POLS 307, The U.S. Congress

Fall 2009                                        

Professor Mikel Wyckoff

Office:  Zulauf 403

Hours:  Tuesday, 1:30 – 4:30 and by appointment

815-753-7056  mwyckoff@niu.edu                                                                                 





This course focuses on the U.S. Congress and on the larger question of how the President and Congress interact to make public policy in the American political system.  We will start by taking a quick look at the historical origins and development of the Congress and the Presidency, and by considering the origins and peculiar nature of the American “separation of powers” system.  With that general background in hand, we will then consider how both branches organize, following an election, to do business, and we will look at factors at play in the legislative process in Congress.  Finally, we will analyze factors that influence Presidential-Congressional relations in the policy making arena. 





The following textbooks are required and should be available for purchase at both campus book stores: 


            James P. Pfiffner, The Modern Presidency (Thomson-Wadsworth Press, 5th ed., 2008).

            Roger H. Davidson and Walter J. Oleszek, Congress and its Members (CQ Press, 12th ed., 2010).


Other readings in the form of online articles, some of which I will add to the syllabus as time goes on, will also be assigned.  Please consult Blackboard regularly to note occasional additions to the weekly reading assignments.  I hope everyone will also try to follow the news as President Obama continues his efforts to persuade Congress to pass health care reform legislation and other programs he wishes to see adopted. Good online sources of Washington news include washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, and nationaljournal.com.  The latter is a specialty publication that is available free if you have an NIU account. Please take advantage of one or more of these news sources as you take this course.





Cell Phones and Classroom Decorum.  Please silence and refrain from using your cell phone and other electronic devices during class.  Also please be civil, use common sense, and respect the needs of your fellow students, not to mention the needs of the rapidly aging and potentially grouchy old professor (“you kids get off my lawn!”) who is trying to offer you a decent lecture each day.


Grades.  Grades for most POLS 307 students will be determined by their performances on two exams, a midterm and a final. For these students the midterm will be weighted at 40% and the final will be weighted at 60%.  However, students who prefer not to have their final grades based entirely on examinations have the option of writing a term paper.  Grades for those students will be based on the following weights:  midterm exam (35%); final exam (40%); term paper (25%).  If you choose to write a term paper, I urge you to begin working on it immediately.  Papers prepared in a panic at the last minute are unlikely to be of much help to you.


The exams will include some multiple choice or matching items but will emphasize essay questions.


If you choose to write a term paper it should analyze one of President Obama’s major legislative initiatives (for example, his economic recovery plan, his attempt to reform the nation’s health care system, or his  energy policy reforms).  Your goal is not to assess the merits or demerits of the policy in question.  Rather, the paper should examine the background of the proposal, the team of people President Obama assembles to work on the project, the President’s strategy for gaining Congressional and public approval for the legislation, organized groups working for and against the proposal, and key elements of Congress (for example, party leaders and committees) that will help determine the success or failure of the proposal.  The paper should be approximately 10 pages long (typed and double-spaced) and is due on December 3, should you choose to write one.  Late papers will not be accepted.  


SafeAssign.  Students who choose to write a term paper must submit an electronic copy of their term papers (in addition to a hard copy) on Blackboard where the paper will be processed by Safe-Assign, a computer program that checks documents for instances of plagiarism.  If you choose to write a paper, please do your own work and write in your own voice.  For more information on plagiarism see my additional comments below.


Attendance is not formally computed into your grade but I expect you to come to class regularly, to be on time when at all possible, and to do the assigned readings on schedule.  To encourage you in this regard I reserve the right to increase a final course grade by up to one-third of a letter as a reward for good class participation (coming to class and participating, in an informed way, in class discussions.  To help me learn your names I will be setting up a seating chart about one week from today, and from then on will keep a daily record of attendance.


Extra Credit.  Sorry, but none is allowed.  No exceptions.


Makeup Exams and grades of incomplete will be provided only for extraordinary reasons (such as serious illness) and documentary evidence is required.  Makeup exams may consist solely of essay questions.


Academic Integrity and Plagiarism:  Plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are serious offenses that can and do result in serious penalties.  Regarding plagiarism, the NIU Undergraduate Catalog states: "Students are guilty of plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources (including the Internet) without identifying and 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." The above statement encompasses a paper written in whole or in part by another; a paper copied word-for-word or with only minor changes from another source; a paper copied in part from one or more sources without proper identification and acknowledgment of the sources; a paper that is merely a paraphrase of one or more sources, using ideas and/or logic without credit even though the actual words may be changed; and a paper that quotes, summarizes or paraphrases, or cuts and pastes words, phrases, or images from an Internet source without identification and the address of the web site. 


If you need more information about plagiarism, please consult the “Statement on Plagiarism,” prepared by NIU’s English Department, that I have posted on Blackboard.  It may also be informative to do the online tutorial available on NIU’s Academic Integrity webpage at http://www.ai.niu.edu/ai/.  It is your responsibility to educate yourself with regard to these issues.  Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse for breaking the rules.



Students with Disabilities. NIU abides by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which mandates reasonable accommodations be provided for qualified students with disabilities.  If you have a disability and may require some type of instructional and/or examination accommodation, please contact me early in the semester so that I can provide or facilitate in providing accommodations you may need. If you have not already done so, you will need to register with the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR), the designated office on campus to provide services and administer exams with accommodations for students with disabilities.  The CAAR office is located on the 4th floor of the University Health Services building (815-753-1303).  I look forward to working with you to enhance your academic success in this course.





Note: I will do my best to adhere to the following schedule, but I reserve the right to delay a particular exam or modify a reading assignment if I find it necessary or useful to do so.





   A.  Introduction and Overview  (September 10)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 1 and pp. 43-45 in the Pfiffner book.


   B.  Presidency and Congress:  Nature and Origins of the American “Separation of Powers” System  (September 17)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 2 and Pfiffner, Ch. 1 and Appendix B.

                        Federalist 47 (1st three paragraphs only); Federalist 48 (1st three paragraphs only);

                        Federalist 51 (1st five paragraphs only); Federalist 69 (all)

                           locate all Federalist Papers at:  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/fed.asp

Articles I and II of the Constitution (Pfiffner, Appendix B; see esp. sections 1 and 7-9 of Article I.

   Question:  Why are the so-called “vesting clauses” of Articles I and II worded differently?  Does

   it really matter?





   A.  Staffing the White House and the Bureaucracy  (September 24)


            Read:    Pfiffner, Ch. 3-5 (skim some of the history of the Chief of Staff in Ch. 3).

                        Hendrix and Shear, “The Chief’s Chief” (Rahm Emanuel)  (Blackboard)

                        Simendinger, “Cabinet Faces Challenges both Inside and Out” (Blackboard)

                        Cohen, “Frances Perkins: Brief Life for an Ardent New Dealer”

                           locate at:  http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/01/frances-perkins

                        Baker, “Obama’s Team is Lacking Most of its Top Players” (Blackboard)

                        Edney, “After Months of Talks, Grassley Won’t Sign on with Baucus” (Blackboard)


   B.  The President as Legislative Leader  (October 1)


            Read:    Pfiffner, Ch. 6 and pp. 45-54 in Ch. 2.

                        Barnes, “In Approval Ratings, Obama’s Like Ike” (Blackboard)

                        Krauthammer, “Obama the Mortal” (Blackboard)


            Suggested:  I located these long after it was reasonable to require them, but they are interesting and useful …

                        Schaller, “Is Obama Spending His Capital, Wasting it … or Wuz He Robbed?”


                        Dan Balz, “Health-Care Town Hall a Platform for Obama’s Economic Defense,”







   A.  The Electoral Connection:  Getting elected  (October 8)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 3 (all) and Ch. pp. 104-118 in Ch. 4.

                        Wilson, “Of the Algorithms, By the Algorithms, For the Algorithms,”

                           locate at:  http://www.slate.com/id/2208216/

                        Brownstein, “What Steele Left Out,” find among documents on Blackboard.


   B.  Hill Styles and Home Styles:  Doing the job in Washington and staying elected   (October 15)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 5 (all) and pp. 207-216 in Ch. 7.


Midterm Exam:  Thursday, October 22.        


   C.  Congressional Committees  (October 29)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 7.

                        Kane, “Rep. Dingell Loses Energy Post” (Blackboard)

                        Cohen and Friel, “Chairmen Rising in Democratic Congress” (Blackboard)

                        Thumbnail descriptions of House and Senate Committee Chairs  (Blackboard)


   D.  Party Leadership and Organization in Congress  (November 5)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 6.

                        Ota, “House Rules Package Could Curb Minority’s Power …” (Blackboard)


   E.  Legislative Process:  Rules and Procedures  (November 12)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 8.


   F.  Congress, the President and the Budget Process  (November 19)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 14, pp. 428-end.

                        Pfiffner, Ch. 6, pp. 181-192 (review this material, particularly those aspects

                          relating to budget proposals.


Thanksgiving Holiday:  Thursday, November 26


   G.  Interest Group Politics; Congressional Decision Making  (December 3)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 9 (esp. pp. 284-end) and Ch. 13.



Final Exam:  Thursday, December 10 during the normal class period.