POLS 307: The U.S. Congress

Fall 2006

T, R 2:00-3:15

DuSable 459



Dr. Matt Streb


Office: Zulauf 412

EMAIL: mstreb@niu.edu

Office Hours:  Tuesday and Thursday, 3:30-4:30, Wednesday 8:30-11:30







“Congress is the first branch of government.  It’s Article 1 of the Constitution. It

sits right here on Capitol Hill where, symbolically, the four quadrants of the

Federal City touch.  It is the place where democracy ought to be most vital.”

                                                                        -George Will, Booknotes Interview


Course Description: The United States’ Congress is the backbone of the American government system.  To truly understand American politics, one must understand how the Congress works.  This course will examine who runs for Congress, who wins, and why? We will discuss the 2006 congressional elections in great detail, elections that are shaping up to be some of the most interesting and important in recent history.  Next, we will analyze what I consider to be the most important question that congressional scholars study: representation.  How responsive are our government officials?  Is everyone’s voice heard?  What different kinds of representation exist?  We will also study the structure of Congress.  What are the roles of committees?  How much influence do party leaders have?  What are the norms and rules of Congress?  Then we will examine the lawmaking process.  In other words, how does a bill become a law?  Why is it so hard to pass legislation?  Is this good or bad?  Finally, to understand the constraints placed on Congress, it is imperative that we study certain outside influences.  What is the relationship between the President and Congress?  How much influence do interest groups have on representatives’ votes? Do the bureaucracy and Congress work together effectively? Throughout the semester, we will use many examples from the current Congress to further illustrate major points.  Because of the nature of this course, each student will be required to read a major national news source either in print or online (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, etc.) to keep up with recent events in Congress. 


Grading: Three grades will be given over the course of the semester.  A midterm exam (35%) to be taken on Tuesday, October 24th and a final exam (35%) to be taken on Tuesday, December 12th (2:00 PM) are required.  The exams will be composed of an essay question, four identification terms, and five multiple-choice questions.  I will distribute review sheets to the class including possible identification terms or essay questions a week before each exam. The multiple-choice will be comprised of current events, the readings, and lectures.  The final will not be cumulative and will cover only the material discussed after the midterm. 

You will also be required to write a paper (30%).  For the paper, you will pretend to be an advisor to a member of Congress.  You can pick any current member of the House of Representatives who is running for reelection with opposition, but must let me know of your choice by Tuesday, September 5th (those of you who do not give me a name will be randomly assigned a member).  In the paper, you will consult the MC on his/her campaign strategy.  The paper assignment will be discussed in greater detail during class.  The paper is due on Tuesday, October 10th.  I WILL NOT ACCEPT LATE PAPERS.  IF THE PAPER IS NOT TURNED IN AT THE BEGINNING OF CLASS ON THE 10th, YOU WILL RECEIVE A 0 FOR THE ASSIGNMENT. 


PAC Money: Political Action Committees are organizations that provide congressional candidates with campaign money in order to help a person become elected or to help influence legislation.  Just as PACs are said to “buy” congressional votes (although we will discuss whether this claim is true), you will have the opportunity to “buy” your grade.  Students’ PACs may donate up to $5,000.  The way you accumulate PAC money is quite simple.  For each class you attend, your “PAC” will give me $150.  Attendance can earn you as much as $4,050 (27 class periods, not including the midterm exam).  You have to be in class when I take attendance to earn PAC money.  Class begins at 2:00 and you are expected to be there on time.  Also, nine times during the semester, I will ask you a simple question on the readings or lectures.  If you answer the question correctly, your “PAC” will make a contribution of $100.  PAC quizzes can earn you as much as $900.  You all automatically start with $50. 

So what can PAC money do for you?  Depending on how much money your PAC gives me, you can either make your grade on an exam or paper count for a greater or a lesser percentage of your final grade or add points to one of your grades.  Each $100 you earn allows you to increase or decrease a grade by .2% or you can increase one grade by .1 points.  For example, say you earned $4,000 by the end of the semester and you received an A on your midterm.  Instead of your midterm counting 35% of your final grade, it can now count 43% of your final grade.  You could then make your final paper, for example, only count 22% of your final grade.  Or, you could simply choose to add 4 points to one of your grades.  However, I am not easy to buy.  You must be able to donate at least $4,000 in order for me to change the weight of your grade.  Also, if you miss more than four classes or get more than three PAC quizzes incorrect, you do not qualify for PAC money.  You must let me know how you want your PAC money spent before you take your final exam.  Also, you cannot change the percentage of more than two grades. PAC money will be explained in greater detail on the first day of class.


Examples of How PAC Money Can Be Used:

            You attend 25 of the 27 class periods                                    $3,750

            You get 7 of the 9 quizzes correct                              $700

            Free money                                                                 $50

            Total PAC Money                                                       $4,500


You receive an A on the midterm and a B+ on your first paper.  You decide that you do not think that you are going to do very well on the final.  Therefore, you decide to make your midterm count for 44% of your final grade and the final count for 26% of your final grade.  Or, you could simply add 4.5 points to one of your grades.


            You attend 15 of the 27 class periods                                    $2,250

            You get 2 of the 9 quizzes correct                              $200

            Free money                                                                 $50

            Total PAC Money                                                       $2,500


Your contribution does not persuade me to change the weight of your grades because you earned less than $4,000.


Grading Scale:

93%-100%      A         90%-92.9%     A-        87.5%-89.9%  B+      

83%-87.4%     B         80%-82.9%     B-        77.5%-79.9%  C+      

60%69.9%       D         Less than 60%   F


In rare instances, I will raise a final grade slightly if the student regularly attends class, participates, and shows progress. 


Required Course Materials:

Three books are required for this course:


            -Roger Davidson’s and Walter Oleszek’s Congress and Its Members, 10th ed.

            -Edward Sidlow’s Challenging the Incumbent.

            -Barbara Sinclair’s Unorthodox Lawmaking, 2nd ed.             


These books are available at the NIU Bookstore.  Students are strongly encouraged to visit sites such as www.campusi.com to find cheaper, used versions of these books (although, students should not buy earlier editions of the Davidson and Oleszek or Sinclair books since they have been updated substantially).  In addition, students will be required to read several readings available on E-Reserve. 


Course Policies:


1.  Attendance:  Simply put, you are expected to be here.  If you want to have any hope of passing the class or doing well, you will need to be in class.  I have yet to meet a person who has regularly missed my class and has passed the course. 


2.  Be on time:  Class begins promptly at 2:00.  Please be in your seats and ready to go at 2:00.  If you must be late, please enter the class quietly and quickly and sit in the back. 


3.  Turn the cell phones off!:  My policy is that if your cell phone goes off in class, I’m the one who answers it.  Unless you want me talking to your parents, siblings, or boyfriend/girlfriend, turn the cell phones off.  If you have an extenuating circumstance (e.g., pregnant spouse, day care, etc., please let me know). 


4.  Makeup Exams:  I will only give a makeup examination under extraordinary circumstances.  If such circumstances arise, please contact me as soon as possible and before the scheduled exam.  If you fail to contact me before the scheduled exam, you will receive a 0 for the exam.  Students may be asked to support requests for makeup exams with documentation.


5.  Late Assignments:  I do not accept late assignments.  If you fail to hand in your paper on time, you will receive a 0 for the assignment.  If an extraordinary situation arises that will keep you from handing in your paper on time, please contact me as soon as possible and before the scheduled assignment is due.  Being out of town does not constitute an “extraordinary situation.” 


6.  Academic Dishonesty:  In preparing for your work and meeting the requirements of this course, you are expected to adhere to all the rules, regulations, and standards set forth by the Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University, and the scholarly community.  This statement encompasses intentional and unintentional plagiarism; cheating on examinations; using, purchasing, or stealing others’ work; misusing library materials; and so forth.  Failure to honor these rules, regulations, and standards could result in a failing course grade and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.  Don’t plagiarize or cheat.  I will catch you!


7.  Students with Disabilities:  Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities.  Those students with disabilities that may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CARR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building.  CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors.  It is important that CARR and instructors be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


How Can I Do Well in this Course?

            This course is no more difficult than most other 300 level courses you have had, if you keep up with the work!!  It is essential that you are regularly in class, take good notes, do all of the readings, and spend some time reflecting on what you have read.  Because there is a significant amount of reading in the course, make sure you keep up with it.  Doing all of the assigned reading the night before the class will keep you from contributing much to the class.  More importantly, it will keep you from getting the most out of the course.  If you do not do the readings, you will not do well in this class. 

            Each class you will be introduced to “key terms.”  I highly recommend that you make notecards after class that include the definition and significance of the term.  These are the terms that will appear on your tests.  Making notecards after each class may seem like more work, but it will actually cut your work time in the end and allow you to write much stronger IDs.  Instead of preparing for the IDs before the exam (they start to add up), you will already have the IDs ready to go and can begin studying earlier.  Writing out the IDs after class will allow you to write higher quality IDs because the information will be fresh in your mind, and if you don’t understand something it will become apparent quickly.

Finally, I strongly encourage students to visit me during my office hours if you have questions about the course material. 


Department of Political Science Web Site:

Undergraduates are strongly encouraged to consult the Department of Political Science web site on a regular basis. This up-to-date, central source of information will assist students in contacting faculty and staff, reviewing course requirements and syllabi, exploring graduate study, researching career options, tracking department events, and accessing important details related to undergraduate programs and activities. To reach the site, go to http://polisci.niu.edu.


Course Outline:


(Readings should be completed by class time of the assigned day.  For example, before class on September 5th students should have read Davidson and Oleszek, chapters 1-2)

*Available on E-reserve

NOTE:  I reserve the right to change the course outline. 



            T          8/29     Introduction to the Course    

            R         8/31     No Class.  APSA Conference

                T          9/5       Congress as an Institution                   (Davidson and Oleszek, chps


Congressional Elections

R         9/7       Redistricting Simulation and the

Rules of the Game                  (D/O, chp 3; Bullock*)

            T          9/12     Redistricting

            R         9/14     Alternate Electoral Systems

            T          9/19     The Decision to Run                           (D/O, chp 4; Sidlow,

Prologue and chps 1-4)


R         9/21     Running the Campaign                       (Schaffner*; Goldstein, et


T          9/26     Campaign Advertising and

Movie:  The Perfect Candidate           (Sidlow, chps 5-7 and


R         9/28     Movie:  The Perfect Candidate (cont.)

T          10/3     Money and Campaigns                       (Farrar-Myers*)

R         10/5     Voting in Congressional Elections      (Erikson and Wright*)                       

            T          10/10   Who Wins? Who Loses?

and the 2006 Congressional Elections

                                                Paper Due!    



R         10/12   Types of Representation                     (D/O chp 5)

T          10/17   Are We Represented?

R         10/19   Why We Love Members of Congress,

but Dislike Congress/

Midterm Review                                 (Hibbing and Larimer*)

T          10/24   MIDTERM EXAM


The Structure and Process of Congress

R         10/26   Political Parties and Congress             (D/O chp 6, Schickler and


            T          10/31   Political Parties and Congress (cont.)                        

            R         11/2     Committees                                         (D/O chp 7, Fenno*)

T          11/7     Committees (cont.)



R         11/9     Policymaking/How a Bill Becomes

a Law                                                 (D/O chps 8 and 15,

Sinclair chps 1-4)

T          11/14   How a Bill Becomes a Law, (cont.)               

            R         11/16   Explaining the 2006 Elections

                                                Guests: Professors John Hibbing and Jerry Wright   

T          11/21   Lawmaking Simulation                       (Sinclair, chps 5-8)

R         11/23   NO CLASS!  Have a great Thanksgiving! 

            T          11/28   Roll Call Voting/The Budget              (D/O chps 9 and 14,

Sinclair, chps 9-12)


External Pressures

            R         11/30   Congress and the President                (D/O chp 10)  

            T          12/5     Congress and Interest Groups                        (D/O chp 13)

            R         12/7     Congress and the Bureaucracy/

                                    Review for Final                                 (D/O chps 11, 12, and 16)                 

T         12/12   Final Exam (2:00 PM)