POLS 307: The U.S. Congress

Fall 2008

T, R 2:00-3:15

DuSable 459



Dr. Matt Streb

Office: Zulauf 407

E-mail: mstreb@niu.edu

Office Hours:  Tuesday and Thursday, 11:00-12:00, 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.  We begin with what I consider to be the most important question that congressional scholars study: representation.  How responsive to the American people is Congress?  How responsive should it be?  Is everyone’s voice heard?  What different ways can members represent their constituents?  Next, we examine who runs for Congress, who wins, and why? We will analyze the 2006 congressional elections in great detail, what many consider to be the most important set of elections in a decade, and discuss what we can expect from this fall’s congressional elections.  From there, we will 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 focus on 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 help answer these questions. 


Grading: Three grades will be given over the course of the semester.  A midterm exam (35%) to be taken on Thursday, October 16th and a final exam (35%) to be taken on Tuesday, December 9th (2:00 PM) are required.  The exams will consist of several multiple-choice and short answer questions as well as five identification terms.  The answer for each identification term should be a short paragraph.  I will distribute review sheets to the class including possible identification terms a week before each exam. The final will not be cumulative and will cover only the material discussed after the midterm.  You must bring a bluebook with you to take your exam. 

You will also be required to write a paper (30%).  For the paper, you will pretend to be the campaign manager for 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 2nd (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 Thursday, October 9th.  I WILL NOT ACCEPT LATE PAPERS.  IF THE PAPER IS NOT TURNED IN AT THE BEGINNING OF CLASS ON THE 9th, 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 those candidates become elected.  Just as PACs are said to “buy” influence over legislation (although, we will discuss whether this claim is true), you will have the opportunity to “buy” your grade.  The way you accumulate PAC money is quite simple: by attending class and getting “PAC quizzes” correct.  Ten times during the semester, I will ask you a simple question on the readings, lectures, or current events.  If you answer the question correctly, your “PAC” will make a contribution to me.  PAC quizzes will be unannounced.  If you miss no more than four classes and get at least 7 of the 10 PAC quizzes correct, you qualify for PAC Money.  If you are late for class or leave class early, you will receive ½ of an absence; in other words, two lates equal one absence.  Class begins at 2:00 and you are expected to be here on time. 

So what can PAC money do for you?  If you qualify for PAC money you can raise the weight of one of your grades by 10% and lower the weight of another by 10%.  Or, you can simply add 5 points to any one of your grades.  You must let me know how you want your PAC money spent before you take your final exam and cannot change the percentage of more than two grades. PAC money will be explained in greater detail on the first day of class.


Example of How PAC Money Can Be Used:

            Midterm                      90

            Final                            ??

            Paper                           70


You could then make the Midterm count as 45% of your final grade and your paper count as 20%.  Or, you could add 5 points to one of your grades.  If you do not qualify for PAC money, the weight of each grade is simply 30% for the paper and 35% for each exam.  In other words, not qualifying for PAC money can’t hurt you.     


Fantasy Congress:  Many of you are familiar with fantasy baseball or fantasy football.  The newest fantasy craze is fantasy Congress.  In fantasy Congress, you choose a team of representatives and senators who earn points based on several criteria (e.g., sponsoring bills, being a maverick). 

            I have set up a fantasy Congress league for this class.  Participation in fantasy Congress is optional, but I will award extra points on your final exam based on how well your team does.  The following points will be awarded:

                        1st place           10 points

                        2nd place          5 points

                        3rd place           2 points

I will give students who win one of the fantasy categories 2 points as well.  For example, if your team earned the most “maverick” points, you would get 2 extra points on your final exam.  If your team finished 2nd overall and won the “maverick” category, you would receive 7 extra points on your final exam.  No one can earn more than 15 points. 

            To play, go to www.fantasycongress.com.  Click on “Learn” near the top of the page (right hand side) and then “Getting Started with FC.”  Then, follow the steps.  When you get to “Join a League,” click on “Join an Existing League.”  Search for league “POLS 307.”  Click “visit league” and then “Join this League.”  The Class ID is 847 and the Class Code is POLS307. 

            Play will begin on Tuesday, September 2nd and end on Wednesday, December 3rd.  Although you may sign up for the league at any point during the semester, obviously it will be difficult to win if you haven’t signed up at the beginning, so I’d do so right away.  For more information on the rules of fantasy Congress and how the process works, see http://www.fantasycongress.com/public/HowDoIPlay.jsp and



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:

Four books are required for this course:


  • Davidson, Roger H., Walter J. Oleszek, and Frances E. Lee.  Congress and Its Members, 11th ed.  Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2008.
  • Mondak, Jeffrey J., and Dona-Gene Mitchell (eds.).  Fault Lines: Why the Republicans Lost Congress.  New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Panagopoulos, Costas, and Joshua Schank.  All Roads Lead to Congress: The $300 Billion Fight Over Highway Funding. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2008.
  • Sidlow, Edward.  Challenging the Incumbent: An Underdog’s Undertaking.  Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.


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, et al. book since it has been updated substantially). 

In addition, I will regularly post articles on BlackBoard for which students are responsible.  These articles will deal primarily with the current congressional elections and legislation in Congress.  We will discuss some in class, but all are fair game for exams. 


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 met few people who have regularly missed my class and passed the course. 


2.  Be on time:  Class begins promptly at 2:00 p.m.  Please be in your seats and ready to go at this time.  Two tardy arrivals are the equivalent of one absence.  If you are a commuter, please set aside an appropriate amount of time for travel and to find a parking space to be certain that you are in class on time.  If you must be late, please enter the class quietly and quickly and sit in the back. 


3.  Cell phones must be on vibrate!:  Because of February 14th, I will allow students to keep their cell phones on vibrate.  Unless the student has an extenuating circumstance (e.g., pregnant spouse, day care, etc.), under no circumstance should he/she answer the phone.  If you have an extenuating circumstance, please let me know.  Any student who is text messaging during class will be told to leave. 


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.  Contacting me:  The best way to get in touch with me is to come to my office hours.  If you cannot make my office hours, then please send me an email with several dates and times that you are available to meet and I will be happy to set something up.  If you send me an email, I will respond as quickly as possible.  However, I will only respond to emails that use capitalization and punctuation and are not replete with grammatical errors.  i will not rspnd 2 u if i recve a messge that look like this lol  


7.  Extra credit:  In addition to Fantasy Congress, students will have two opportunities to earn additional points on an exam.  First, students can take part in a congressional election prediction contest.  This contest will be explained in greater detail in class.  The first place winner will receive 10 additional points on his/her final; second place=5 pts on final; third place=2 pts on final.  Second, on Thursday, October 16th Dr. Charles Franklin (UW-Madison) and Dr. Christopher Wlezien (Temple University), two of the nation’s leading experts on presidential election forecasting, will give a talk on predicting the 2008 election.  The time and place of this event is yet to be determined, although the event will take place in the evening.  I will give students who attend the entire event 2 additional points on their midterm exams.   Other than that, I do not allow for extra credit.


8.  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.  The NIU Undergraduate Catalog states:

Good academic work must be based on honesty. The attempt of any student to present as his or her own work that which he or she has not produced is regarded by the faculty and administration as a serious offense. Students are considered to have cheated if they copy the work of another during an examination or turn in a paper or an assignment written, in whole or in part, by someone else. Students are guilty of plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources without identifying and acknowledging those sources or if they paraphrase ideas from such sources without acknowledging them. Students guilty of, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university. (Undergraduate Catalog)

Don’t plagiarize or cheat.  I will catch you!  If you are not sure what constitutes plagiarism, ask.  Ignorance will not be tolerated as an excuse. 


9.  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 includes the definition and significance of the term.  These are the terms that may appear on your tests.  Making notecards after each class may seem like more work now, 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.

            Also, I will post Powerpoint slides on Blackboard before each class period.  However, the slides are only a guide to where we are going in that day’s class.  Students who only rely on the Powerpoint slides and do not take detailed notes will not do well in the class. 

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 on the assigned day.  For example, before class on September 2nd students should have read Davidson, et al., chapters 1-2, 5)


KEY:  Davidson, Oleszek, Lee=DOL

            Mondak and Mitchell=MM

            Panagopoulos and Schank=PS


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



Introduction and Representation

            T          8/26     Introduction to the Course                             MM, forward, chp 1  


R         8/28     No Class.  APSA Conference


T          9/2       The Two Congresses and

Types of Representation                                 DOL, chps 1-2, 5

R         9/4       Are We Represented in Congress?


T          9/9       Why We Love Members of Congress,

but Dislike Congress                                       MM, chps 5, 8



Congressional Elections                                

R         9/11     Redistricting and the Rules of the Game       DOL, chp 3


T          9/16     Redistricting, cont.


R         9/18     The Decision to Run                                       DOL, chp 4, MM, chp

4; Sidlow, prologue, chps 1-4

T          9/23     Running the Campaign                                  


R         9/25     Campaign Advertising                                    MM, chp 2                             

T          9/30     Money and Campaigns                                   Sidlow, chps 5-7,



R         10/2     Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?


T          10/7     Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, cont


R         10/9     Voting in Congressional Elections                  MM, chps 2, 6-7

                                                                                                Paper Due!

T          10/14   Who Wins? Who Loses?

and the 2008 Congressional Elections


R         10/16    MIDTERM EXAM                                  


The Structure and Process of Congress

T          10/21   Political Parties and Congress                         DOL, chp 6


R         10/23   Committees                                                     DOL, chp 7;

PS, chps 1-2   

            T          10/28   Committees, cont.



R         10/30   How a Bill Becomes a Law                            DOL, chps 8;

PS, chps 3-6

T          11/4     How a Bill Becomes a Law, (cont.)


R         11/6     Legislative Simulation           


T          11/11   Legislative Simulation, (cont.)/

Roll Call Voting                                              DOL, chp 9               


R         11/13   The Budget                                                     DOL, chp 14


External Pressures

T          11/18   Congress and the President                            DOL, chp 10


R         11/20   Congress and the Bureaucracy                       DOL, chp 11


T          11/25   Congress and the Courts                                 DOL, chp 12


R         11/27   NO CLASS!  Have a great Thanksgiving!             


T          12/2     Congress and Interest Groups                                    DOL, chp 13, 16        


R         12/4     Guest Speaker:

NIU Vice-President for External Affairs Kathryn Buettner


T         12/9     Final Exam (2:00 PM)