Congress of the United States

By Samuel Patterson
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

The Congress of the United States, the nation's lawmaking body, is made up of two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The main power of Congress, as set forth in the U.S. Constitution, is to make laws that, when signed by the president, become the law of the land, governing American life. Congress also has the responsibility to determine that public policies are being administered by the government in accordance with the law and as efficiently and effectively as possible. Moreover, because Congress is intended to represent the nation's citizens, its members are expected to provide assistance and services to their constituents the people back home in their states and districts. The news reporting of congressional hearings, debates, and other activities provides citizens with much information about what their government is doing. Congress sometimes is required to perform specialized judicial and electoral functions. It acts as a judicial body in the process of impeachment and removal of the president, and it has the power to choose the president and vice-president should no candidate gain a majority of electoral votes following a presidential election.

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.

From 1955 to 1995 a majority of the members of Congress were Democrats. In 1980, Republicans gained control of the Senate and reduced the Democrats'majority in the House, but Democrats recovered control of both houses in 1986. The pattern of Democratic control of the Congress while Republicans occupied the White House persisted until Democrat Bill Clinton became president in 1993 and the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in 1995. In 2000 the Republicans captured the presidency as well in the person of George W. Bush though their majorities in Congress were reduced. In fact, in January 2001 the 107th Congress convened with an evenly divided Senate 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans although the Republicans could use Vice-President Richard Cheney to break tie votes. That political configuration changed in May, however, when Vermont senator James Jeffords switched from the Republican party to become an Independent, leaving the Senate with 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 1 Independent. In the 2002 congressional elections the Republicans took back control of the Senate with a one-vote majority and added to their majority in the House.

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.

Congressional Organization
Congress is organized in three notable ways: its party organization and leadership, its committee structure, and its staff.

Party Leadership. Both houses of Congress are organized into majority and minority political parties, each with its own leadership, but the House and the Senate are organized differently. In the House the leader of the majority party serves as the Speaker, who is the presiding officer of the House. Because the Speaker controls debate in the House, has an important role in the selection of committee members and chairpersons, and can influence the scheduling and dispensation of legislation, the Speaker possesses substantial power. The majority party organization is provided by the majority leader and his or her assistants (called whips), along with specialized party committees. They are chosen by the majority party caucus, made up of all the party members in the House. Similarly, the minority party chooses a minority leader, party whips, and members of its own party committees.

In the Senate the presiding officer is not an important leader and does not exercise influence over proceedings under most circumstances. Although the vice-president may preside over the Senate, that person is not, in practice, required to do so. Usually, senators take turns presiding over the body in a nominal and routine way. The leadership of the Senate is provided by the majority leader, who is selected by the majority party caucus. In turn, the minority party chooses its minority leader. Although the majority leader manages the business of the Senate, he or she does so in consultation with the leader of the minority party.

Committees and Subcommittees. Whereas party organization and leadership are not insignificant in Congress, the most important organizational feature of the House and Senate is the structure of their committees. Early in the 19th century the congressional houses used few committees. As legislative business became more varied and complex the division of labor among members became more complex as well. Ultimately, committees and their subcommittees came to provide the locus of most congressional work.

Congressional committees are organized along substantive policy lines. Generally, they correspond to the major departments of the executive branch. Thus both the House and the Senate have created committees concerned with agriculture, defense, housing, commerce, science and technology, education, government operations, international relations, judiciary affairs, and service veterans. The work of each committee is further subdivided so that it can be considered by subcommittees. "Congress in committee is Congress at work," Woodrow Wilson once wrote. Today one might more accurately say that Congress is mainly at work in its subcommittees. Especially in the House, major bills are often considered by a number of subcommittees of different committees.

The most powerful committees of Congress are those concerned specifically with government finance. Both houses have budget committees whose job it is to set expenditure targets for each fiscal year and to establish the authorized level of the national debt. In addition, both houses have appropriations committees that consider the budget requests of executive agencies in detail and recommend budget legislation to their respective houses for approval. Moreover, both houses have committees on taxation the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. These two committees are concerned with government revenues and recommend the tax bills to their own houses. Because the power of the purse is the most formidable of congressional powers, these committees exercise great influence; hence membership on them is much sought after.

Membership on House and Senate committees is ultimately determined by party caucuses in the two houses. House Democrats are assigned to committees upon recommendation to the party caucus by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. House Republicans receive committee assignments through the Republican Committee on Committees. Senate Democrats are assigned to committees by the Democratic Steering Committee, and Senate Republicans, as do their House counterparts, have a Committee on Committees for this purpose. The partisan composition of committees is established by party ratios that differ to some extent from committee to committee but are roughly equivalent to the party makeup of the houses themselves.

The growing workload of congressional committees, and the proliferation of subcommittees, until 1995, was paralleled by a remarkable growth in congressional staffing. However, Republicans, who in the 1994 elections won control of Congress for the first time since 1954, abolished 3 of the 23 committees the Post Office and Civil Service, Merchant Marine and Fisheries, and District of Columbia committees and cut about one-third of the remaining committees'staffs. In 2001 there were 19 standing committees and 3 joint committees in the U.S. House.

Staff. Congress is served by a staff of more than 10,000 employees. It receives research and information services from major agencies. The Congressional Research Service, an arm of the Library of Congress, provides wide-ranging research services for members and committees. The General Accounting Office supplies reviews of the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of government programs. The Office of Technology Assessment provides policy analysis in science and technology. Finally, the Congressional Budget Office, working with budget committees of both houses, furnishes fiscal and economic research.

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.

Congress and the Public
Members of Congress live and work under great pressure. House members, whose terms are only two years, must start planning for their next campaign as soon as they are elected to the first one. Members commonly travel weekly to their districts, maintain staff and offices there, send newsletters to their constituents, and campaign vigorously for reelection even when their districts are considered "safe" seats. They make extensive use of free postal services and the printed reports of the Congressional Record to show their constituents that they are active in their behalf. Members are also constantly canvassed by lobbyists representing special-interest groups.

Under pressure from the public to open up its deliberations, the House in 1979 authorized television coverage of its proceedings on C-SPAN, the public-affairs network. The Senate followed suit in 1986. In the early 1990s, Congress also took up reform proposals relating to campaign finance and lobbyists'contributions. In 1993 the House banking facility was closed after revelations of members' overdrafts.

Samuel C. Patterson

Bibliography: Arnold, R. Douglas, The Logic of Congressional Action (1990); Bianco, William T., A Proper Responsibility (1994); Cooper, Joseph, and Mackenzie, G. Calvin, eds., The House at Work (1981); Davidson, Roger H., and Oleszek, Walter, Congress and Its Members, 6th ed. (1997); Dickson, Paul, and Clancy, Paul, The Congress Dictionary: The Ways and Meanings of Capitol Hill (1995); Dodd, Lawrence C., and Oppenheimer, Bruce I., eds., Congress Reconsidered, 6th ed. (1997); Hinckley, Barbara, Stability and Change in Congress, 4th ed. (1987); Jewell, Malcolm E., and Patterson, Samuel C., The Legislative Process in the United States, 4th ed. (1986); Mikva, Abner J., and Saris, Patti B., The American Congress (1983); O'Connor, Ann, ed., Congress A to Z: A Ready Reference Encyclopedia (1993); Rieselbach, Leroy N., Congressional Reform (1993); Ripley, Randall B., Congress: Process and Policy, 4th ed. (1989); Weisberg, Herbert F., and Patterson, Samuel C., eds., Great Theatre: The American Congress in the 1990s (1998).

  • Subjects:
    Congress, Democracy
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