Public Criticisms of Congress

Congress in the Public Eye

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The purpose of this activity is to facilitate students’ understanding of nine specific criticisms of Congress throughout the history of the United States government. Students will explore sets of political cartoons from various historical eras which target a criticism, identify current political cartoons featuring the same criticism, and compare the opinions of the cartoonists with responses of a political scientist in order to form opinions of their own.

Recommended Grade Level: Grades 8-12

Course/Subject: Civics/Government, Media Studies

Standards: Generally, this lesson connects to standards on civic ideals and practices and historical and social studies analysis skills.

National Standard: Time Continuity and Change

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ways human beings view themselves in and over time, so that the learner can:

Middle Grades:

  1. identify and describe selected historical periods and patterns of change within and across cultures, such as the rise of civilizations, the development of transportation systems, the growth and breakdown of colonial systems, and others;
  2. identify and use processes important to reconstructing and reinterpreting the past, such as using a variety of sources; providing, validating, and weighing evidence for claims; checking credibility of sources; and searching for causality;
  3. use knowledge of facts and concepts drawn from history, along with methods of historical inquiry, to inform decision-making about and action-taking on public issues.

High School:

  1. identify and describe significant historical periods and patterns of change within and across cultures, such as the development of ancient cultures and civilizations, the rise of nation-states, and social, economic, and political revolutions;
  2. systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past, such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality;
  3. apply ideas, theories, and modes of historical inquiry to analyze historical and contemporary developments, and to inform and evaluate actions concerning public policy issues.

National Standard: Power, Authority, & Governance

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance, so that the learner can:

Middle Grades:

  1. examine persistent issues involving the rights, roles, and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare;
  2. describe the purpose of government and how its powers are acquired, used, and justified.

High School:

  1. examine persistent issues involving the rights, roles, and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare;
  2. explain the purpose of government and analyze how its powers are acquired, used, and justified.

National Standard: Civic Ideals & Practices

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic, so that the learner can:

Middle Grades:

  1. examine the origins and continuing influence of key ideals of the democratic republican form of government, such as individual human dignity, liberty, justice, equality, and the rule of law;
  2. identify and interpret sources and examples of the rights and responsibilities of citizens;
  3. locate, access, analyze, organize, and apply information about selected public issues-recognizing and explaining multiple points of view.

High School:

  1. explain the origins and continuing influence of key ideals of the democratic republican form of government, such as individual human dignity, liberty, justice, equality, and the rule of law;
  2. identify, analyze, interpret, and evaluate sources and examples of the citizens’ rights and responsibilities;
  3. locate, access, analyze, organize, synthesize, evaluate, and apply information about selected public issues-identifying, describing, and evaluating multiple points of view.

Time: This activity should take two 60-minute class periods.

Activity Objectives

Understanding Objectives: WHAT students will understand

Students will understand:

  • how Congress and its role in major historical events has been portrayed in political cartoons, and how these cartoons influenced Congress and the public;
  • long-standing criticisms of Congress and determine the validity of these criticisms; and
  • how to use resources available through the Library of Congress to study issues relating to public perceptions of Congress.

Process Objectives: HOW students will learn

Students will actively:

  • review nine public criticisms of Congress, both historically and today;
  • analyze primary source documents available through the Library of Congress to study public criticisms of Congress: and
  • compare responses from political scientists to public criticisms of Congress.

Activity Materials

NOTE: Teachers should preview all sites to ensure they are age-appropriate for their students. At the time of publication, all URLs were valid.

Digital Resources from the Library of Congress

Duplicate and Distribute

"6. Legislators are just looking out for themselves" -transcript of political scientist Dr. Larry Evans’s response to the public criticism of Congress

Digital Resources from the Center on Congress at Indiana University

Prepare for projection

Equipment and Other Supplies


The legislative branch of the Federal Government. Congress consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
A group of residents represented by an elected official.
Citizens and cartoonists often analyze, review, study, assess, or criticize-- offering a critique of an issue or political action.
political cartoon
A political cartoon is a drawing that makes a statement about a political event or issue.
public policy
A decision, law, or other action of government that addresses problems and issues. Some policies are passed into laws, and some policies are contained in rules and regulations.
representative democracy
In a representative democracy, citizens choose a small number of people to represent their interests and negotiate differences on their behalf.
Duties or obligations.

Procedures and Learning Experiences

I. Introduction to Congress in the Public Eye

  1. Lead a brief discussion to review the difference between a direct democracy and a representative democracy.
    • In a direct democracy all members in society have equal say and influence in the decision-making process. However, the outcome is usually a matter of majority will.
    • In a representative democracy like the United States, people select a small number of representatives to protect their interests and make decisions on their behalf.
  2. Ask students what kinds of problems can arise when the people must select and then rely on representatives to speak for them. Lead a discussion about ways the public can stay informed in order to maintain oversight of how well their representatives are performing their duties.
  3. [ONLINE] Watch as a class the two-minute video Congress in the Public Eye: Overview to get former Congressman Lee Hamilton’s take on the place of political cartoons in our representative democracy. (NOTE: You can access video controls by running your mouse cursor over the bottom of the image.)
  4. Discuss what Mr. Hamilton says about the importance of political cartoons in helping the public monitor the work of Congress, using the following questions as springboards for discussion.
    • What does Mr. Hamilton consider the most important task of the political cartoon?
    • How do political cartoons help citizens develop critical thinking skills?
    • Why do you think political cartoonists focus more often on the negative rather than the positive work of Congress?
    • Why are public criticisms of Congress so important to a representative democracy?

II. Exploring Public Criticisms of Congress through Political Cartoons

  1. Before beginning this activity, write the following nine criticisms on the board or chart paper:
    1. Legislators are just looking out for themselves.
    2. Much of what Congress does is just for political purposes.
    3. Congress is run by the special interests.
    4. Congress gives too much power to the President.
    5. Congress moves too slowly.
    6. Legislators bicker too much.
    7. Congress doesn’t do much that really matters.
    8. There is too much money in politics today.
    9. There is too much wasteful spending by Congress.
  2. [ONLINE] Use a projection device to show the entire class the opening screen of the Congress in the Public Eye activity. Ask a volunteer to read the introduction aloud. Explain that individuals have often criticized Congress through political cartoons. These cartoons explore some of the traditional, longstanding criticisms of Congress. Go to the next window which portrays nine political cartoons.
  3. Demonstrate how a mouse rollover allows users to read the public criticism each cartoon represents. Click on the political cartoon on the top, left side of the window, “Legislators are just looking out for themselves,” and explore the activity for that criticism, demonstrating how to navigate the interactive for students in the following way.
    • Notice that when you select one of the nine cartoons, you are taken to another screen that expands that criticism with a question. In the case of this example, the question asked is, “How important has serving the public good been for most members of Congress?”
    • You are then invited to select one cartoon from a set of cartoons on the left of the screen to help you investigate this question. Click on each of the cartoons in any order. You will see:
      • A new screen that provides more information about that cartoon, including the cartoonist’s name, date and place of publication, and a short narrative describing the historical setting in which the cartoon was created.
      • A link to the original digital copy of the cartoon at the Library of Congress, with bibliographic information.
      • The credit information required for use of all copyrighted materials.
      • A link to a response to that criticism by a political scientist. Each criticism has only one response, which can be accessed through any of the cartoons in the set. The experts responding to these criticisms are:
        • Dr. Larry Evans, professor of government at the College of William and Mary and coeditor of “Legislative Studies Quarterly”; or
        • Dr. Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

      (Point out the audio controls that appear on a mouse rollover, and the fact that each audio response includes a transcript that can be downloaded and printed.)

    • Click on the top cartoon and have a volunteer read the background information aloud. Click on the image to enlarge it so that all students can see the projection.
    • Discuss the cartoon, exploring the humor and persuasion techniques the cartoonist uses. Ask students to talk about how well the cartoon portrays an opinion related to the background event. Note: For more information about persuasion techniques used by political cartoonists, see the “Understanding Persuasion Techniques.”
    • Continue clicking and viewing all four cartoons. Point out that although all cartoons relate to the same criticism, that were published in different historical eras:
      • 1874: The Crédit Mobilier scandal
      • 1924: The Teapot Dome scandal
      • 1989: The S&L scandal
      • 1953: Pay raise vs. reelection
    • Pass out "6. Legislators are just looking out for themselves" and play the audio response to this criticism. Encourage students to mark as they listen specific content in the response that they want to discuss. Discuss with students their opinions about this criticism of Congress, and whether the response from Dr. Evans affected that opinion. If necessary, enlarge specific cartoons as they are brought up during the discussion.
  4. [ONLINE] Have students work through one section of the Congress in the Public Eye activity in pairs or groups of three. This activity will help students develop critical thinking skills by comparing similar criticisms across time. Each group should select one criticism and explore the cartoons, background information, and the response. Have them:
    • Analyze the cartoon sets under each criticism. Note the similarities and differences of the cartoons and compare the viewpoints and opinions of the cartoonists.
    • Conduct an Internet search to collect political cartoons, found in current newspapers and newsmagazines as well as online news sources and the Library of Congress, that address this criticism.
    • Discuss and reach a consensus on the following questions:
      • Do you think the criticism is still relevant today? Why or why not?
      • Has the media’s portrayal of recent political events confirmed your opinion of this criticism?
  5. Have groups produce a written commentary that compares and contrasts all political cartoons related to their selected criticism. The commentary (produced in hard copy or computer-based presentation form) should explain whether the public criticism or the audio response changed their attitudes towards Congress.
  6. Arrange for groups to present their commentaries to the class, and provide opportunities for groups to examine the remainder of the criticisms in the online activity.

Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies, 1994.