United States Congress
Type Bicameral Houses Senate
House of Representatives
United States Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D, since January 4, 2007 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D, since January 4, 2007 Members 535 plus 4 Delegates and 1 Resident Commissioner Political groups
(as of January 4, 2005 elections)
Meeting place United States Capitol
The United States Congress is the legislature of the United States federal government. It is bicameral, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives has 435 voting members (plus non-voting delegates from American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the United States Virgin Islands), each representing a congressional district and serving a two-year term. Puerto Rico sends a non-voting resident commissioner who serves a four-year term. The Northern Mariana Islands are not represented. House seats are apportioned among the states on the basis of population. Each state has two Senators, regardless of population. There are 100 senators, serving staggered six-year terms. Every two years, approximately 1/3 of the Senate is elected. Both Senators and Representatives are chosen through direct election.
The United States Constitution vests all legislative powers of the federal government in the Congress. The powers of Congress are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution; all other powers are reserved to the states and the people. Through Acts of Congress, Congress may regulate interstate and foreign commerce, levy taxes, organize the federal courts, maintain the military, declare war, and exercise certain other "necessary and proper" powers.
The House and Senate are coequal houses. However, there are some special powers granted to one chamber only. The Senate's advice and consent is required to confirm presidential nominations to high-level executive and judicial positions, and for the ratification of treaties. Bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives, as well as any impeachment proceedings.
Congress meets in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The term, "Congress" may also refer to a particular meeting of the Congress, reckoned according to the terms of Representatives. The current 110th United States Congress first convened on January 4, 2007.
The Congress of the United States has its roots from the First Continental Congress, a meeting of representatives of twelve of Great Britain's eighteen North American colonies, in the autumn of 1774. On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared thirteen former colonies independent states, referring to them as the "United States of America." Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was a unicameral body in which each state was equally represented, and in which each state had a veto over most action. The ineffectiveness of the federal government under the Articles led Congress to summon the Convention of 1787. Originally intended to revise the Articles of Confederation, it ended up writing a completely new constitution.
James Madison called for a bicameral Congress: the lower house elected directly by the people, and the upper house elected by the lower house. The smaller states, however, favored a unicameral Congress with equal representation for the states. Eventually, a compromise was reached; the House of Representatives to provide representation
Section 8 of Article One of the United States Constitution sets forth the powers of Congress. The most important powers are the powers to levy and collect taxes, borrow money, regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states, coin money, establish post offices and post roads, issue patents and copyrights, fix standards of weights and measures, establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court, raise and maintain the armed forces, declare war, and "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers".
There are additional powers other parts of the Constitution grant. For instance, Congress has the power to admit new states to the Union (Article Four). Other powers have been granted, or confirmed, by constitutional amendments.
Congress has the power to break deadlocks in the electoral college. If no presidential candidate achieves an electoral majority, the House may elect the President from the three candidates with the highest numbers of electoral votes. Similarly, if no vice presidential candidate achieves an electoral majority, the Senate may elect the Vice President from the two candidates with the highest numbers of electoral votes. Several of the members of the Constitutional Convention expected that, while George Washington would be overwhelmingly elected as first President under the Constitution, selection by the House would be the normal method after him.
The "necessary-and-proper" clause of the Constitution permits Congress to make "all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution" its other powers and the rest of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has interpreted the necessary-and-proper clause broadly, which has permitted the Congress wide authority.
One of the foremost non-legislative functions of the Congress is the power to investigate and to oversee the executive branch. This power is usually delegated to committees—standing committees, special committees, select committees, or joint committees composed of members of both houses. Investigations are conducted to gather information on the need for future legislation, to test the effectiveness of laws already passed, and to inquire into the qualifications and performance of members and officials of the other branches. Committees may hold hearings, and, if necessary, compel individuals to testify by issuing subpoenas. Witnesses who refuse to testify may be cited for contempt of Congress, and those who testify falsely may be charged with perjury. Most committee hearings are open to the public; important hearings are widely reported in the mass media.
Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution places certain limits of congressional authority. For instance, Congress may not suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus (except in extreme cases of rebellion or invasion), pass bills of attainder or ex post facto laws, or grant titles of nobility. Several other restrictions are specified by constitutional amendments, especially the Bill of Rights. The last clause of the Bill of Rights, the Tenth Amendment, provides that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Checks and balances
The constitution provides certain checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government. The influence of Congress on the presidency has varied from one period to another; it depends largely on the leadership and the political influence of the President. The authors of the Constitution expected the greater power to lie with Congress and that is one reason they are described in Article One. Under the first half-dozen Presidents, power seems to have been evenly divided between the President and Congress, in part because early Presidents largely restricted their vetoes to claims of unconstitutionality.
Andrew Jackson (1829–37) dominated his Congresses; his successors were weaker men (excluding Abraham Lincoln (1861–65), and perhaps James K. Polk (1845–49) and Martin van Buren (1837–41)). Senators ruled, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, Stephen Douglas, and Thaddeus Stevens. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson completed this trend, making the presidency much less powerful than Congress. During the late nineteenth century, President Grover Cleveland aggressively attempted to restore the executive branch's power, vetoing over four hundred bills during his first term. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen the rise of the power of the Presidency under Theodore Roosevelt (1901–09), Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45), Richard Nixon (1969–74), Ronald Reagan (1981–89), and George W. Bush (2001–) (see Imperial Presidency). In recent years, Congress has restricted the powers of the President with laws such as the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 and the War Powers Resolution; nevertheless, the Presidency remains considerably more powerful than during the nineteenth century.
The Constitution empowers the House of Representatives to impeach federal officials (both executive and judicial) for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The Senate is constitutionally empowered to try all impeachments. A simple majority in the House is required to impeach an official; however, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for conviction. A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office in the future. Impeachment proceedings may not inflict more than this; however, the party may face criminal penalties in a normal court of law. In the history of the United States, the House of Representatives has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted. (Another resigned before the Senate could complete the trial). Only two Presidents of the United States have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999. Both trials ended in acquittal; in Johnson's case, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned from office after impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee indicated he would eventually be removed from office.
The Constitution entrusts certain powers to the Senate alone. The President may only appoint Cabinet officials, judges, and other high officers with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. The Senate confirms most presidential nominees, but rejections are not uncommon. Furthermore, treaties negotiated by the President must be ratified by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to take effect. The House of Representatives has no formal role in either the appointment of federal officials or the ratification of treaties.
In 1803, the Supreme Court established judicial review of Federal legislation in Marbury v. Madison, holding, however, that Congress could not grant unconstitutional power to the Court itself. The Constitution does not explicitly state that the courts may exercise judicial review; however, the notion that courts could declare laws unconstitutional was envisioned by the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton, for example, mentioned and expounded upon the doctrine in Federalist No. 78.
Under the Twentieth Amendment, congressional terms begin at noon on January 3 of every odd-numbered year. It is conventional to refer to each Congress by the ordinal number of its term. Thus, the current Congress (whose term lasts from 2007 to 2009) is known as the "110th Congress"; the previous Congress (whose term lasted from 2005 to 2007) was the "109th Congress," and so forth. Each Congress has a term of two years.
At the beginning of each new term, the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate (those who were chosen in the election the previous November) are sworn in. The oath taken is provided by statute: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God." The House of Representatives also elects a Speaker to preside over debates. The President pro tempore of the Senate, by contrast, holds office continuously; normally, a new President pro tempore is only elected if the previous one retires, or if there is a change in the majority party.
A term of Congress is divided into two "sessions," one for each year; Congress has occasionally also been called into an extra, (or special) session. (The Constitution requires Congress to meet at least once each year.) A new session commences on January 3 (or another date, if Congress so chooses) each year. Before the Twentieth Amendment, Congress met from the first Monday in December to April or May in the first session of their term (the "long session"); and from December to March 4 in the second "short session". (The new Congress would then meet for some days, for the inauguration, swearing in new members, and organization.)
The Constitution forbids either house from meeting any place outside the Capitol, or from adjourning for more than three days, without the consent of the other house. The provision was intended to prevent one house from thwarting legislative business simply by refusing to meet. To avoid obtaining consent during long recesses, the House or Senate may sometimes hold pro forma meetings, sometimes only minutes long, every three days. The consent of both bodies is required for Congress's final adjournment, or adjournment sine die, at the end of each congressional session. If the two houses cannot agree on a date, the Constitution permits the President to settle the dispute.
Joint Sessions of the United States Congress occur on special occasions that require a concurrent resolution from both House and Senate. These sessions include the counting of electoral votes following a Presidential election and the President's State of the Union address. Other meetings of both House and Senate are called Joint Meetings of Congress, held after unanimous consent agreements to recess and meet. Meetings of Congress for Presidential Inaugurations may also be Joint Sessions, if both House and Senate are in session at the time, otherwise they are formal joint gatherings.
At some time during the first two months of each session, the President customarily delivers the State of the Union Address, a speech in which he assesses the situation of the country and outlines his legislative proposals for the congressional session. The speech is modeled on the Speech from the Throne given by the British monarch, and is mandated by the Constitution of the United States--though it is not necessarily required to be delivered each year or in the customary manner. Thomas Jefferson discontinued the original practice of delivering the speech in person before both houses of Congress, deeming it too monarchical. Instead, Jefferson and his successors sent a written message to Congress each year. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson reestablished the practice of personally attending to deliver the speech; few Presidents have deviated from this custom since.
Joint Sessions and Joint Meetings are traditionally presided over by the Speaker of the House. except for the joint session to count electoral votes for President, when the Constitution requires the President of the Senate to preside.
Bills and resolutions
A proposal may be introduced in Congress as a bill, a joint resolution, a concurrent resolution, or a simple resolution. Most legislative proposals are introduced as bills, but some are introduced as joint resolutions. There is little practical difference between the two, except that joint resolutions may include preambles but bills may not. Joint resolutions are the normal method used to propose a constitutional amendment or to declare war. On the other hand, concurrent resolutions (passed by both houses) and simple resolutions (passed by only one house) do not have the force of law. Instead, they serve to express the opinion of Congress, or to regulate procedure.
Members of Congress often introduce legislation at the behest of lobbyists. Lobbyists advocate the passage (or rejection) of bills affecting the interest of a particular group (such as a corporation or a labor union). In many cases, the lobbyists write legislation and submit it to a member for introduction. Congressional lobbyists are legally required to be registered in a central database, and are employed by political organizations, corporations, state governments, foreign governments, and numerous other groups. In 2005, there are almost 35,000 registered Congressional lobbyists, representing a doubling since 2000. Some of the most prominent lobbyists are ex-members of Congress, others are family members of sitting members. As an example, Harry Reid, Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay, and Roy Blunt all have immediate family members who are (or were) lobbyists.
Bills (and other proposals) may be introduced by any member of either house. However, the Constitution provides that: "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives." As a result, the Senate does not have the power to initiate bills imposing taxes. Furthermore, the House of Representatives holds that the Senate does not have the power to originate appropriation bills, or bills authorizing the expenditure of federal funds. Historically, the Senate has disputed the interpretation advocated by the House. However, whenever the Senate originates an appropriations bill, the House simply refuses to consider it, thereby settling the dispute in practice. Although it cannot originate revenue and appropriation bills, the Senate retains the power to amend or reject them.
Each bill goes through several stages in each house. The first stage involves consideration by a committee. Most legislation is considered by standing committees, each of which has jurisdiction over a particular subject matter, such as Agriculture or Appropriations. The House has twenty standing committees; the Senate has sixteen. In some cases, bills may be sent to select committees, which tend to have more narrow jurisdictions than standing committees. Each standing and select committee is led by a chair (who belongs to the majority party) and a ranking member (who belongs to the minority party). Committees are permitted to hold hearings and collect evidence when considering bills. They may also amend the bill, but the full house holds the power to accept or reject committee amendments. After considering and debating a measure, the committee votes on whether it wishes to report the measure to the full house.
A decision not to report a bill amounts to a rejection of the proposal. Both houses provide for procedures under which the committee can be bypassed or overruled, but they are rarely used. If reported by the committee, the bill reaches the floor of the full house. The house may debate and amend the bill; the precise procedures used by the House of Representatives and the Senate differ. A final vote on the bill follows.
Central party discipline is not as strong in Congress as it is in parliamentary systems, and in the Senate it is weaker than in the House. However, the leadership does have certain powers to sway reluctant legislators to vote with the party. Party leaders derive most of their powers from the ability to fundraise, to control the flow of legislation, and to assign desirable positions; a rebel Congressman may be threatened with a cutoff of funds for his/her campaign, a reduction of pork for his/her district, thwarting of his/her pet legislation, and/or denial of a future committee chairmanship.
The party leadership may use the "catch and release" strategy in order to ensure the passage of important legislation with the support of reluctant members. The leaders "catch" a member, pressuring him or her to vote in favor of the legislation even if it is unpopular in the member's constituency. Then, if the bill has sufficient support to pass anyway, the member may be "released," that is, permitted to vote as he or she pleases. Hence, members may avoid alienating influential special interest groups, while remaining loyal to the party.
Once a bill is approved by one house, it is sent to the other, which may pass, reject, or amend it. In order for the bill to become law, both houses must agree to identical versions of the bill. If the second house amends the bill, then the differences between the two versions must be reconciled in a conference committee, an ad hoc committee that includes both senators and representatives. In many cases, conference committees have introduced substantial changes to bills and added unrequested spending, significantly departing from both the House and Senate versions. President Ronald Reagan once quipped, "If an orange and an apple went into conference consultations, it might come out a pear." If both houses agree to the version reported by the conference committee, the bill passes; otherwise, it fails.
After passage by both houses, a bill is submitted to the President. The President may choose to sign the bill, thereby making it law. The President may also choose to veto the bill, returning it to Congress with his or her objections. In such a case, the bill only becomes law if each house of Congress votes to override the veto with a two-thirds majority. Finally, the President may choose to take no action, neither signing nor vetoing the bill. In such a case, the Constitution states that the bill automatically becomes law after ten days (excluding Sundays). However, if Congress adjourns (ends a legislative session) during the ten day period, then the bill does not become law. Thus, the President may veto legislation passed at the end of a congressional session simply by ignoring it; the maneuver is known as a pocket veto, and cannot be overridden by the adjourned Congress.
Every Act of Congress or joint resolution begins with an enacting formula or resolving formula stipulated by law. These are:
- Act of Congress: "Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled."
- Joint resolution: "Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled."
Quorum and voting
The Constitution specifies that a majority of members constitutes a quorum to do business in each house. The rules of each house provide that a quorum is assumed to be present unless a quorum call demonstrates the contrary. Representatives and senators rarely force the presence of a quorum by demanding quorum calls; thus, in most cases, debates continue even if a majority is not present.
Both houses use voice voting to decide most matters; members shout out "aye" or "no," and the presiding officer announces the result. The Constitution, however, requires a recorded vote on the demand of one-fifth of the members present. If the result of the voice vote is unclear, or if the matter is controversial, a recorded vote usually ensues. The Senate uses roll call votes; a clerk calls out the names of all the senators, each senator stating "aye" or "no" when his or her name is announced. The House reserves roll call votes for the most formal matters; normally, members vote by electronic device. In the case of a tie, the motion in question fails. In the Senate, the Vice President may (if present) cast the tiebreaking vote.
Under the Constitution, members of both houses enjoy the privilege of being free from arrest in all cases, except for treason, felony, and breach of the peace. This immunity applies to members "during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same." The term "arrest" has been interpreted broadly, and includes any detention or delay in the course of law enforcement, including court summons and subpoenas. The rules of the House very strictly guard this privilege; a member may not waive the privilege on his or her own, but must seek the permission of the whole house to do so. Senate rules, on the other hand, are less strict, and permit individual senators to waive the privilege as they see fit.
The Constitution also guarantees absolute freedom of debate in both houses, providing, "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." Hence, a member of Congress may not be sued for slander because of remarks made in either house. However, each house has its own rules restricting offensive speeches, and may punish members who transgress them.
Obstructing the work of Congress is a crime under federal law, and is known as contempt of Congress. Each house of Congress has the power to cite individuals for contempt, but may not impose any punishment. Instead, after a house issues a contempt citation, the judicial system pursues the matter like a normal criminal case. If convicted in court, an individual found guilty of contempt of Congress may be imprisoned for up to one year.
Aside from benefits directly facilitating their legislative work, members enjoy a number of other perks. As of 2006 rank and file Congressmen received a salary of $165,200. Congressional leaders are paid more. Members are granted several free Capitol parking spaces and are exempt from parking tickets through the use of special license plates. Members of Congress enjoy such facilities as private gymnasiums, low cost barbers, and subsidized dining areas (although this may not be the case in the 110th Congress ). They are also able to substitute their signature for postage allowing them to send large quantities of mail at a reduced cost (franking).
Another privilege is the use of the Library of Congress. The Library's primary mission is to serve the Congress and its staff. To do this, the Congressional Research Service provides detailed, up-to-date and non-partisan research for Senators, Representatives, and their staff to help them carry out their functions as national servants.
Comparison to Parliamentary system
The majority of the world's democracies and republics operate not on the US Congress model but rather the Parliamentary system. The largest difference between a Parliamentary government and the US Congress is that a parliament typically encompasses the entire governmental regime, containing legislative, executive, and judicial branches within its structure (the executive organs are often referred to as "The Government"), as well as the monarch, if one exists, while the US Congress exercises only legislative powers, and is but one of three co-equal and independent branches of the larger Federal Government. In Parliament, the executive branch of the government is chosen from or by the representative branch. This generally comprises the Prime Minister and the governing Cabinet. In Congress, the executive leaders merely administrate the "Parliamentary Functions" of Congress itself, while it is in session, and not the functioning of the national government as a whole. So, while in structure the Speaker of the House of Representatives resembles a Prime Minister, in substance and practice he or she only moderates the functioning of Congress, while the wholly separate executive branch of government administrates the daily functioning of the federal government.
Parliamentary democracies are generally characterized by a single effective and representative body: In Commonwealth countries, the House of Commons serves as the equivalent to the entire Congress, and the Upper House (Britain - House of Lords, Canada - Senate, etc.) has generally become subservient to the Lower House, whereas in the US Congress the Senate and House of Representatives have generally equal powers.
In the US Congress, members are generally elected from one of two parties, but its members are free to vote their own conscience or that of their constituents. This has been less notable in the last few sessions of Congress due to the greater polarization between Republicans and Democrats, but nonetheless this trend remains prevalent. In a Parliamentary system, members may be compelled to vote with their party's bloc, and those who vote against are often cast out of their respective caucuses and become less influential independents. This allows US Congressmen to more faithfully represent their constituents than members of parliament can. The system may however encourage increased spending designed to win votes at home.
One of the advantages of the US Congress is that it strikes a balance between giving all areas of the nation a say in government through the Senate, while balancing that with the population-based representative system in the House of Representatives. A problem in some parliamentary democracies, especially Canada, is regional alienation, which is generally not present in the United States, as a Senator from a sparsely populated state could in fact have more power than a senator from a state with a high population.
A major criticism of the Congressional system however is that influence in Congress is courted only over long periods of service. Thus a Senator with 30 years in office has considerably more power than a Senator in his/her first or second term. This causes the electorate to increasingly favor incumbents, as dislodging one's Congressman or Senator after 20 years, even if one does not support his/her party, can be viewed as hurting one's district financially, the thought being that the new freshman would be unable to "bring home the bucks."
Some, but not all of the self-defined unofficial caucuses of members
- Congressional Black Caucus
- Congressional Hispanic Caucus
- Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus
- Democratic Freedom Caucus
- Congressional Progressive Caucus
For a full list of caucuses, see main article at Congressional caucus.
- List of United States Congresses
- Current members: House of Representatives
- Current members: Senate
- Demographics of the United States Congress
- Library of Congress
- Congressional hearing
- Baker, Ross K. (2000). House and Senate, 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton. (Procedural, historical, and other information about both houses)
- Michael Barone and Richard E. Cohen. The Almanac of American Politics, 2006 (2005), elaborate detail on every district and member; 1920 pages
- Berg-Andersson, Richard E. (2001). Explanation of the types of Sessions of Congress (Term of Congress)
- Berman, Daniel M. (1964). In Congress Assembled: The Legislative Process in the National Government. London: The Macmillan Company. (Legislative procedure)
- Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. (1998). Congress and Its Members, 6th ed. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly. (Legislative procedure, informal practices, and other information)
- Dennis Hastert, Tom Daschle, and David Silverberg. Congress for Dummies (2002)
- Herrick, Rebekah. (2001). "Gender effects on job satisfaction in the House of Representatives." Women and Politics, 23 (4), 85–98.
- Hunt, Richard. (1998). "Using the Records of Congress in the Classroom," OAH Magazine of History, 12 (Summer): 34–37.
- Ann-Marie Imbornoni|Imbornoni, Ann-Marie, David Johnson, and Elissa Haney. (2005). "Famous Firsts by American Women." Infoplease.
- Lee, Frances and Bruce Oppenheimer. (1999). Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. (Equal representation in the Senate)
- Rimmerman, Craig A. (1990). "Teaching Legislative Politics and Policy Making." Political Science Teacher, 3 (Winter): 16–18.
- Ritchie, Donald A. (1997). "What Makes a Successful Congressional Investigation." OAH Magazine of History, 11 (Spring): 6–8. (Congressional investigations and committee hearings)
- Story, Joseph. (1891). Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. (2 vols). Boston: Brown & Little. (History, constitution, and general legislative procedure)
- David R. Tarr and Ann O'Connor. Congress A to Z (CQ Congressional Quarterly) (4th 2003) 605pp
- Wilson, Woodrow. (1885). Congressional Government. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Some information in this article has been provided by the Senate Historical Office.
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