Chapter 12: Congress


On July 30, 2010, Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from Brooklyn, New York, made an impassioned plea on the House floor blasting Republican members who were blocking a bill allocating $7 billion to monitor the health of first responders to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He begged members to vote their conscience and to do what is right rather than to adhere to party lines. He refused to yield the floor when he was called out of order, shouting and gesticulating to emphasize his point.

Weiner’s angry and emotional two-minute outburst might well have gone the way of most congressional speechmaking, and been ignored by the press and the public. Few speeches, especially those made by little-known congressmen, receive media coverage other than on the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN), which routinely reports congressional proceedings. Instead, videos of Weiner’s remarks were posted on YouTube and other websites and quickly went viral. Within forty-eight hours, the YouTube video had been viewed over half a million times. The speech caught the attention of news producers and received coverage on morning and evening national network newscasts, cable news, radio, newspapers, and online publications. The YouTube video sparked numerous remixes, including one where Weiner is featured singing his rant to a dance tune.

Video Clip

Raw Video: NY Rep Weiner’s Anti-GOP Rant

(click to see video)
Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) captured media attention with an emotional speech on the floor of the House of Representatives; the speech sparked a YouTube video that went viral.

Video Clip

Anthony Weiner Sings His Rant

(click to see video)
Weiner’s speech brings to light a number of points about Congress and the media. Congress receives significantly less media attention than the president. Yet members rely on the media to publicize their actions, rally support for their positions, and run for reelection. It takes extraordinary efforts and publicity-seeking strategies for even prominent members to get press attention. In the current era, these strategies include making use of digital media, such as Twitter feeds and YouTube videos, to drive media coverage. Political leaders must be responsible in their use of digital media, as Weiner learned the hard way. In May 2011, the media reported that Weiner had sent inappropriate photos of himself via Twitter to women who were not his wife. The resulting scandal forced his resignation.

The media’s relationship with Congress maintains the distinction between the national institution of Congress and its locally elected members. Congress as an institution commands national media attention, while members of Congress are covered extensively in their local press.Wendy J. Schiller, Partners and Rivals (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). The fact that Weiner’s speech dealing with an issue of particular concern to his constituents in New York gained national media attention was atypical. It was made possible because his rant conformed to the dramatic expectations of modern-day political media.

Congress is a national institution composed of locally elected politicians who represent distinct constituencies. Members rely on the support of voters in their home districts to keep their job in Congress. Members of Congress must work together to consider policy issues and make laws. Yet getting one hundred senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives to work collectively is a gargantuan task. The cumbersome legislative procedure outlined by the Constitution favors inaction. Members seeking to represent the interests of people back home can come into conflict with prevailing sentiments in Washington, creating obstacles to lawmaking.

The institution of Congress is slow to change. A large body with an intricate organizational structure, Congress operates under a complex system of rules and traditions (e.g., the filibuster in the Senate), some of which are byzantine. Congress adapts to innovations, including developments in communications media (e.g., television and the Internet), at a snail’s pace.

This chapter begins with discussions of the powers of Congress and the institution’s bicameral structure. It examines the party and leadership organizations as well as committees and their work. This chapter details the legislative process—how a bill becomes law—as well as the process of establishing the nation’s budget. It also covers the characteristics of members of Congress, their job description, and their staffs. Finally, Congress’s interactions with the media in the information age are investigated. The Center on Congress at Indiana University is a good source of information about Congress, including its relationship with the media.


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