The United States Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. It’s made up of two houses — the House of Representatives and the Senate. There primary function is writing legislation, in other words making laws: to write, debate, and pass bills, including the budget, which are then sent to the President for approval. Other functions include:
- Determining financial and budgetary policy,
- Representing and helping their constituents,
- Educating the public,
- Overseeing, and investigating as needed, the Executive Branch, including all of its departments, such as the Department of Defense and the IRS.
The entire House membership (435 representatives) are elected or re-elected every two years. The purpose of such a short term is to make the representatives responsive to the needs of their constituents. On the other hand, Senators are elected for six year terms and only one third of the Senate comes up for re-election every two years. The longer term enables Senators to enact legislation with more deliberation towards what is best for their State, and since both Senators from a state are never up for election at the same time, this also provides continuity. A new Congress begins every two years, in January following Congressional elections. Since the First Congress, which met from 1789 to 1791, all Congresses have been numbered in order. We are currently in the 113th Congress (2013-2014). Congress meets every year and a session usually lasts from January 3rd to Jan 3rd of the first year and January 3rd to January 2nd of the second year. Congress adjourns for the month of August and for holidays.
The House and Senate meet in separate chambers in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.; however on occasion they will have a joint of Congress in the House chamber. For example, counting the electoral votes for presidential elections requires a joint session.
The Powers of Congress
The Constitution grants Congress “all legislative powers” in the national government. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution lists such powers as:
- Collecting taxes to pay debts
- Coining money
- Borrowing money on the credit of the United States
- Maintaining a military
- Declaring war on other countries
- Regulating interstate and foreign commerce
- Establishing the rules for becoming a citizen
Congressional Powers are not limited to those listed above.
Congress controls taxation and spending policies. This is one of the most important roles of government. The Constitution also grants Congress the authority to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper.” This far-reaching mandate is sometimes called the Elastic Clause.
Another power that Congress has is the authority to investigate the executive branch and its agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the IRS. As part of this responsibility, which is known as ‘oversight,’ Congress can call on senior officials to answer questions from members, orders audits of agencies, and holds hearings to investigate problems. Sometimes these hearings lead to new laws. In other cases Congress will hold hearings to raise public awareness about an issue.
Other congressional powers are rarely used, such as the ability to impeach (remove) an official and the ability to amend the Constitution.
In addition, Congress shares certain powers with the president. Two examples are: framing U.S. foreign policy and control over the military. Specifically, while the president negotiates treaties, Senate must approve them for the United States to be bound by them. Also, while Congress must declare war and approve funds for the military, the President is the commander-in-chief of the military and so ultimately is responsible for military decisions.
The House of Representatives
There are a total of 435 members in the House of Representatives. Each state is guaranteed one seat. Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the population of the states to determine the number of Representatives for each state. Each member represents an area of a state, known as a congressional district. The number of districts in a state is determined by the number of Representatives.
Representatives are elected for two-year terms. They must be 25 years old, a citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state from which they are elected. Five additional members represent Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the District of Columbia in debates in the House—but they cannot vote.
The House has special jobs that only it can do. It can:
- Initiate laws that provide income for the Federal Government, such as taxes. duties, and excises (import/export taxes)
- Impeach a government official for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Impeachment is similar to an indictment in civil courts. The case then goes to the Senate for the actual trial.
There are 100 members in the Senate, two from each state. The Constitution gives the vice president a role as president of the Senate. In actuality, the vice president is only present for important ceremonies and to cast tie-breaking votes.
Senators are elected for six-year terms. They must be 30 years old, a citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state from which they are elected.
The Senate also has special jobs that only it can do. It can:
- Approves or not any treaties the President drafts.
- Confirm or not the Presidential appointments, such as the Cabinet, officers, Supreme Court justices, and ambassadors.
- Hold a trial for any government official who has been impeached by the House of Representatives.
Some Differences between the House and Senate
- In the House, the Speaker of the House’s referral to committee is hard to challenge; in the Senate it’s easy to challenge.
- In the House, the Rules Committee is powerful. It can limit debate and amendments to bills; in the Senate the Rules Committee is weaker, and so there are few limits on debates and amendment.
- In the House debate is limited to one hour; In the Senate it can go on and on, being stopped by either unanimous consent or “cloture” which is 60 votes. (If you remember that the House has over four times and many members, it will help you understand why debate there is limited to an hour.)
- In the House, committees always consider legislation first (again, probably because of the much larger number of people involved); in the Senate, committees can be easily bypassed.
- In the House, amendments unrelated to a bill — called riders — cannot be introduced from the floor; in the Senate riders can be added on.
- Only the House can initiate bills about taxes and revenue; Only the Senate can ratify (approve) treaties, and approve Presidential appointments and Supreme Court Justices.
Congressional Leadership Roles
In the House:
- The Speaker of the House. — Selected by the majority party, and second in line for Presidential succession. (Legislatively, either the Speaker or the Majority Leader can dominate the House, but the Speaker is considered the head of the party.)
- Majority Leader — Leads the majority party, the one with the most seats in the House.
- Majority Whip — Assists the Majority Leader in rounding up votes
- Minority Leader — Leads the minority party, the one with fewer seats.
- Minority Whip – Assists the Minority Leader in rounding up votes.
In the Senate
- President Pro Tempore — Usually a senior member of the majority party who presides over debates or delegates the authority. Not a very powerful position.
- Majority Leader — Controls the agenda of the Senate by scheduling debates and votes on bills.
- Majority Whip — Assists Majority Leader
- Minority Leader – Leads the party with fewer seats.
- Minority Assistant Leader — Assists the Minority Leader.
Other Agencies under Congress
Just as the President is the head of many Departments that each have many agencies, there are some agencies within the legislative branch. Here are some important ones:
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Gathers financial data for Congress. It’s meant to be nonpartisan. It’s meant to gather information and make analyses that help Congress make economic decisions and budgetary decisions for the government itself. The CBO was created in 1974.
Government Accountability Office (GAO) It audits and evaluates different government agencies to try to minimize waste and inefficiency. It also does an annual audit of all government financial statements. The GAO was created in 1921.
Library of Congress Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress was originally a research library for Congress’s use. Later it expanded into the role of being the national library for the country.
U.S. Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress. Incidentally, the Trademark and Patent office is part of the Department of Commerce in the Executive Branch.