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The First Branch

Sean M. Theriault and Mickey Edwards

Publication Date - January 2019

ISBN: 9780199811304

368 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock

An insider's look at the various factors that influence policies and decision-making in a highly partisan Congress


Written by an award-winning political scientist and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is now an instructor, Congress: The First Branch introduces students to the inner workings of Congress. The text examines the process by which laws are made and passed and the many factors that influence congressional decisions. Presenting the standard material covered in the typical Congress class, this text also pays special attention to the overarching trends in the legislature--specifically hyper-partisanship and the high rates of reelection for incumbents in the midst of very low public regard for the institution. Given all that is at stake, Congress: The First Branch highlights the role of Congress as a critical component in the separation-of-powers system and in creating law and policy for the United States. The combination of these elements creates a unique text that provides students with an insider's look at real life on Capitol Hill.


  • Provides an overview of how Congress works from the view of someone who has studied it and someone who has experienced it firsthand
  • Considers the ways that our current era of extreme partisanship has affected how Congress operates
  • Acknowledges the low faith the American public has in Congress but stresses an appreciation for its role as a critical component of the U.S. government's system of checks and balances
  • Policy case studies offer discussions of policy in every chapter

About the Author(s)

Sean M. Theriault is an award-winning instructor and scholar. He currently serves as Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for sixteen years, serving on the House Budget and Appropriations Committees and as Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. He has taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He currently serves as Vice President of the Aspen Institute, where he directs a bipartisan fellowship for elected public officials.


"I love the idea of a Member of Congress co-authoring with a Stanford-educated political scientist. Each of them have a section for their reactions at the end of each chapter. That's great."--Kristin Kanthak, University of Pittsburgh

"Theriault and Edwards have created an exciting textbook on Congress that combines both scholarly and practitioner experiences. This book is unique because it provides accessible and comprehensive coverage of the study of the legislative process and the U.S. Congress while also incorporating the insights of a former member of Congress. The end result is a clear scholarly text that is rich in real-world practices on the Hill and one that students are likely to find an engaging read."--Sophia Jordán Wallace, University of Washington

"This is a welcome work. I found the writing style more inviting, less dry, and thus more approachable than that of similar books. It provides a clear picture of Congress and contemporary lawmaking."--John Grummel, Upper Iowa University

"The dual-author approach is well-suited to covering the activities of Congress. The authors are right to consider how party polarization has fundamentally changed the operation of Congress. Focusing on this is much more satisfying than simply tacking on an additional chapter about party polarization."--Jon Rogowski, Washington University in St. Louis

"Congress: The First Branch is the only book to date that will provide readers with the fundamental basics of the congressional decision process, while at the same time offering perspectives from both a renowned legislative scholar and a coauthor who actually served as a member of Congress. There is nothing esoteric about this nicely written and well-organized work. The book instead provides students with a straightforward and down-to-earth presentation of how Congress as a law making institution truly functions. Every dimension of Congress, ranging from rules of procedure to the current polarization that has gripped the law-making process, is contained in this impressive volume. For many years, I have sought a book for my course on Congress that can connect with students in a direct, informative and thought-provoking manner. I have finally found this book in the work of Theriault and Edwards."--Gary L. Rose, Sacred Heart University

"Congress: The First Branch is a perfect blend of a classic congressional textbook and a careful examination of new trends in the legislature, which produce much of the polarization and disorganization observed today. The commentary from practitioner and professor allows for two unique perspectives on a variety of topics throughout the book. It is the ideal text for both students interested in pursuing research on Congress and also those who envision themselves on the Hill one day."--Sarah A. Treul, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Theriault and Edwards have crafted an amazingly readable and engaging text on Congress. While instructors have a wide array of choices for Congress texts, this book is unique. Most notably, it is a collaboration between someone who has served as a member of the House of Representatives and one of the world's leading academic experts on the workings of the U.S. Congress. This team is able to provide extraordinary insights that students will find fascinating. In particular, Theriault and Edwards do an excellent job of presenting legislators through a sympathetic lens while not shying away from the pathologies that have undermined public confidence in this central institution of U.S. policy making."--Nathan J. Kelly, University of Tennessee

"Theriault and Edwards' Congress: The First Branch is an engaging and illuminating look at legislative politics, balancing rigorous scholarly analysis with insider accounts of how Congress works and its role in our constitutional system. Those with interests in legislative procedures, congressional behavior and representation, and separation of powers will all find something to like here. The book is an excellent fit for both introductory and advanced undergraduate courses in Congress and American political institutions."--Tracy Sulkin, University of Illinois

"What do you get when you pair a prolific scholar of Congress and an experienced former House member as authors of a Congress text? A book with a totally unique voice and perspective on the institution. Theriault and Edwards provide theory and evidence about how Congress works and why, but they also make a distinct argument that embraces Congress as the first branch and demonstrates the necessity of politics. This engaging collaborative perspective--along with the independent takes from the professor and politician in each chapter--should spark critical thinking and discussion about what we should expect from Congress and the members we elect."--Scott R. Meinke, Bucknell University

"Congress: The First Branch is a path-breaking new textbook on our America's national legislature. It is innovative in three key ways. First, the conversations between 'professor' and 'politician' are insightful and fascinating. Second, the book does a better job than any other in terms of covering process and the politics of process. Third, the book is lively anecdotally while also covering deep scholarly topics (e.g. models). I did not know that such a combination of attributes was possible in an accessible textbook, but Theriault and Edwards pull it off wonderfully."--Glen S. Krutz, University of Oklahoma

"This contribution to textbooks about Congress is invaluable. It is both practical in its presentation but hopeful in its content, academic in its detail but pragmatic in its perspective. Its unique authorship--one author is a highly esteemed scholar of American government, the other a former congressman with over a decade of real-world legislative experience--offers something lacking in other texts. James Madison, America's closest thing to a 'Philosopher-King,' would surely approve of a text that embodies both a politics of principal and politics of interests."--Jeremy Adams, California State University, Bakersfield

Table of Contents


    Part 1: The Fundamentals

    Chapter 1: The Complexity of Congress
    Congress Seen and Unseen
    Congress: The First Branch of Government
    Empowerment and Constraint: The Limits of Power
    Herding Cats: Choosing to Make Things Difficult
    A Matter of Principle
    A Matter of Politics
    A Matter of Party
    Caught in the Web: Conflicting Interests
    The Culture of Congress
    Congress in Perspective

    Chapter 2: The People
    I. Vox Populi - The Voice of the People
    What do Constituents Expect?
    How Members View the Constituency
    Presentation of Self

    II. The Complexities Behind "Vox Populi"
    Whose Views Matter?
    Determining the Constituents' Preferences and Interests
    The Absence of Committed Political
    The American Public Doesn't Have Faith in the System
    The American Public is Politically Ignorant
    Voter Turnout

    III. Restoring the American Public
    The Vigilant American Spirit
    Police Patrols and Fire Alarms
    The Electoral Process: Adversarial and Competitive
    "Potential" Preferences

    Chapter 3: Getting Elected to Congress
    I. A Historical Perspective on Congressional Elections
    Early Congressional Election Contests
    The Era of Strong Parties
    Candidate-Centered Elections

    II. The Four Factors of Congressional Elections
    Fixed Factors
    Long-term Factors
    Medium-term Factors
    Short-term Factors
    Which Factors Matter Most?

    III. The Campaign
    The Candidates
    The Incumbents
    Power of Money
    Campaign Finance Laws
    The Power of Organization
    The Power of Ideas
    IV. Who Wins?
    Quality Challengers
    Really Lucky Candidates

    V. Who Votes?

    Chapter 4: Being a Member of Congress
    I. The Members of Congress
    Race, Ethnicity, and Sex of Members of Congress
    Other Member Characteristics

    II. Perquisites of Serving in Congress
    Health Care Coverage
    Office and Other Expenses

    III. The Daily Life of a Member
    IV. How Members Vote
    V. Members Goals
    Providing Good Constituent Service
    Formulating Good Public Policy
    Furthering their Political Careers
    Having Majority Party Status

    Part 2: The Legislative Process

    Chapter 5: The Legislative Process
    I. The Textbook Process
    II. Introducing a Bill
    The Floor
    --The House of Representatives
    --The Senate
    Action after the Floor
    On to the White House
    The End of a Congress
    III. Different Pieces of Legislation
    IV. Implications of the Textbook Process

    Chapter 6: Modern Developments in the Legislative Process
    I. Forces that Brought about the Irregular Order
    Individual Member Enterprises
    The Stalling of Civil Rights Legislation
    Supreme Court Opinions
    Northernization of the South; Southerniztion of the North
    The Fiscalization of Politics
    The Sorting of the Parties by Ideology
    Party Competition
    The Imperial President
    II. The Irregular Order
    Multiple Referrals
    Subcommittee Bill of
    Discharge Petitions and the Threat of Discharge Petitions
    Omnibus Bills
    Continuing Resolutions
    Ad Hoc Working Groups and Task Forces
    Restrictive Rules
    Special Special Rules
    Complex Unanimous Consent Agreements
    Self-Executing Rules and Post-Committee Adjustments
    Avoiding Conference Committees
    Fast Track Authority
    Filibusters and Holds
    Death by Amendment and the Filling of Amendment Trees

    III. Consequences of the Changes

    Chapter 7: The Committees
    I. The History of Committees
    II. The Committee System of Today
    Authorizing Committees
    The Appropriations Committees
    The Taxing Committees
    The Budget Committees
    Other Committees
    III. The Makeup of Committees
    Committee Leadership
    Committee Assignments

    IV. Ranking the Committees
    V. The Committees at Work
    In Committee
    To the Floor

    VI. Studying the Committee System

    Chapter 8: Political Parties
    I. History of Political Parties in Congress
    II. Political Parties in the Contemporary Congress
    Unified Constituencies
    Intense Party Competition
    Polarized Parties

    III. The Structure of Leadership
    The Speaker
    Majority Leader of the Senate
    Majority Leader in the House
    The Minority Leaders
    The Whips
    Conference or Caucus Chairmen
    Party Campaign Committees
    Other Leadership Positions
    Leadership Staff
    Winning a Leadership Position
    IV. The Resources of Party Leaders
    Committee assignments
    Power of Party Leaders during Floor Debates
    Conference Committees and Negotiations Between Chambers

    Chapter 9: External Influences
    I. The President
    Party Leader
    Unilateral Actor

    II.The Bureaucracy
    III. The Courts
    IV. Interest Groups
    Interest Groups as an Extension of Members' Offices
    Interest Groups and Watch Dogs over the Bureaucracy

    V. The Media

    Chapter 10: The Congress of the Future

    Appendix: Modeling the Legislative Process
    I. Criteria for Evaluating Models
    Clarity of Assumptions, Processes, and Outcomes
    Surprise Valley

    II. Lawmaking Models
    Median Voter
    Pivotal Politics
    Streams Analysis
    Punctuated Equilibrium