Congress is the
legislative branch of the government of the United States. The
Constitution divides Congress into two structures—a House of
Representatives and a Senate. These structures are jointly assigned
“all legislative powers” in the national government.
Founders expected Congress to be the dominant branch of the national
government. In the early 1800s, James Monroe, the fifth U.S.
president, said, “The whole system of national government may be said
to rest essentially in powers granted to [the legislative] branch.” In
fact, Congress was the center of government until the power of the
presidency began to increase in the 20th century. However, from the
start the Founders also felt that it was important to retain some
control over the powers of Congress. As a result, the Constitution
specifically enumerates ten things, some no longer relevant, that
Congress may not do. Among other prohibitions, Congress cannot
imprison people without due process of law, except in emergencies;
Congress cannot pass laws that retroactively make a crime of what was
legal when committed; and Congress cannot tax interstate commerce. In
addition, the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from abridging rights
held by individuals.
Structure of the HouseThe House of
Representatives is made up of 435 representatives—the number per state
varies by population—elected every two years. Demonstrating the growth
of the United States, today’s congresspersons represent more than 20
times the number of constituents as their predecessors did in the late
18th century. Today there is one representative for approximately
every 621,000 residents, a much larger figure than the 30,000
residents the Constitution originally required for a congressional
district. The framers of the Constitution intended that the
congressional districts, which are usually substantially smaller units
of representation than a state, would assure that all interests in the
nation would be adequately represented. Thus these units reflect the
geographic, social, and economic diversity of the American people.
internal organization of the House is based on a system of committees
and subcommittees. All representatives serve on several committees,
and these committees consider all legislation before it is presented
to the House as a whole. The committees work to transform ideas into
detailed, complex bills.
most important House committees are the Rules Committee, which decides
when and for how long every bill will be debated and whether or not it
can be amended; the Ways and Means Committee, which studies the
president’s budget proposals and demands that administrative agencies
justify their requests for money; and the Appropriations Committee,
which allots money from the federal budget to support approved
measures. Frequently the jurisdictions of committees and subcommittees
overlap so that several subcommittees might examine a bill before it
is voted on. For example, a single energy bill may be considered by
the subcommittees on public works and transportation; science, space,
and technology; and energy and commerce.
the committee process is very important, committee chairmen and
chairwomen are some of the most powerful people in the House. In the
past, committee chairs could prevent legislation supported by a
majority from reaching the floor of the House. Chairs could either
refuse to let a bill out of the committee or they could allot very
little or no time for the committee to consider a bill. While
committee chairs still retain some powers that regular committee
members do not have—such as controlling when bills will be taken up
and the hiring of committee staff—committee members are more likely to
challenge chairs’ rulings. Until the 1970s representatives obtained
committee chair positions through seniority—how many terms they had
served. When the committees’ seniority rules were dismantled,
committee members gained more freedom. Now committee chairs are
elected by party caucuses.
caucuses (or conferences, as they are called by Republicans) are made
up of all the House members of a party. At the beginning of each
session of Congress, each caucus meets to select its officers and its
nominees for House leadership positions. Caucuses also occasionally
meet during a session to discuss the policies of the party and
significant legislation. Caucuses can have significant influence on
lawmaking, as the choice of a committee chairperson sympathetic to a
certain piece of legislation often changes the fate of a particular
most powerful individual in the House is the Speaker of the House, who
presides over the chamber, refers bills to committees, appoints
representatives to special committees, and grants representatives the
right to speak during chamber debates. The Speaker of the House is
elected by the entire body and is always a member of the party with a
majority of seats in the House. Other important posts in the House are
the majority and minority floor leaders and their assistants, called
whips. The floor leaders and whips are influential members whose
function is to try to have representatives vote the way their
political party suggests on key issues. Each party chooses its own
floor leader and whips.
Structure of the SenateThe Senate is composed of
100 members—two each from the 50 states—who serve six-year terms. The
procedures and workings of the Senate are similar to those of the
House, though because of its smaller membership there are fewer
committees and subcommittees. The most important committees of the
Senate are the Appropriations, Budget, Finance, Foreign Relations, and
Founders designed the Senate to be a deliberative national body, more
stable and insulated from popular sentiment than the House. That is
why senators serve six-year terms (as opposed to the two-year terms of
the House) and why, until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913,
senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than directly
by the people. The Founders also designed the Senate to protect the
interests of the states, especially states with small populations, by
giving each state the same number of representatives in the Senate. In
the House, states with larger populations have more representatives.
In addition, unlike the House, the Senate does not limit the amount of
debate on any bill or for any one senator. This privilege allows
Senators to filibuster, or make unlimited speeches, to block action on
a bill or to delay a vote for an extended period of time. A filibuster
can be ended only through a vote of 60 senators.
vice president of the United States serves as the president of the
Senate. One of the few designated duties of the vice president is to
break tie votes in the Senate. However, because the vice president has
such a limited role in the Senate, he or she rarely attends its
sessions. The Senate selects a president pro tempore (temporary
president), who is usually the senior senator of the majority party.
He or she supervises the Senate most of the time.
the vice president, the leadership in the Senate consists of majority
and minority leaders, who schedule bills for consideration, and whips,
who gather information about their colleagues’ views on specific
bills. The policy committee, which advises the Senate leadership on
legislative priorities, is also influential in the workings of the
CongressCongress has many powers
and responsibilities. The most important of these is lawmaking.
Lawmaking is a long and complicated process, and takes up a large
portion of representatives’ and senators’ time. Only a small
percentage of the bills introduced to Congress actually become law.
Congress - The Legislative ProcessThe legislative process
begins when a member of Congress introduces a bill—a proposed law—to
the House or the Senate. When a bill is introduced in one of the
houses of Congress, it is assigned a number and forwarded to an
appropriate legislative committee. The committee decides whether a
need exists for such legislation and whether the bill fits the need.
The committee discusses the bill and may conduct hearings or consult
outside experts. After considering the bill, the committee may approve
or amend it and pass it on to the full House or Senate. If the
committee fails to approve the bill or votes to take no action on it,
the bill dies. The majority of bills that are introduced to Congress
die in committee.
committee approves the bill, it is placed on the calendar of the house
where it was introduced and debated according to the rules of that
chamber. During the debate, amendments may be suggested and voted on.
After the debate, a vote is taken. If a majority votes for the bill,
it then goes to the other house of Congress, where it is considered
under the same basic procedures.
houses pass the bill in the same form, it is submitted to the
president, who may either sign or veto it. Usually, however, Senate
and House bills differ somewhat because of amendments added by either
chamber. In this case a conference committee made up of both senators
and representatives settles the differences. The revised bill is then
sent back to the House and the Senate. If both houses approve it, the
bill is sent to the president.
president signs the bill, it becomes law. If the president vetoes it,
it can become law only if both houses of Congress again pass it—this
time by a two-thirds majority. Any bill that has not been passed by
the end of each session of Congress is considered dead and must be
reintroduced in the next Congress.
Congress - Other ResponsibilitiesIn addition to its sole
power over lawmaking, Congress has the authority to initiate bills to
fund federal programs, to set tariffs and taxes, to provide for the
national defense (including funding for things such as fortifications
and defensive weaponry), to control immigration, to establish post
offices, to raise and support a military force, and to declare war.
Congress can also impeach and remove federal officials, including the
president, from office.
Congress is also responsible for congressional investigations.
Congress has the authority to investigate and oversee the executive
branch and its agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the
Department of Justice. As part of this responsibility, which is known
as oversight, Congress can summon senior officials to answer
questions, can order audits of agencies, and can hold hearings to air
grievances of citizens. Congress can also hold hearings on matters of
general public concern. Sometimes members of Congress conduct these
hearings to identify problems that create a need for new laws. In
other cases Congress holds hearings to raise public awareness about an
issue. Some congressional investigations, such as those into Watergate
and the Iran-Contra Affair, were efforts to limit the growing
authority of the executive branch. Despite these high-profile
examples, however, most investigations are little-known efforts.
Related Groups and
AgenciesAs congressional work has
grown and become more complex, Congress has come to rely on the advice
and assistance of a large number of auxiliary agencies. One of the
most important of these agencies is the Congressional Budget Office, a
group of experts in economics and statistics. This office provides the
information necessary for legislators to respond to the president’s
budget proposals and to reconcile estimated tax revenues with
order to participate actively in government and be well informed,
Congress has a large congressional staff. Many of these men and women
serve as personal assistants to representatives and senators. Others
are on the staffs of the numerous committees—for example, 30 staff
members work for the House Committee on the District of Columbia
alone. Many members of the congressional staff work for support
agencies such as the General Accounting Office, which tracks the
funding and expenditures of the federal government. In 1997, 31,400
people worked for the legislative branch.
addition to the auxiliary congressional agencies, both the House and
Senate depend on what is sometimes called the third house of
Congress—the lobbyists. Lobbyists are usually employees or
representatives of companies or interest groups who try to influence
votes on legislation and to gain publicity for their causes. With at
least 1,800 associations located in Washington, the causes that are
represented by lobbyists run the gamut from labor unions, the National
Association of Manufacturers, and large corporations to citizens’
groups promoting environmental issues and health concerns.
instances, lobbyists specialize in a field such as agriculture or
taxation and become experts who provide technical information to
legislators on a variety of subjects. Lobbyists may even draft
legislative bills. Full-time lobbyists are required to register and
are regulated by laws that restrict their contributions and gifts to
legislators. Their public image, however, remains that of people who
affect the outcome of legislation and elections by contributing money
to politicians. In 1998 special interests represented by 14,484
lobbyists (27 for each member of Congress) reported spending $1.17
billion to lobby Congress, the White House, and the federal agencies.
Current Trends and IssuesThe relationship of
Congress with the executive branch is critical to the workings of the
government. Friction often develops between presidents, who want swift
action, and Congress, whose machinery makes movement slow. Congress
reflects national diversity and mirrors the nation in its
fragmentation and lack of central control. The conflict between the
executive and legislative branches is accentuated if different
political parties control the two branches. The American people need
to decide whether a Congress of one party fighting the presidency of
another is a separation of powers that produces effective government.
While this circumstance diffuses power, it can run counter to the
public interest if important issues are not dealt with because of
partisan disagreements. In 1995, for example, the president and
Congress were unable to agree on a federal budget, and without
congressional appropriations there was no money to pay federal
employees, resulting in a brief government shutdown.