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The Electoral Evolution of the Congress: History & Timeline

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  • 0:06 The United States Congress
  • 0:40 The Formative Era
  • 2:47 The Partisan Era
  • 4:06 The Committee Era
  • 5:22 The Contemporary Era
  • 6:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the electoral evolution of the Congress. We will take a closer look at the history behind Congress and the historical evolution of power, procedure and function.

The United States Congress

The United States Constitution created Congress as a way to have the people represented in government. Our constitutional founders divided Congress into two bodies: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Throughout history, the role of Congress has changed, along with how it relates to its own members and the public. Some scholars have divided the evolution of Congress into four eras: the formative era, the partisan era, the committee era, and the contemporary era.

The Formative Era

The formative era of Congress lasted from approximately the 1780s to the 1820s. The Second Continental Congress was the first governing body of the United States during the Revolutionary War. This was the body that declared the 13 colonies free and independent on July 4th, 1776. The Articles of Confederation gave Congress limited authority over foreign affairs and military matters but not to collect taxes, regulate commerce, or enforce laws. Each individual state was given veto power and this made this system of Congress not work well because there were constant fights over economics and no national defense protection. Our leaders in that era began looking for new answers.

The idea to replace the Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution was proposed. There was much debate about what the role of the people in Congress would be between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. There was grave concern that larger states would have much more control than smaller ones. The Great Compromise was reached that created one house of Congress that would provide proportional representation and the other providing equal representation. Additionally, the Separation of Powers doctrine was created by the Constitution that divided powers equally between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. This was to ensure that one body was not creating, enforcing, and reviewing all of the laws. Can you imagine if our system of government was like that?

During most of this time, the Democratic-Republicans dominated the Congress over the Federalists and had more power. There was high turnover in seats and very little leadership and direction. The committee system emerged and standing committees were created.

The Partisan Era

The partisan era of Congress lasted approximately from the 1830s through the early 1900s. This era saw much corruption between and amongst the main political groups in the United States, the Republicans and the Democrats. And it was believed that this was because, during this time period, senators were chosen by state governments. Some of these issues were resolved by the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1913. This amendment provided for the direct popular election of senators, effectively cutting out of the loop senate elections that were controlled by corruption and bribery by the state legislatures.

During this era, the Democrats and Republicans traded power over the Congress back and forth pretty evenly depending on the election. Slavery was a significant issue during this era, and the parties were completely split on this hot issue. During the Civil War, strong parties emerged and there was lower turnover in seats. Congress was granted the general authority over budgetary and financial matters and was given the constitutional power to levy taxes.

The Committee Era

The committee era of Congress lasted approximately from the early 1900s through the 1960s. This era saw the rise of real leadership in both houses of Congress. Lame duck reforms were made to ensure that congressmen who lost re-election bids who neither had the time nor the mandate to deal with national crises were replaced quicker. One such reform was the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment changed the date in which Congress and the President took office after an election was held. This enabled the new office holder to take fresh action quicker rather than having to wait to deal with a potential crisis.

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