Congress (PLSC 411)

Spring 2010


Professor:                  Robert Alexander
Course Time:             MTRF 2:00 – 2:50 (Hill 001)
Office Hours:           MTRF 9:00-10:00; W 3:00-4:00 and by appointment
Phone                       772-2093 (office) or 634-0784 (home)



The United States Congress is centrally important within the American Political system.  This course examines the U.S. Congress in detail.  As such, we examine the Congress in a variety of contexts--as important and independent developer of public policy; as the public’s representative in the policymaking process; and as a major source of control over the national bureaucracy. In order to better understand Congress, we focus upon description and analysis of congressional members, elections, structures, processes, functions, and behavior relative to the U.S. legislature.  Put simply, the goal of this course is to help you understand what legislatures do, why they do what they do, and why they play a vital part in the American political system.





There will be two examinations during the term.  These will be of the essay/short answer variety and will give you incentive and opportunity to display your learning.


Newspaper Summary and Presentation:


You will be responsible for writing a 2-3-page summary and analysis of a newspaper or magazine article relating to the U.S. Congress.  The article can deal with the institution as a whole, with particular members of Congress, or its relationship to the other branches in the political system.  Remember, you should not only summarize the topic, but you should also analyze why it is important/relevant to our study of Congress. 


In addition to your written assignment, students will lead class discussion of their article.  These presentations are intended to stimulate discussion and integrate material we read or have discussed in class.  I will provide a sign-up sheet for your presentations.  Each summary and analysis is worth 100 points.


Civic Engagement Exercise:


This quarter I would like you to experience what we study.  This is important not only because of your involvement with this class, but also because you are presumably an interested member of this community.  Thus, you will write a letter to your state’s Senators and your member of Congress about an issue important to you. 


You should explain why the issue you are writing them about is important, why you agree or disagree with their public stance on the issue, and what you hope they intend to do in the future regarding the issue.  This requires you to do some research on the issue so that you can write an informed letter.  It also requires you to research what positions your Senators and House member have taken on the issue.   


To complete this assignment, you will submit a list of ALL contact information for your representatives (Senators and House member).  This includes their email contacts, mailing addresses (both in Washington and in their field offices), all phone numbers they can be reached at, and a blogspot if they have one.  In addition to their contact information you should also supply a copy of the written correspondence you have with your representatives.  This assignment is worth 50 points.  In addition to your gathering all contact information I will be evaluating the quality of thought you put into your letter(s) (you will tailor your letter to each of the representatives contingent upon their positions). Please let me know if you have any questions about this assignment. 


Written Paper:


Each student is required to write a 4 to 6-page examination and evaluation of a current member of the U.S. legislature.  You are to avoid writing strictly a biography of the member.  Instead, you should focus on the strategies, tactics, position, roles, etc., the member has utilized as a member of the legislature.  You will also present your paper to the class.  Your paper is worth 100 points. 




Your grade in this course will be determined by your performance on your examination (100 points), your newspaper presentations and analyses (200 points), your paper (100 points), your civic engagement project (50 points), and your participation (50 points).


Grade Breakdown:


Exam                 100 points              90-100 = A
News. Project  100 points              80-89   = B
News. Project  100 points              70-79   = C

Paper                 100 points              60-69   = D
Civic Project      50 points

Participation        50 points
                       500 total points


Class Meetings:


This is a lecture and discussion oriented course.  It is expected students will come to class prepared and ready to provide input to class discussion when appropriate.  The following is a preliminary course outline as to how we will proceed during the term.   As this is a fluid process, dates and readings are subject to change.  I will provide specific reading assignments in class.  Hence, it is imperative that you come to class and that you do all readings when assigned.  If you have any questions regarding the readings, your standing in the class, class lectures, etc., please do not hesitate to ask me.  I would be happy to accommodate you!


Weeks 1-6 – Introducing Congress and The Politics of Congressional Elections


            Dodd and Oppenheimer, Parts I and II Parts 1 and 2*


            *We may get to some chapters in Part III (I will keep you apprised of reading assignments). 


Weeks 6-10 – Congressional Decision-Making; Committees, Presidential-Congressional Relations; Interest Groups and Congress


            Dodd and Oppenheimer, Part III






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