In the text of the U.S. Constitution, the United States Congress precedes both the executive and judicial branches; its powers and procedures are enumerated in Article I. Many framers of the constitutional sought to limit the power of the executive with a strong legislature. However, since the New Deal in the 1930s, the growth of the executive branch,the development of a national media market, and the growing visibility of the presidency have made the office of the president and individual presidents loom far larger than Congress as a body and than any individual legislator.
The idea of a weak Congress and a strong President confuses our understanding of the legislative process and the operations of the federal government. For scholars and commentators alike, the sheer number of members of Congress and the often arcane procedures of Congressional politicking have led to an even greater emphasis on the presidency. These tendencies create even greater blind spots when it comes to understanding the House and the Senate.
This project aims to recapture the role of Congress as an equal branch in governing, worthy of studying side-by-side with the Presidency, by offering comprehensive and fine-grained data on the history of Congressional elections. To understand the most momentous periods of reform in American political history, we must give attention to all branches of government. Indeed, landslide presidential wins have often failed to produce a raft of policy victories -- as in 2009-10. Public approval and the president’s political capital can very often peter out -- as in 1967-68 or 1987-88, and we understand why by considering Congress at the same time. Only when Congressional majorities match the Presidency do we see sweeping legislative reforms -- as in the New Deal 1933-34 and the Great Society agenda in 1965-66. Even then, there is no guarantee of dramatic political change, as in 1921-22. The internal dynamics of Congress, such as the committee systems, the legislative rules of each chamber, and the ideologies and personalities of individual lawmakers, also factor into political and legislative change.