Congress of the United States

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Congress of the United States

President Woodrow Wilson addresses a joint session of the 64th Congress on February 26, 1917, with a request to arm U.S. merchant ships. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
President Woodrow Wilson addresses a joint session of the 64th Congress on February 26, 1917, with a request to arm U.S. merchant ships.

The Congress of the United States is the highest lawmaking body in the United States and one of the oldest national legislatures in the world. Established under the terms of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the House of Representatives and the Senate have for over 200 years created the federal laws governing the United States. Congress remains one of the few national assemblies that research and draft their own legislation rather than simply voting on bills created by the government in power. In addition to its legislative functions, the U.S. Congress is empowered by the Constitution to ensure that the administration of government is carried out according to the laws it establishes, to conduct special investigations, and to exercise other special powers in relation to the executive and the judiciary.

Speaker of the House

As the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House holds one of the highest positions in Congress. The position is filled at the start of each two-year term in a vote by the full House membership. The selection of the Speaker is generally determined by the majority party, and thus the Speaker is always a leading member of that party. The Speaker's broad powers and privileges allow the majority to control the House's legislative agenda.

The significance of the office cannot be underestimated. The Speaker is in a position to set the rules of the House and to adjudicate when procedural conflicts arise. The Speaker's rulings can be challenged, but rarely are; traditionally, they are final. Behind the scenes, the office's power is even broader. This is because voting is a relatively small part of the House's business: its essential legislative work is done in committees. The Speaker plays a vital role in appointing committee chairs, influences the referral of bills to the committees, and effectively decides the timetables of the bills. Bills favored by the Speaker will leave committee more quickly and come to an early vote. The minority party's concerns will wait.

Outside Congress, the Speaker customarily enjoys high visibility in U.S. politics. The media frequently report the Speaker's opinions, transforming the office into a political bully pulpit much like that of the Senate majority leader, and the Speaker often campaigns for party loyalists in election years. Depending on which party occupies the White House, the Speaker can be either a strategically placed ally or powerful foe of the president. The relationship between the two branches of government does not end there: under the rules of succession, the Speaker is second in line after the vice president to assume the presidency.

Not every Speaker has been a high-profile individual. In 1999, the House elected J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) to serve as Speaker, replacing newton gingrich. Hastert served as a high school teacher for 16 years until he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served for six years. He was elected to Congress in 1986.

Hastert has retained a relatively low profile in his two terms as Speaker, especially compared to that of his immediate predecessor. Gingrich was largely credited with leading Republican victories in Congress in 1994, when the GOP took control of both houses for the first time since 1954. He remained in the public spotlight for the next four years, including strong advocacy to fulfill the Contract with America and other GOP programs. However, in 1997, he faced several charges for ethical violations stemming from alleged use of official House resources for unofficial purposes, and he was reprimanded and fined $300,000 by the House. Gingrich resigned suddenly in November 1998, almost exactly four years after the 1994 Republican victory.

Further readings

Loomis, Burdett A. 2000. The Contemporary Congress. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Mayhew, David R. 2000. America's Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere, James Madison through Newt Gingrich. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

History and Structure

Between 1774 and 1789, the Continental Congress served as the federal lawmaking body for the 13 American colonies and (after it passed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) the United States. The Continental Congress proved to be an ineffective national legislature, however, particularly after ratification of its founding constitution, the Articles of Confederation, in 1781. This congress lacked the authority to raise funds from the states and was not adept at the administration of federal government.

Senate Majority Leader

The Senate majority leader has somewhat less official power than the Speaker of the House. This is because the vice president is technically the Senate's presiding officer, a ceremonial position that calls chiefly for casting a vote in the event of a tie. The Senate majority leader's official duties include helping make committee appointments, helping establish a legislative timetable, and directing debate. Notably, in the Senate, these duties usually involve consultation with the leadership of the minority party. The comparatively diminished procedural powers of the majority leader hardly reduce the position's significance. As chief strategist and spokesperson for the majority party, the majority leader exercises considerable influence over political debate, and certain unique duties of the Senate itself lend extra influence to the role.

Differences between the House and Senate account for the contrasts in leadership duties. The House sends bills to the Senate, where they are debated extensively at a slower, more deliberate pace. For this reason, the majority leader is chosen from within the party's caucus less for the Senator's bureaucratic efficiency than for his or her knowledge, experience, and persuasive abilities. The Senate leader does not have the House Speaker's extensive authority over the legislative agenda: instead, bills are called up for debate depending on when the committees report them and on when both parties' leaders have agreed to schedule them. The majority leader can speed up the process for certain bills but requires the unanimous consent of the Senate to do so.

However, the majority leader exercises influence in important areas not open to the House Speaker. Only the Senate can approve treaties with foreign governments, and the Senate alone has the authority to confirm presidential nominations to the cabinet and federal courts. The majority leader, assisted by a lieutenant known as the majority whip, seeks to marshal the votes of the party's members on these matters. The responsiveness of the majority leader to the president's wishes thus plays a crucial role in shaping domestic and foreign policy as well as the composition of the federal judiciary.

The national importance of the majority leader was highlighted in December 2002 when Senator trent lott (R-MS) was engulfed in a firestorm of public criticism that forced him to give up his position as majority leader in the Congress beginning in January 2003. Lott, who had served as majority leader from 1996 until 2001, ignited the controversy at a 100th-birthday tribute to Sen. strom thurmond (RSC). Lott said he was proud Mississippi had voted for Thurmond for president in 1948, when the South Carolinian ran on the segregationist "Dixiecrat" platform. Lott then said: "If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years."

Once this statement was picked up by the press, Lott tried several times to explain that his statement did not mean to imply he supported Segregation or was a racist. President george w. bush, while supporting Lott in his leadership position, chastised his comments; within days commentators speculated how long Lott could hold on to his post. Three weeks after he made the comments, Lott resigned his leadership position. Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) succeeded Lott as majority leader. The episode made clear that Senate majority leaders have both an institutional role and a national leadership role in U.S. government.

Further readings

Dinan, Stephen. 2002. "White House Turns Up the Heat When Lott Support Deteriorates." The Washington Times (December 21).

Redman, Eric, and Richard E. Neustadt. 2001. The Dance of Legislation.Seattle: Univer. of Washington Press.

The Framers of the Constitution, meeting in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, attempted to repair the shortcomings of the Continental Congress by creating a more effective federal legislature. The resulting Congress, made up of a House of Representatives and a Senate, first met with a quorum of members on April 1, 1789, in New York City, eventually reaching its full size at 65 representatives and 26 senators.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

Before a federal law can exist in the United States, it must first be introduced as a bill in Congress, and then pass through a series of steps. At any of these steps it may be effectively vetoed, or nullified, if it does not attract a majority of support. As a result, only a small percentage of all bills succeed in becoming laws. In the 103d Congress (1993–95), for example, 8,544 public bills and joint resolutions (generally the same as bills) were introduced, and only 465 became laws.

Introduction of bills Bills must be introduced, or sponsored, by a member of the House or Senate. Most bills are introduced simultaneously in both houses in order to speed their passage. Sponsored bills are placed in the "hopper," a mahogany box near the House Speaker's podium. A bill may be cosponsored by other members of Congress in order to earn wider political support. Bills receive special designation codes to identify their house of origin and the order in which they have been received. For example, the code H.R. 171 designates the 171st House bill of that congressional term, and S. 52 indicates the fifty-second Senate bill.

Ideas for bills may come from a variety of sources other than members of Congress, including the president, other government officials, interest groups, scholars, constituents, staff, and state and local officials. Although a member of Congress must sponsor a bill, anyone may draft a bill. Proposed bills are often drafted by executive agencies and special interest groups. Also, experts in the Senate and House offices of legislative counsel help members of Congress draft bills.

Frequently, bills are grouped together into comprehensive bills, also called omnibus bills or package bills, to increase their chances of approval. This practice has become increasingly common, and as a result, Congress has enacted fewer but lengthier laws in recent decades.

Bills may be either private or public. Public bills include those authorizing spending for the federal government and those establishing the federal laws applicable to the general public, including criminal laws. Private bills deal with more specialized matters such as the claims of individuals regarding land titles and citizenship. If approved, these bills become private laws.

Although most laws originate as bills, some originate as joint resolutions, designated H.R.J. Res. or S.J. Res. Joint resolutions must pass through the same hurdles as bills, including required acceptance by both houses and the president, but generally deal with more limited matters. Constitutional amendments begin as joint resolutions, though they require ratification by three-fourths of the states instead of presidential approval.

Bills introduced in Congress must be approved by both houses in identical form during the congressional term in which they are introduced. (Each congressional term is two years; the 100th Congress, for example, officially began its term at noon on January 3, 1987, and ended it at noon on January 3, 1989.) Thus, a bill that is introduced during the 105th Congress must be passed before the beginning of the 106th Congress. If it is not passed during that congressional term, it must be reintroduced in the next Congress.

Committee action After a bill has been introduced in the House or Senate, it is referred to an appropriate committee by the House Speaker or the presiding officer in the Senate. Committee referral can be a crucial determinant of a bill's success. If a bill is referred to a hostile or unreceptive committee, it may fail to be reported out of the committee, or be passed.

A committee assigns the bill to a subcommittee, which may hold hearings to consider the bill's merits. The subcommittee often amends the bill, in a procedure known as markup. After the subcommittee completes its work, the committee votes to approve and report the bill with amendments; to make further amendments; or to table the bill—that is, take no more action on it.

House Rules Committee House bills, unlike Senate bills, must pass through a rules committee before proceeding to the House floor. The House Rules Committee establishes the limits for debate and amendment of the bill, elements that can determine the bill's outcome. The Speaker of the House appoints all majority party members to the committee and exerts great influence over the committee and, as a result, the fate of legislation in the House.

Floor action Bills that are reported out of committee—including those that have passed through the House Rules Committee—proceed to the floor of the House and Senate.

The Speaker decides when the House will debate a bill. On the day that a bill is scheduled for debate, the House first votes on the rules of debate proposed by the Rules Committee. Once these have been approved, general debate begins. The typical length of general debate on the House floor is one to two hours, but for a controversial bill, debate may last four to ten hours. Each political party receives an equal amount of time to debate the bill.

After general debate, the bill proceeds to the amending phase. Here, House members engage in more lively debate as they attempt to win passage of the bill or kill it through the amendment process. Successful amendments can greatly alter proposed legislation, and even unsuccessful amendments can win significant publicity for a representative. During this process, House members vote on each amendment as it comes up for consideration.

Finally, after all amendments have been made, the House votes on the bill. Usually, this vote is recorded. Since 1973 the House has used an electronic voting system in which members insert a personalized card (roughly the size of a credit card) into one of more than forty voting stations on the House floor. They then press a button indicating whether their vote is Yea, Nay, or Present.

Because it is a much smaller body, the Senate maintains floor procedures that are much less formal than those of the House. The Senate allows each of its members more freedom to debate bills, and it allows the minority party to make more decisions than in the House.

Scheduling of bills in the Senate is determined jointly by the majority and minority party leadership, though the majority leader makes the final decisions. For most bills, the majority leader then obtains the unanimous consent of the Senate regarding the date a bill will be brought to the floor and the rules regarding its amendment and debate. Generally, senators are able to offer an unlimited number of floor amendments during debate. Debate is also theoretically unlimited; it does not end until all members are through talking. The Senate has a rule passed in 1917 called a cloture rule, which limits debate to thirty hours before a final vote is taken on a bill. The cloture rule is difficult to invoke because it requires the approval of sixty senators.

During floor debate, senators may engage in a practice called the filibuster, in which they speak on the floor for many hours in order to delay, defeat, or amend a bill. A senator may filibuster for as long as he or she can remain standing. Two senators may work together in a filibuster; when one tires, the other continues. In 1957 Senator strom thurmond, of South Carolina, then a Democrat, set the record for the longest solo filibuster in Senate history when he spoke for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes in an attempt to defeat a Civil Rights bill.

After debate is over, the Senate conducts a roll call vote to determine whether the bill passes or fails. In a roll call vote, each senator is asked to state aloud his or her vote on the bill.

Conference committee If the House and Senate versions of a bill differ, the two chambers form a conference committee to resolve the discrepancies. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of all bills—usually the most controversial ones—passed by Congress end up in a conference committee. Members of the conference committee are typically drawn from the committees that reported the bill. During the 1980s and 1990s, conference committees sometimes became quite large, involving as many as two hundred conferees when debating large budget measures. Party ratios on these committees reflect the ratios in Congress itself. Since 1975 conference meetings have been open to the public.

When the conference committee is done, a majority of conferees from each house sign the compromise bill and report it to Congress. The House and Senate then vote to approve the common bill. No amendments are allowed at this point. Because members have invested much time and effort in the bill by the time it has left a conference committee, it is nearly always approved.

Enactment into law Following approval by both houses of Congress, a bill is presented to the president for approval. Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution outlines the procedure for presidential judgment of legislation. The president has four options: sign the bill, which makes it law; Veto the bill and return it to Congress; refuse to take any action, in which case, after ten days, the bill becomes law without the president's signature; or, if less than ten days are left in the congressional term, "pocket veto" the bill by not signing it (because Congress has no time to take up the bill, the pocket veto kills the bill).

In the case of a normal veto, the bill must be approved again by Congress, this time by a two-thirds majority in each house. Because of this supermajority requirement, vetoes are difficult to override. No amendments can be made to a vetoed bill. Congress is not required to vote on a vetoed bill, and such bills are often simply referred to committee and tabled.


Joint Resolution.

Article I of the Constitution sets forth the basic form and powers of Congress. As designed by the Constitution's Framers, the House is more responsive to public sentiment, and the Senate is a more deliberate and stable body. James Madison, writing in The Federalist, no. 62, argued that members of the Senate should have a "tenure of considerable duration" and should be fewer in number in order to avoid the "intemperate and pernicious resolutions" often passed by "single and numerous" legislative assemblies. Accordingly, the Constitution requires that senators serve six years in office, with one-third of them up for reelection every two years—whereas all House members, called representatives, go up for reelection every two years. In addition, the Constitution requires that senators be at least 30 years old to take office, whereas representatives must be a minimum of 25 years old. Moreover, senators were originally elected by state legislatures and representatives rather than the general population, but this procedure was ended with the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.

Congress has grown steadily in size as the nation has gained population and added states. The House reached its current size of 435 members in 1912, and the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 (46 Stat. 21, 26, 27) fixed its size at this number. The Senate reached 100 members after the admission of Hawaii as a state in 1959.

Powers of Congress

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution defines the powers of Congress. These include the powers to assess and collect taxes; to regulate commerce, both interstate and with foreign nations; to coin money; to establish post offices and post roads; to establish federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court; to declare war; to establish rules for the government; and to raise and maintain an army and navy.

Article I, Section 8, also declares that "Congress shall have Power … To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof." Called the Necessary and Proper Clause or the Implied Powers Clause, this part of the Constitution enables Congress to undertake activities not specifically enumerated by the Constitution but implied by its provisions. The Necessary and Proper Clause has been used to greatly expand congressional authority (mcculloch v. maryland, 17 U.S. [4 Wheat.] 316, 4 L. Ed. 579 [1819]).

Another power vested in Congress is the right to propose amendments to the Constitution upon approval by two-thirds of both houses. Should two-thirds of the state legislatures demand changes in the Constitution, Congress must call a constitutional convention. Proposed amendments are valid as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures or by conventions of three-fourths of the states. Either means of ratification may be proposed by Congress.

Congress retains a number of other special powers. It may act as a judicial body to impeach and try a president or other civil officer for misconduct; in such cases, the House impeaches, or charges, the official, and the Senate conducts the trial. Congress is also empowered to create and use administrative agencies and boards, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Mediation Board,to determine facts and to enforce its legislative policies and enactments.

The Constitution vests each house of Congress with distinct powers as well. The House, for example, has sole responsibility for originating all tax bills, and the Senate has power to approve treaties. The House also chooses the president and vice president if no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes in the presidential election.

Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution imposes prohibitions upon Congress. This section forbids Congress to suspend the privilege of Habeas Corpus, except in cases of rebellion; to pass ex post facto, or retroactive, laws; to impose duties on exports; or to grant titles of nobility.


Seats in the Senate are apportioned, or distributed, evenly across the states, with each state receiving two. Seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned between the states on the basis of population, with the most populated states receiving the most representatives and no state receiving less than one. The Constitution requires that a census be conducted every ten years in order to determine the number of seats allotted to each state. An apportionment method called equal proportions is used so that no state will receive less than one member.

The Constitution does not mandate that states having more than one representative be divided into congressional districts, although a state legislature can make such a division. States cannot apportion congressional districts on a discriminatory or unreasonable basis.


The Senate and the House of Representatives, acting together or independently, can authorize investigations, or hearings, to obtain information for use in connection with the exercise of their constitutional powers. Information gathered in congressional hearings helps lawmakers draft legislation and monitor the actions of government. It also informs the public about important issues confronting the nation. Noted congressional investigations have included the teapot dome inquiry in 1923, the 1973–74 Senate Watergate hearings, and the iran-contra investigation in 1987. Congress has also examined perceived threats to the government, as in the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 in which Senator joseph r. mccarthy (R-WI) led an investigation into Communist influence in the U.S. government.

A congressional committee may conduct an appropriate investigation under the authority granted to it, but the methods used in the exercise of its investigative power must not violate the constitutional rights of those under investigation. The extent of the authority of a congressional committee must be determined at the time the particular information is sought and cannot be extended by later action of Congress.

Congressional investigations can be held to obtain information in connection with Congress's power to legislate and to appropriate funds, in addition to other express powers it possesses. Congress has wide discretion to determine the subject matter it studies as well as the scope and extent of its inquiry. An investigation must, however, be based on direct statements made to Congress, its members, or its committees. Congress or its committees may not indiscriminately examine private citizens in order to learn valuable information or to inhibit the exercise of constitutionally protected rights, such as Freedom of Speech.

Individuals summoned in a proper manner, or subpoenaed, by Congress or a committee must comply and conform with the summoner's procedure. However, witnesses are legally entitled to refuse to answer questions that are beyond the power of the investigating body or that are irrelevant to the matter under inquiry. A witness who has not been given a grant of Immunity can refuse to answer questions that tend to be incriminating under the protection afforded by the Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

Committees and Staff

The work of preparing and considering legislation is done largely by committees of both houses of Congress. The membership of the standing committees of each house is chosen by the political parties in Congress. Committee seats are generally distributed to members of different political parties in a ratio equivalent to party membership in the larger House or Senate. Thus, if a party has two-thirds of the seats in the House, it will have approximately two-thirds of the seats in each House committee.

Each bill and resolution is usually referred to the appropriate committee, which may report it out (send it to the floor of the House or Senate) in its original form, favorably or unfavorably; recommend amendments; or allow it to die in committee without action.

A growing workload and the increasingly complex nature of the legislation it passes have caused Congress to hire an increasing number of staff. Thousands of staff workers support the Congressional members in their work.

Further readings

Corwin, Edward S. 1978. The Constitution and What It Means Today. 14th ed. Rev. Harold W. Chase and Craig R. Ducat. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. 1981– . Congress and Its Members. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Egan, Tracie. 2004. How a Bill Becomes a Law. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.

Felten, Eric. 1992. The Ruling Class: Inside the Imperial Congress. Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation.

"Gingrich Puts More Power into Speaker's Hands." 1995. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report (October 7).

"Glossary of Congressional Terms." Congressional Quarterly's Washington Alert (February).

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1787– 88. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. Reprint, New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1961.

Harrigan, John J. 1984. Politics and the American Future. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

"How a Bill Becomes Law." 1994. Congressional Quarterly's Washington Alert.

Jones, Gordon S., and John A. Marini, eds. 1989. The Imperial Congress: Crisis in the Separation of Powers. Mahwah, NJ: World Almanac Books.Oleszek, Walter J. 1989. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Riddick, Floyd M. 1985. Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 3. S. Doc. 99-3.


Constitution of the United States.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.