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.
OVERSIGHT POWERS OF CONGRESS
Of the numerous techniques that Congress has adopted to influence the executive branch, one of the most effective is the oversight function. Congressional oversight prevents waste and fraud; protects civil liberties and individual rights; ensures executive compliance with the law; gathers information for making laws and educating the public: and evaluates executive performance. It applies to Cabinet departments, executive agencies, regulatory commissions and the presidency.
Congress' oversight function takes many forms:
—committee inquiries and hearings;
—formal consultations with and reports from the executive;
—Senate advice and consent for executive nominations and treaties;
—House impeachment proceedings and subsequent Senate trials;
—House and Senate proceedings under the 25th Amendment in the event that the president becomes disabled, or the office of the vice president falls vacant;
—informal meetings between legislators and executive officials;
—congressional membership on governmental commissions; and
—studies by congressional committees and support agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office or the Office of Technology Assessment—all arms of Congress.
The oversight power of Congress has helped to force officials out of office, change policies and provide new statutory controls over the executive. In 1949, for example, probes by special Senate investigating subcommittees revealed corruption among high officials in the Truman administration. This resulted in the reorganization of certain agencies and the formation of a special White House commission to study corruption in the government.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's televised hearings in the late 1960s helped to mobilize opposition to the Vietnam War. Congress' 1973 Watergate investigation exposed White House officials who illegally used their positions for political advantage, and the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon the following year ended his presidency. Select committee inquiries in 1975 and 1976 identified serious abuses by intelligence agencies and initiated new legislation to control certain intelligence activities.
In 1983, congressional inquiry into a proposal to consolidate border inspection operations of the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raised questions about the executive's authority to make such a change without new legislation. In 1987, oversight efforts disclosed statutory violations in the executive branch's secret arms sales to Iran and the diversion of arms profits to anti-government forces in Nicaragua, known as the contras. Congressional findings resulted in proposed legislation to prevent similar occurrences.
Oversight power is an essential check in monitoring the presidency and controlling public policy.
THE JUDICIAL BRANCH
THE FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM
The third branch of the federal government, the judiciary, consists of a system of courts spread throughout the country, headed by the Supreme Court of the United States.
A system of state courts existed before the Constitution was drafted. There was considerable controversy among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention as to whether a federal court system was needed, and whether it should supplant the state courts. As in other matters under debate, a compromise was reached in which the state courts were continued while the Constitution mandated a federal judiciary with limited power. Article III of the Constitution states the basis for the federal court system:
The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.
With this guide, the first Congress divided the nation into districts and created federal courts for each district. From that beginning has evolved the present structure: the Supreme Court, 11 courts of appeals, 91 district courts, and three courts of special jurisdiction. Congress today retains the power to create and abolish federal courts, as well as to determine the number of judges in the federal judiciary system. It cannot, however, abolish the Supreme Court.
The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution; laws and treaties of the United States; admiralty and maritime cases; cases affecting ambassadors, ministers and consuls of foreign countries in the United States; controversies in which the U.S. government is a party; and controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or their citizens or subjects). The 11th Amendment removed from federal jurisdiction cases in which citizens of one state were the plaintiffs and the government of another state was the defendant. It did not disturb federal jurisdiction in cases in which a state government is a plaintiff and a citizen of another state the defendant.
The power of the federal courts extends both to civil actions for damages and other redress, and to criminal cases arising under federal law. Article III has resulted in a complex set of relationships between state and federal courts. Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear cases arising under the laws of individual states. However, some cases over which federal courts have jurisdiction may also be heard and decided by state courts. Both court systems thus have exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and concurrent jurisdiction in others.
The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that federal judges shall hold office "during good behavior"—in practice, until they die, retire or resign, although a judge who commits an offense while in office may be impeached in the same way as the president or other officials of the federal government. U.S. judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Congress also determines the pay scale of judges.