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Stewart, Charles, 17.251 Congress and the American Political System I, Fall 2004. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare),  (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Congress and the American Political System I

Fall 2004



The United States Congress is the most open of the national branches of government and therefore the most closely studied. The purpose of this subject is to find ways to deal with the vast array of information we have about  Congress. The two basic questions we will be asking are (1) what does Congress do and why and (2) What are the various ways of studying congressional behavior?

To accomplish these goals, this subject is organized around two major learning modes: lectures/discussion and paper/presentation. The lecture/discussion part will expose you to the basic social facts about Congress: what it takes to get elected, how Congress works internally, and how the relationships between Congress and the rest of the federal government are organized. The paper will focus on the 2004 congressional election, and allow you to analyze the outcomes of this important national election in light of the research on elections you will learn about.

This subject introduces students to Congress, primarily undergraduates, but graduate students who have never studied Congress are welcome, too. It is more empirical than theoretical, although theory encroaches here and there. The second subject in this sequence, which will be offered next year, is a seminar that is more theoretical than empirical, and is aimed toward graduate students and advanced undergraduates.

Having an introductory subject in American politics or policymaking, or receiving a 4 or 5 on the AP American Politics exam, is a prerequisite to taking 17.251.

Subject Requirements


The core reading will be my textbook I will pay you $1 for each typo you find in the book, so that the second edition (let's hope!) will be better than the first.

In addition to the textbook, there are several assignments that will augment the lectures and the text. You will do all the readings to coincide with the schedule at the end of the syllabus.

The following books are available for purchase:

 Stewart, Charles, III. Analyzing Congress. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2001. ISBN 9780393976267.

 Mayhew, David. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975. ISBN: 9780300018097.

 Dodd, Lawrence C., and Bruce I. Oppenheimer. Congress Reconsidered. 7th ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2000. ISBN: 9781568024875.


The lectures serve two purposes. First, they will fill in basic material which the readings presuppose. Second, they will put the readings in their larger contexts and, I hope, set the stage for discussions of the readings. I especially encourage you to ask questions during the lectures, either for clarification or to explore topics of interest to you.


There will be a midterm and a one-hour final. The final will be held during the final examination period.


The upcoming congressional election will be important and interesting, from a number of perspectives. You will be responsible for taking a broad topic that is pertinent to the study of Congress and writing a 12-15 page paper about it in the context of the 2004 congressional election. Topics you might write about include new patterns of campaign finance, membership turnover, congressional redistricting, the performance of statistical models predicting the 2004 outcome, and the possible special Senate election in Massachusetts. More on this assignment once the class gets going.

Problem Set

There are two problem sets in the term. You will be penalized for turning them in late.

Class Attendance

You must come to class. If you can't come to class because you are sick or out of town, e-mail or call me ahead of time and let me know. Students who do not come to class, or who come and appear to be disengaged with the material (as evidenced by the fact that they never ask questions or contribute to discussions) will receive a lower grade.

Congressional Roundtable

Each Wednesday we will start the class with a brief (15 minutes?) informal discussion about that week's developments in Congress. Everyone will be required to come into class with a newspaper/magazine/Web page clipping to talk about, by Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. You will also need to e-mail me by, class time, the citation to the article. On Tuesdays I will e-mail the class and suggest some agenda items for this discussion. Come prepared to talk.

Grading Distribution

Class Attendance and Discussion 15%
Midterm Examination 15%
Final Examinations 30%
Problem Sets 15%
Paper 25%


Lec # Topics KEY DATES
1 Introduction  
2 Unidimensional Spatial Model Problems will be assigned at the end of class
3 Constitutional Origins of Congress Roundtable
4 Origin and Development of Congress Hand in problems that were distributed on lecture 2
5 Origin and Development of Congress (cont.) Roundtable
6 Congressional Candidates  
7 Congressional Candidates (cont.) Roundtable
8 Congressional Voters  
9 Congressional Voters (cont.) Roundtable
10 Congressional Voters (cont.)  
11 Congressional Voters (cont.) Roundtable
12 Regulating Congressional Elections  
13 Regulating Congressional Elections (cont.) Roundtable
14 Regulating Congressional Elections (cont.) Roundtable

Review/extra day
15 Midterm  
16 Multidimensional Spatial Model Roundtable

Problems will be distributed at the end of class
17 Congressional Parties and Leadership  
18 Congressional Parties and Leadership (cont.) Roundtable

Hand in problems that were distributed on lecture 15
19 Congressional Committees  
20 Congressional Committees (cont.) Roundtable
21 Rules of the Chamber/Roll Call Voting  
22 Rules of the Chamber/Roll Call Voting (cont.)  
23 Paper Presentations  
24 Review/Wrap-up Roundtable   Tell A Friend