receives equal representation in the Senate.

All 435 members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years. It is often called “The People’s House” because it is the larger of the two, it’s based on population, and it’s the only federal legislative office a person cannot be appointed to.

But in the Senate, now numbering 100 with 2 from each of the 50 states, members have 6-year terms and only 1/3 of the Senate is up for election every two years. But it wasn’t always that way.

Embracing the Framers concern that too much democracy can sometimes be a bad thing, the original Constitution provided that members of the Senate were to be selected by state legislatures. With the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators are now directly elected by the people.

Because House seats are allocated on a proportional basis, and because state populations change, House seats, unlike Senate seats, are periodically reapportioned among the states. Population shifts have led some states, notably those in the South and West, to gain additional seats in the House. Other states, in particular those in the Midwest and Northeast, have lost seats as their population growth has stalled. Then in a process called redistricting, lines are redrawn within the states to assure that all districts have the same population. Here’s Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post:

Redistricting is the process where the Constitution mandates that every 10 years in response to the census, the congressional district boundaries need to get redrawn in order to better reflect the changing population of the United States. In most states, the state legislatures handle that process. In some states, you have an advisory commission with varying degrees of oversight over the process. In a small handful of states, California and Arizona, notably, you have a completely independent commission that handles the entire process, takes it completely out of politicians’ hands.

The redistricting process sometimes leads to something called gerrymandering, named for founding father Elbridge Gerry. But what is gerrymandering? Again, here’s Christopher Ingraham:

Gerrymandering is what happens when politicians who are in charge of the process decide to redraw the districts in such a way to give them an advantage somehow over their opponents. One of the popular misconceptions about gerrymandering is that it's about drawing safe districts for yourself, for your own party. And while that happens, sometimes, what happens more often is that gerrymandering is about packing more of your opponent's supporters into a small number of districts, so that their strength is concentrated in a small number of areas in the state, which leaves the rest of the state with more of your supporters. So the idea is your opponents win a small number of districts, by a fairly large margin, but you win more districts by a smaller, but still comfortable margin.

Have you ever heard of the “State of the Union”? That’s actually mandated near the end of Article II of the Constitution. President Barack Obama talked about it, as he stood in the House chamber for his 2010 State of the Union address.

Our Constitution declares that from time to time, the president shall give to Congress information about the state of our union. For 220 years, our leaders have fulfilled this duty. They've done so during periods of prosperity and tranquility, and they've done so in the midst of war and depression in moments of great strife and great struggle.

And here’s President Ronald Reagan in 1986 in one of his State of the Union speeches:

I have come to review with you the progress of our nation, to speak of unfinished work, and to set our sights on the future. I am pleased to report the state of our union is stronger than a year ago and growing stronger each day. (applause)

Sometimes at these speeches, the president will recommend legislation, which he has the power to do. But it is Congress, and only Congress, that actually legislates.

In order for a bill to become a law, both the House and the Senate must act. Both chambers have developed committee structures to consider legislation that has been introduced. Floor debate occurs in both the House and the Senate. Senators and Representatives sometimes have to work together as members of a conference committee in order to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of a bill. A majority in the House and Senate have to approve the compromise worked out between the two bodies. If the president vetoes legislation, a two-thirds majority in both houses is required to overturn that veto.

We’ve used broad brush strokes to paint this picture of the legislative process. It should be clear, however, that the House and the Senate must work together to facilitate the passage of legislation and, differences aside, both chambers have developed somewhat similar mechanisms, from committees to floor debates, to consider the merits of a bill.

Earlier in this podcast, we noted that the two houses of Congress are far from identical. So, let’s identify some of those differences.

Spending bills, and bills that raise taxes, must begin their legislative journey in the House of Representatives. The Senate, and only the Senate, has the power to ratify treaties and vote on presidential appointments. It is also only in the Senate that members can filibuster legislation. But what is a filibuster? In the past, it has been when senators try to put the brakes on a piece of legislation by talking non-stop. Beds have been brought into the Capitol for senators to rest awaiting their turn to speechify.

One of the most famous senators when it came to the filibuster was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Here’s author Joseph Crespino:

Strom Thurman is the record holder to this day of the longest one-man filibuster. It's in the Guinness Book of World Records—24 hours and 18 minutes, he spoke against the 1957 civil rights bill.

Former Senate aide James Wallner gives an updated version of how the filibuster works in the Senate today:

The filibuster, technically today, is basically voting against cloture. Voting against cloture, which is a motion, a special rule that we have to end debate over a senator's objections. Unlike in the House, where a simple majority can do that whenever they want, in the Senate, you can't do that. The presiding officer can't call the vote on something as long as a senator is speaking or seeking recognition to speak. And so, we call it filibuster today when you oppose cloture. But it’s, in lore, it’s when you stand up and you speak and you try to stop a bill.

And how many senators need to vote for cloture and stop a filibuster? For legislation, that magic number is 60.

In addition to passing legislation, the Congress undertakes a number of additional roles. One of them involves watching over the actions of the executive branch, a process called oversight. Congress also has the power to remove officials from office in a process called impeachment.

The first step is in the House of Representatives, which must vote in favor of articles of impeachment. But to be removed from office, two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict that individual of what the Constitution calls, “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

No presidents have been removed from office by the combined actions of the House and Senate, but over 15 judges have. 3 presidents, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, have been impeached by the House of Representatives but were acquitted by the Senate in a trial.

Here’s what it sounded like on February 12, 1999 when Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the Senate trial of President Bill Clinton, made his pronouncement:

The Senate, having tried William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, upon two articles of impeachment exhibited against him by the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the senators present not having found him guilty of the charges contained therein. It is therefore ordered and adjudged that the said William Jefferson Clinton be and hereby is acquitted of the charges in the said articles.

Much of our time in this podcast has been spent discussing two institutions, the House and the Senate. However, as we saw at the beginning of this episode, individuals serve in these institutions, individuals like James Madison and Abraham Lincoln, and even Davy Crockett. What factors dictate how a member of Congress is going to vote on any given issue? Scholars have identified a number of factors.

For example, party leaders can pressure members to vote in a way they think best represents the party’s interest. Sometimes the position of the President of the United States can influence a member’s voting decision. Also, interest groups will lobby members of Congress to get them to vote a certain way.

But what about constituents, the voters who send the member to Congress in the first place?

Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation:

They really are listening. When we do surveys of members of Congress and staff and ask them what are the most important factors in making a decision, listening to constituents is usually listed as the number one answer.

And, of course, there is the practical result that not listening to constituents can result in a member of Congress not being returned to Washington in the next election. Finally, sometimes the decision on how to vote rests solely with the individual member’s sense of right and wrong and good public policy. For that example, we must return to our story of Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin.

In 1940, voters in Montana returned Republican Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. House of Representatives for another term. The following year, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Congress to request another difficult congressional vote from her.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

The story of the subsequent vote in the House is picked up by Jane Armstrong Hudiburg of the Congressional Research Service:

When Rankin's name was called, she stood once more. In a firm and clear voice, she voted no and then said, “As a woman, I can't go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” The galleries erupted in boos and hisses. According to The Washington Post, at this point, Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana fled almost in terror and took shelter in a telephone booth against a barrage of photographers, flashbulbs and reporters’ questions. Surrounded on all sides, she called for Capitol Police to escort back to her office. The Post continued, “24 years ago, Miss Rankin voted against America's entry in the war against Germany. Then her hair was black and her blue eyes were young. Then she could turn for comfort to the 49 other members of the House who voted no with her. Yesterday she raised her voice alone.

Jeannette Rankin did not run for reelection in 1942. The legendary newspaper editor William Allen White wrote that he entirely disagreed with her position. He was quoted this way, “When, in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but for the way she did it.”

Further information on some of the issues discussed in this program, including questions to ponder, our sources, and additional clips from the C-SPAN Archives, can be found on the website of the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement. The address is cla.purdue.edu/cspan. The Center is affiliated with the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University.


To introduce the student to the work of the United States Congress and its members.


  1. Polls indicate that the public has a very dim view of Congress. However, members of the House and Senate are re-elected at high rates. Could you construct an argument to explain why this might be the case?
  1. Representation can take a number of forms. Some argue that in order to be truly representative, Congress should be a microcosm of American society. Do you think it is important that the life experiences, gender, ethnicity, and religion (to name just a few traits) of members of the U. S. Congress should mirror those of the American population? If so, why is this important? The latest demographic breakdown of Congress is available in the Congressional Research Service report, “Membership of the 116th Congress: A Profile.” Here’s the link https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45583.pdf.
  1. Fiorina, Peterson, Johnson, and Mayer describe two types of representatives. The first they call a trustee. The second, a delegate. Here are their definitions: A trustee is the “role a representative plays when acting in accordance with his or her own best judgment to decide what is best for the country.” In contrast, a delegate is the “role a representative plays when following the wishes of those who have elected him or her regardless of what he or she believes good public policy ought to be” (Fiorina, Peterson, Johnson, & Mayer, 201, p. 357). Would you want your representative or senator to be a delegate or a trustee? Even if you would like your representative to be a delegate, are there circumstances where you would support her decision to be a trustee?
  1. For good and ill, the media’s attention tends to be drawn to the presidency rather than Congress. Why do you think this is the case?


Black, E., (2019, June 11). Courageous congressional pioneer Jeannette Rankin would be 139 today. MINNPOST. https://www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2019/06/courageous-congressional-pioneer-jeannette-rankin-would-be-139-today/

Fiorina, M.P., Peterson, P. E., Johnson, B., & Mayer, W. G. (2011). America’s new democracy (6th ed., pp. 170-202, 235-262). New York City, NY: Pearson.

Fiorina, M. P., Peterson, P. E., Johnson, B., & Mayer, W. G. (2011). The new American democracy (7th ed., pp.309-337, 338-362). New York City, NY: Pearson.

Jeannette Rankin. (n.d.). Brooklyn Museum. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/heritage_floor/jeannette_rankin

Lowi, T. J., Ginsberg, B., Shepsle, K. A., & Ansolabehere, S. (2019). American government: A brief introduction (15th ed., pp. 33-34, 122-157). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rankin, Jeannette. (n.d.). United States House of Representatives. https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-(R000055)/


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