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.

The 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 House

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Because 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.

Party 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 bill.

The 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 Senate

The 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 Judiciary committees.

The 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.

The 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.

Besides 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 Senate.

Responsibilities of Congress

Congress 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.

Responsibilities of Congress - The Legislative Process

The 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.

If the 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.

If both 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.

If the 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.

Responsibilities of Congress - Other Responsibilities

In 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 Agencies

As 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 projected expenses.

In 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.

In 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.

In some 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 Issues

The 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.