The United States Congress is the federal legislative body of the United States of America. The main job of Congress is to make the laws for the United States that affect our everyday lives and protect our rights.

Structure

The House of Representatives and the Senate are the two houses that make up the body of Congress. The House of Representatives has 435 members, and the Senate has 100 members. All members earn their seat by direct vote from the citizens on Election Day. Both of these houses meet in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Each state elects two senators to the Senate and at least one representative to the House of Representatives. A state may elect more than one representative depending on the population of the state.

The brunt of the writing and work that these two houses do is passed on to different committees, or groups of legislators that are divided into specialized areas. The committee will have a project assigned to it, will do the research and work, and then report back to the main body. The two houses also have a library at their disposal and a significant number of various staff members to assist them in their day-to-day activities

Membership

The Constitution restricts the membership of Congress by requiring House members to be 25 years of age and senators 30. House members must have been U.S. citizens for at least 7 years, and senators for 9.

Today the average member is in his or her fifties, but the number of younger members has increased in recent years. Almost all members of Congress were born in the United States. Although members of the House are required only to be inhabitants of their states, and not necessarily residents of the districts from which they are elected, in fact, local residency has become an unwritten, or customary, requirement for success at the polls.

Congressional Elections

Each state gets one House member regardless of its population. Beyond that the states are given representation in the House of Representatives on the basis of their population. The House is reapportioned every 10 years, after the federal census. Within states congressional district boundary lines are drawn by the state legislatures. All House members are elected in single-member districts, the total number of which has been set by Congress at 435. Today, each House member has an average of about 600,000 constituents. House members are elected every 2 years. The Constitution awards each state two senators. Senators are elected to 6-year terms, and one-third of the seats come up for election every 2 years.

Incumbency is important in congressional elections. A high proportion of members of Congress seek reelection, and an overwhelming proportion of them succeed. The incumbent possesses several reelection advantages: the perquisites of the congressional office are available to the incumbent; he or she is likely to be well known in the state or district; and the incumbent is better able to raise campaign money. Still, the turnover of the congressional membership is high because of deaths and retirements, because some run for other offices, and, increasingly, because some do not win reelection.

The Legislative Process In Congress

The legislative work of Congress begins when a bill is introduced by a member. A bill is merely a document drawn up to specify the details of a proposal of law. Public bills concern general questions of policy and become public laws if they are passed by Congress and signed by the president. Private bills are concerned with such individual matters as claims against the government or cases having to do with immigration and naturalization.

House members introduce bills simply by dropping them in the hopper at the clerk’s desk in the House chamber. Senators introduce bills by making a statement offering a bill for introduction and sending it to the desk of the secretary of the Senate. Once introduced, bills are referred to committees and, in turn, to subcommittees. After subcommittees complete their review of bills, they are returned to the full committees for recommendation as to their passage by the full house. When a committee sends a bill to the full house membership, it sends along a report, or written explanation of its action.

After a bill is reported from the committee that has considered it, it is placed on a calendar, the agenda for floor consideration of bills. Most House bills are funneled to the floor for debate and voting by special rules worked out by the House Rules Committee.

In the Senate, bills are normally taken up on the floor by requests for unanimous consent to do so. Debate on bills in the House is regulated by a number of rules that place limitations on the number and duration of members’speeches. The Senate, on the other hand, normally practices unlimited debate on bills, although a procedure called cloture exists for putting an end to prolonged speechmaking, or filibustering. During floor debate, amendments may be offered that change or add to the bill.

After debate on a bill is concluded, and voting has taken place on all amendments offered, the bill is up for final passage. In the House, voting on amendments and final passage may occur by a voice vote, although a roll-call vote is the normal procedure on major bills. House members vote during roll calls by using the electronic voting system in the House chamber. Forty-four voting stations are located throughout the chamber. Members cast their votes by inserting special identification cards in a slot on the voting device and pushing the yea or nay buttons. With this system, 435 House members can cast votes in a short time. The Senate has no similar system; senators respond to roll calls by answering yea or nay when the clerk calls their names in alphabetical order.

Bills passed by a majority vote of the members of the House and Senate are sent to the president for approval. If the president vetoes a bill, the disapproval may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses. If the House and the Senate pass bills in different forms, a joint conference committee consisting of representatives and senators is appointed to work out the differences. Agreements of a conference committee must, in turn, be approved by both houses.

Congress and the Executive

The legislative and executive branches of government are separate and independent, but Congress and the executive do not work in isolation from each other. Only members of Congress may introduce legislation, but the president provides leadership to Congress by recommending a legislative program. He thus influences both Congress’s agenda and the substantive content of its day-to-day policy decisions. Congress, however, scrutinizes presidential proposals and often changes them substantially. Moreover, Congress itself initiates much important legislation.

The most important leverage the Congress has over the executive stems from its fiscal powers. Executive agencies may not spend money unless the expenditure has been authorized and appropriated by Congress. Congress greatly strengthened its budgetary powers by the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which provided for a congressional budget, created new committees to consider overall budget outlays, and established the Congressional Budget Office. The law also limited the president’s power to rescind or impound the spending of money appropriated by Congress.

Initiatives in foreign policy usually are taken by the president, but Congress is also involved in the making of foreign policy through its power to tax and spend, to finance foreign policies, to declare war, and to ratify treaties (which require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate). Congress placed unusual limitations on the conduct of foreign relations in 1973 when it passed the War Powers Act, restricting the president’s authority to commit U.S. troops abroad.

In various other ways, Congress influences the work of the executive branch. Senate confirmation is required for presidential nominations of cabinet officials, ambassadors, federal judges, and certain other officials. Congressional committees investigate executive agencies and officials and regularly review the administrative implementation of congressionally enacted programs. Ultimately, Congress has the power to remove the president from office through impeachment, a process in which the House investigates alleged wrongdoing and votes on the charges, and the Senate tries the president on these charges. In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House and tried by the Senate, narrowly escaping conviction. Richard M. Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment charges. Bill Clinton was impeached (December 1998) on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice but won acquittal in the Senate by a comfortable margin.

From time to time Congress sets up special committees to investigate subjects that do not fall directly in the jurisdiction of its standing committees. Its power of investigation is considered one of the essential functions of Congress. Special committees have been created to investigate criminal charges against members, to study social and economic problems, to probe into unethical political activities, and to publicize controversial issues. Famous special committees were the House Committee on Un-American Activities, set up in 1938 to investigate fascist, Communist, and other extremist political organizations, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (commonly known as the Watergate committee), set up in 1973, and the House and Senate select committees investigating the Iran-contra affair in 1987.

In the 1970s, Congress accelerated its use of the legislative veto, a device originated in the 1930s by which provisions were written into a law requiring the executive to seek congressional approval before taking actions authorized under that law. By the 1980s, legislative veto provisions had been included in more than 200 laws, including the War Powers Act. This practice came under mounting attack from presidents and other executive branch officials, and eventually it was challenged in the federal courts. In 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the legislative veto was an unconstitutional intrusion by the legislature into the executive sphere.

A line-item veto, by which a president could veto isolated portions of a law, was enacted by Congress in 1996 but ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

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