POLS 307, The U.S. Congress

Spring 2009                                            

Professor Mikel Wyckoff

Office:  Zulauf 403

Hours:  W 2:00 – 5:00 and by appointment

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 original logic 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 examine important internal organizational elements of each institution.  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, 11th ed., 2008).


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 from time to time.  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 enters the White House and attempts to persuade Congress to pass laws to implement the 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 POLS 307 students will be determined by your performance on two exams (a midterm and a final), and a term paper.  The weights assigned to each element are as follows:


            Midterm            35%

            Final Exam        40

            Term Paper      25 



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


The term paper will focus on one of President Obama’s major legislative initiatives (for example, his economic recovery plan, or his proposals to reform the nation’s health care system or its energy policies).  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.  Additional guidelines will be provided in class.  The paper should be approximately 10 pages long (typed and double-spaced) and is due on April 27.  Late papers will be penalized at the rate of 1/3 of a letter grade per day.   


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.


SafeAssign.  All students 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.  Therefore, please do your own work and write in your own voice.


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  (January 12)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 1 and the preface in the Pfiffner book.

            Knowlton, “Obama Presses for Action on the Economy” (Blackboard)

                        Cohn and Sanchez, “Senate Dems Give Axelrod, Summers An Earful About Obama's

                           Tax Provisions (Blackboard)

                        Cohn, “House Democrats Warm To Credit for Workers, Families” (Blackboard)

                        Chapman, “False Cures for the Recession” http://www.reason.com/news/show/130398.html

                        Krugman, “Fighting off Depression” http://nytimes.com/2009/01/05/opinion/05krugman.html


   B.  Presidency and Congress:  origins, evolution and powers (January 26)


            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 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.





   A.  The White House Staff and the Executive Office of the President  (February 2)


            Read:    Pfiffner, Ch. 2-3.

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


   B.  The Bureaucracy:  Staffing and controlling the administrative agencies and departments  (February 9)


            Read:    Pfiffner, Ch. 4.  Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 11.

                        MacGillis, “For Obama Cabinet a Team of Moderates” (Blackboard)

                        Cohen, “Frances Perkins: Brief Life for an Ardent New Dealer” http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/01/frances-perkins


   C.  The President as Legislative Leader I (February 16)


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

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





   A.  The Electoral Connection:  Getting elected  (February 23)


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


Midterm Exam:  Monday, March 2.        


Spring Break:  Week of March 9


   B.  Hill Styles and Home Styles:  Doing the job in Washington and staying elected   (March 16)


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


   C.  Party Leadership and Organization in Congress  (March 23)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 6.

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


   D.  Congressional Committees  (March 30)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 7.

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


   E.  Legislative Process:  Rules and Procedures  (April 6)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 8.


   F.  Interest Group Politics; Congressional Decision Making  (April 13)


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


   G.  The President as Legislative Leader II  (April 20)


            Read:    Davidson and Oleszek, Ch. 10 and pp. 428-445 in Ch. 14.                       


   H.  Congress, the Presidency and National Security  (April 27)


            Read:    Pfiffner, Ch. 7


Final Exam:  Monday, May 4 from 4:00 to 4:50