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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - The Rules of the Legislative Game


Congressional politics often has the flavor of a game – albeit a very important game – as the contending factions vie for control over public policy. The game is characterized by bargaining, procedural maneuvers, and close votes. On many issues, the outcome is uncertain. When the interests and rights of large groups in society are at stake, the game is emotionally charged. And the game is made more compelling by the personalities of the players. Members of Congress, presidents, staff aides, lobbyists, and other participants in congressional politics are ambitious people with large egos. Many of the players hate to lose. Skilled players are masters of the rules; they are proficient in strategy and tactics and take pleasure in anticipating the moves of their opponents. Their knowledge of the rules and their aptitude for strategy do not guarantee success, but can give them an advantage. Even for spectators, mastering the rules and strategy is essential to appreciating and enjoying the game.

The rules of the game change – and legislators do the changing. Each house of Congress is empowered by the Constitution to enact its own rules. The rules of the House of Representatives extend to nearly 60,000 words, while the Senate's rules are less than half that long at less than 29,000 words. The differences in the length of the rules reflect not only the differences in the sizes of the two houses, with the larger House requiring more formalities to keep order, but also the different paths that the two houses took at critical junctures in their parliamentary histories.

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