Congress of the United States

The Congress of the United States is the legislative, or lawmaking, branch of the federal government. It is a bicameral legislature, which means that it is made up of two chambers, or houses. They are the House of Representatives and the Senate. The CQNSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES gives the two houses similar powers. The most important of these is that no law can be adopted unless it is first passed in identical form by a majority (more than half) of the members of each house.

Why There Are Two Houses

There are two main reasons why the Congress has two houses, rather than a single-house (unicameral) system. The first is in keeping with historical tradition. The framers of the Constitution were most familiar with the British Parliament, which consists of two houses. In fact, at the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the legislatures of 11 of the 13 states of the United States were made up of two houses.The second is that a bicameral legislature offered a way of resolving a major conflict in the writing of the Constitution. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from the heavily populated states wanted a state's representation in the new Congress to be based on population. Delegates from the less heavily populated states feared that the larger states would dominate the Congress if this were done. They insisted that each state receive equal representation. This obstacle was overcome by the Great Compromise. It provided for equal representation for each state in the Senate, and for the House of Representatives to be elected on the basis of population. Furthermore, a legislature made up of two chambers supports the system of checks and balances that is built into the American form of government. Either house is able to block legislation approved by the other. Therefore, the two houses must often cooperate with each other and compromise on their differences in writing the nation's laws.

How The House and Senate Differ

Although they share similar powers and may be considered equal in this respect, the two houses differ in a number of ways. These include size and rules, terms of office, base of representation, requirements of office, and special powers under the Constitution.

The House of Representatives has 435 members, or one elected fromeach congressional district. It is thus more than four times the size of the Senate, which has 100 members, or two elected from each state. The House of Representatives (commonly known as the House) is presided over by the Speaker of the House, who is nominated by the majority political party in that chamber. The VICE PRESIDENT of the United States presides over the Senate.

Because of its larger size, the House is more formal and has stricter rules than the Senate. For example, a member of the House (usually called a representative) is recognized to speak during a debate for a limited period of time, often five minutes or less. Senators normally have no such time limits placed on them. Therefore it is possible, as an extreme measure, for a senator or group of senators to use this privilege of unlimited debate to delay or defeat legislation. This delaying tactic is called a filibuster.

Members of the House are elected to 2-year terms of office. Senators are elected to 6-year terms. Members of the House must thus seek re-election much more frequently than senators and have to pay especially close attention to the needs and opinions of their constituents—the people in the districts they represent. The Constitution also requires that one third of the Senate shall be elected every two years. As a result, the Senate is more of a continuing body than the House, because two thirds of the Senate's membership will remain unchanged regardless of what happens in an election.

Although senators are now elected directly by popular vote (that is, by the people), at one time they were elected by the state legislatures. This change came about as a result of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1913.

While a senator represents an entire state, a member of the House represents a congressional district, which is usually only a small part of a state. A senator's contituency (the body of citizens he or she represents) is therefore likely to be more diverse than a House member's. For example, states have urban (city), suburban, and rural (country) areas, all of whose voters a senator must represent. A House member's district, on the other hand, may be largely urban or suburban or rural.

House representatives must be at least 25 years of age and have been citizens of the United States for at least seven years. Senators must be at least 30 years of age and have been citizens for at least nine years. Both must be residents of the state in which they seek election.

The Senate has special responsibility for the ratification, or approval, of treaties with foreign countries. The Constitution requires that "two thirds of the Senators present concur" (agree) for a treaty to be ratified. This gives the Senate more influence than the House in foreign policy matters. In addition, candidates nominated by the president for such positions as CABINET members, ambassadors, and federal judges require approval by the Senate. On the other hand, the House has a special role in tax legislation. All bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives.

Making the Laws

The congressional lawmaking process is a complex one. A proposed law, or bill, must pass through a series of steps before it is voted upon on the House and Senate floors. At any one of these steps, a bill can be delayed, defeated, or amended (changed). Most bills that are introduced do not survive this process and do not become law. Except for those concerning revenue, bills may be introduced in either chamber. They are then referred to an appropriate committee, where much of the important work of the Congress occurs.

The Committee System

The committees in the House and the 16 in the Senate allow for the division of work and specialization Congress needs to manage the 10,000 or more bills introduced to it every two years. Each committee has its own special area of interest—such as agriculture, health, taxation, energy, or education—and a new bill will be sent to the appropriate committee. The committees, in turn, will distribute bills to even more specialized subcommittees.Committees have only enough time to deal with a small percentage of the bills referred to them. Most bills receive no further consideration and simply "die" in committee. If a bill is of particular importance, the committee will usually schedule hearings to gather information about the bill and listen to the'opinions of thoge'who favor bf oppose it. The committee may then proceed to further consideration of the bill and offer amendments to it. Only if the committee votes to report (approve) the bill will it be scheduled for consideration by the chamber's full membership.

Floor Consideration and Passage

On the floor of the chamber the bill is subject to debate. Amendments to it may again be offered and voted on. The bill can be returned to the committee that reported it. If passed in one chamber, the bill must then be sent to the other chamber, where the entire process begins anew. Because a bill will rarely pass both chambers of Congress in the same form, a conference committee is selected to work out differences between the Senate and House versions. Any agreement reached by the conference committee must be approved by both chambers. Only then can the legislation be sent to the president of the United States, who must sign it before it can become law. If the president vetoes (disapproves) a bill, it requires a two-thirds majority vote of members present in both houses for passage.

Other Responsibilities

The Congress has a number of other responsibilities and powers under the Constitution. It can propose amendments to the Constitution and declare war. The House of Representatives has the power to IMPEACH, or bring charges against, federal officials for misconduct. If no candidate in a presidential ELECTION wins a majority in the ELECTORALCOLLEGE, the PRESIDENT is elected by the House of Representatives. The Congress also determines if a president is disabled and thus unable to continue in office.

The Congress can conduct investigations into any matter that affects its powers under the Constitution. It also reviews the actions of federal agencies to see that programs authorized by law are carried out properly.