Essentially the law-making branch of the United States federal government, Congress is a bicameral institution charged with powers that, for the most part, are specific to the legislative process. ‘Bicameral’ effectively means that it is separated into two chambers. These are the House of Representatives, and the Senate. The law explicitly provides that two Senators are appointed by each State within the Union, whilst the Representatives of the House is mandated to not exceed one representative for every thirty thousand citizens identified by the U.S. census. The number of Representatives a state can elect is proportionate to its population, with the smallest of States being entitled to at least one Representative. (Damerow, 2007; De Grazia, 1957)
The Constitution mandates that Congress meets at least once a year, and enumerates powers pertaining directly or indirectly to commerce throughout the land. Legislation begins in the form of a proposal introduced as a bill, a concurrent resolution, joint resolution or simple resolution. Joint resolutions are the means by which Congress can introduce amendments or declare war, while other resolutions are merely the means by which Congress regulates procedures and express their opinions. Often, lobbyists initiate legislative momentum by advocating the passage or rejection of bills affecting those interests they represent such as labor unions or companies. Bills authored must undergo serious scrutiny before it can successfully pass into law.
First, it must undergo consideration by Congressional committees whose jurisdiction is relevant to the bill and may undergo amendments at this stage. Second, the committee votes on whether this bill can progress to a full house of Representatives or Senators, which must debate on the appropriateness of the bill and append amendments of its own. Third, the amended bill must subsequently undergo review by the other house which may pass, reject or amend the bill further, and likewise, pass the bill back for further review.
The resulting amendements can create a bill filled with numerous legal clauses that may expand the scope of the original bill, but the ultimate goal is for both the House and the Senate come to an agreement to pass the bill, otherwise, it will fail. Once both houses have passed the bill it is submitted to the President who may sign the bill into law or veto it. In the case of the latter, a ‘counter-veto’ is possible when both Congressional chambers secure enough votes, a two-thirds majority to be specific, to override the President’s veto (Davidson & Oleszek, 2006; De Grazia, 1957)
It is important to note that the bicameral structure of Congress is not arbitrary. The two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate are designed to balance out one another, a design that is roughly consonant with how the rest of the federal government is structured. While the individuals which comprise both chambers are appointed through elections, the manner in which their support is constituted varies subtly. Senators receive their support through state majority. This means that the Senator’s support base is more general.
Representatives receives support on the district level, which means that their support base is more specific and local. In effect, the votes of Senators generally reflect their perception of their home state’s role within the nation-whole and their place within the federal picture. Representatives on the other hand, base their votes on how legislation will directly affect the people in their district, effectively considering the implications that federal laws and powers have upon their welfare.
Longley (n.d.) observes that these differences between Representatives and Senators are critical to ensuring that the overall voting temperament of Congress is a balanced one:
“[House Representatives] are up for election every two years. In effect, they are always running for election [and] insures that they maintain close personal contact with their local constituents, thus remaining constantly aware of their opinions and needs, and better able to act as their advocates […] Elected for six-year terms, Senators remain somewhat more insulated from the people, thus less likely to be tempted to vote according to the short-term passions of public opinion.”
As can be gathered from the law-making powers granted to it, the United States Congress is the legislative branch of the United States federal government. The powers of the executive branch are overseen by the President, whose primary duty is to ensure that the laws be faithfully executed, which for the most part, involves employing subordinates empowered to handle various duties relevant to this purpose. Finally, judicial power lies in the hands of the Supreme Court, which translates to leaving the resolution of cases and controversies in its charge. (De Grazia, 1957; Kilman & Costello, 2000)
Recognizing the jurisdictional boundaries of these various bodies is critical to understanding of the functions of Congress. This is because Congress is a discrete body whose agenda differs from that of the other branches of the United States federal government. This design is intentional, as it follows the principle of the separation of powers provided by the United States Constitution, and prevents each branch of the government from abusing the powers granted to them or wielding unnecessarily influence over one another. Such a separation is not meant to be absolute, but rather, instituted in such a manner that each branch is able to restrain potential abuses of power of the other branches. (De Grazia, 1957)
The ability of each branch to restrain one another is known as the system of checks and balances, wherein the powers of one branch are limited by the powers of another branch. For example, while the Presidency may be the executive branch of the federal government, the extent of its abilities – namely, those given to it for the purposes of ensuring the faithful execution of laws – are limited by the laws passed by Congress. Furthermore, it is a responsibility of Congress to investigate and oversee the activities of the executive branch, for the purposes of restricting or preventing any abuses of power. This is referred to as ‘congressional oversight’. However, the judicial branch also restricts the powers granted to Congress. Although it is Congress which makes the laws, initiate investigations and impeach high-ranking officials, the judicial branch can invoke the constitution to repeal questionable laws, compel the presentation of evidence and testimony to challenge investigations.
De Grazia, A. (1957) The American Way of Government. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New York.
Damerow, H. (2007, August 30) “Congress.” Dr. Damerow. Retrieved online on November 17, 2008 from: http://faculty.ucc.edu/egh-damerow/congress.htm
Kilman, J. & Costello, G. (eds.) (2000) The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation. Retrieved online on November 17, 2008 from: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/constitution/browse2002.html
Longley, R. (n.d.) “Why We Have a House and Senate.” About.com. Retrieved online on November 17, 2008 from: http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/weekly/blhouseandsenate.htm
Davidson, R. H. & Oleszek, W.J. (2006). Congress and Its Members, 10th edition, Congressional Quarterly (CQ) Press.