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The Structure of Congress


The Powers of Congress

Article I of the Constitution describes the legislative branch, called Congress. After hashing out the terms of the Great Compromise, the framers created a bicameral legislature, with a lower chamber called the House of Representatives and an upper chamber called the Senate.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is meant to be “the people’s house,” or the part of government most responsive to public opinion. Each state’s representation in the House is based on population, with each state getting at least one member. California has the most members (54), while several states, including Delaware, Vermont, Montana, and Alaska, each have only one member. Every member of the House represents a district within a state, and each district has roughly the same population (roughly 660,000 in 2006). Membership in the House is capped at 435.

To keep them responsive to the people, House members face reelection every two years, and the entire body is elected at the same time. A person must be twenty-five years old and a resident of the state he or she represents in order to run for a seat in the House.

The Senate

The framers envisioned the Senate as a body of statesmen who make decisions based on experience and wisdom, not on the unpredictable whims of the people. As a check on excessive democracy, only one-third of the Senate is elected every two years. The framers hoped that staggered elections of only portions of the Senate would prevent a single popular faction from taking control of the whole Senate in a single election. The framers of the Constitution were often wary of public opinion, so they attempted to structure the national government such that the public could never take control of it at one time. Also, because both the Senate and House must pass identical versions of a bill, the Senate can check any democratic excesses in the House.

Representation in the Senate is equal for every state: Each state has two senators. Senators serve six-year terms. The length of the term is supposed to insulate senators from public opinion and allow them to act independently. For nearly a hundred years, senators were appointed by the legislatures of the states they represented. The Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, gave the people the power to elect their senators directly. To serve in the Senate, a person must be at least thirty years old and live in the state he or she represents.

Political Parties and Leadership

Political parties play an important role in Congress because the houses are organized around parties. Although the Constitution does not mention political parties, they have developed into essential institutions of American politics. Although there were (and are) dozens of political parties, the American political system quickly evolved into a two-party system, which means that two parties have almost always dominated American politics. Since the 1850s, the dominant political parties in the United States have been the Democrats and the Republicans. Each chamber of Congress has a majority party, which holds more than half of the seats, and a minority party, which holds less than half. The parties elect their own leadership, organize for votes, and formulate strategy.

At the start of every congressional session, the parties meet in a caucus, an informal meeting of people with common interests. Caucuses consist of all members interested in a particular issue, and examples include the congressional Black Caucus, the Travel and Tourism Caucus, and Concerned Senators for the Arts. Although caucuses have no formal power, they can be important in formulating bills and rallying support.

House Leadership

The leader of the House of Representatives is the Speaker of the House. The Speaker is elected by the majority party (the Democratic Party Caucus or the Republican Party Caucus, depending on which party controls the House) and sets the schedule for debates and votes on the House floor. The majority party also elects a majority leader, who works closely with the Speaker and the caucus leadership, and several whips, who count votes and connect the leadership to the rank-and-file members. The minority party in the House, meanwhile, elects a minority leader and several whips of its own.

The leadership in the House has a great deal of power over its party because the leaders have the ability to reward and punish members. Members who cooperate with the leadership may be given good committee assignments or even leadership of a committee. Conversely, members who defy leadership may be ostracized by other party members. Party discipline is usually very strong in the House.

Senate Leadership

According to the Constitution, the vice president of the United States presides over the Senate. In reality, however, the most senior member of the senate—also called the president pro tempore (informally called the president pro tem)—usually presides over the Senate in the vice president’s absence. The president pro tem position is mostly a ceremonial position.

The majority party of the Senate elects a majority leader, who performs some of the same tasks as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The minority party also elects a minority leader. Leaders in the Senate have much less ability to punish and reward members than their counterparts do in the House. Senators are expected to be independent, and party leaders give members wide latitude in how they behave.

Floor Debate Rules

A major difference between the House and Senate concerns the rules governing floor debate. In both houses, a majority of members must vote in favor of a bill for it to pass, but the rules for the debating and voting process differ greatly.

Debate in the House

Due to its large size, the House does not permit unlimited debate. Before a bill goes to the floor for debate, it must go through the House Rules Committee, which passes a rule to accompany each bill. This rule determines how much debate is permitted, as well as how many amendments to the bill can be proposed. A closed rule strongly limits or forbids any amendments, whereas an open rule allows for anyone to propose amendments.

Debate in the Senate

Because senators are supposed to be experienced and independent legislators, the Senate offers few rules for floor debate. In general, there are no rules: Senators can speak for as long as they wish and offer as many amendments as they want. This leads to the filibuster, a tactic in which a senator in the minority on a bill holds the floor indefinitely with the aim of blocking all Senate business until the majority backs down. A filibuster can be stopped by a vote of cloture, which requires sixty votes. Filibusters are uncommon, but even the threat of one can cause consternation among senators.

Because senators are allowed to offer as many amendments as they wish, they sometimes propose amendments that have nothing to do with the bill. These amendments are called riders and can serve a number of purposes. One rider may be added to attract votes—by adding funding for a popular cause, for example—whereas others can discourage votes by adding a controversial provision to a bill.

Committees: Little Legislatures

Members of Congress serve on a number of committees and subcommittees. Committees are sometimes called little legislatures because of the influence they wield. These committees do most of the legislative work in Congress and therefore have great power in determining which bills get reviewed and in shaping the laws that are passed. Only after a committee has reviewed a bill does the whole body deliberate and vote on it. The committee system allows Congress to operate more efficiently through division of labor and specialization.

Types of Committees

There are four major types of congressional committees:

  1. Standing committees: The most common type of committee, standing committees deal with issues of permanent legislative concern. Standing committees also handle the vast majority of legislation. Most standing committees have subcommittees covering more specific areas of an issue.
  2. Conference committees: A very common kind of joint committee with members from both the House and the Senate. For a bill to become law, both houses must approve identical versions. When different versions are passed, the leaders create a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the two bills. Conference committees issue a single bill for both houses to vote on.
  3. Select committees: Select committees are created for a limited period and for a specific purpose.
  4. Joint committees: Joint committees consist of members of both houses, usually created to deal with a specific issue.

The table on the next page lists some of the current standing committees in Congress.




Agriculture Appropriations Armed Services Budget, Education, and Workforce Energy and Commerce Financial Services Government Reform Homeland Security House Administration International Relations Judiciary Resources Rules Science Small Business Standards of Official Conduct Transportation and Infrastructure Veterans’ Affairs Ways and Means Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Appropriations Armed Services Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Budget Commerce, Science, and Transportation Energy and Natural Resources Environment and Public Works Finance Foreign Relations Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Judiciary Rules and Administration Small Business and Entrepreneurship Veterans’ Affairs
Committee Powers

Committees have a great deal of power over bills. Thousands of bills are introduced in Congress during each congressional session, but only a small fraction of those bills are actually put to a vote on the floor. Most bills, particularly controversial ones, die in committees. Committees review bills, hold hearings, rewrite the bill in open session (called markup), and choose whether to refer a bill to the whole house.

Committees are not all-powerful, especially in the House. Although most bills die in committee, the whole House can override the committee’s decision to kill a bill by passing a discharge petition, which brings the bill out of the committee and to a vote. Discharge petitions are not that common because they anger the members of the committee that initially killed the bill.

Composition of Committees

Party leaders determine which members serve on each committee. The majority party always has a majority of members on each committee. The majority party names the chair of each committee based on seniority, power, loyalty, and other criteria. Committee chairs have substantial power: They schedule hearings and votes and can easily kill a bill if they choose. The senior committee member from the minority party is called the ranking member.

Members of Congress try to get good committee assignments. Most members want to be on powerful committees, such as the Ways and Means Committee (which deals with taxes and revenue), or on a committee that covers issues important to their constituents. Getting a good committee assignment can make reelection easier for members.

The Staff System

Congress employs a significant number of people, called staffers, who assist members in a variety of ways. There are several types of staff:

  • Members’ staff: Each member has staffers who provide clerical support, help with constituent relations, and conduct research on issues important to the member. The members divide their staffers between their home offices and their offices in Washington, D.C.
  • Committee staff: Each committee employs a number of staffers who organize and administer the committee’s work. Staffers also conduct research, offer legal advice, and draft legislation.
  • Staff agencies: Organizations created by Congress to offer policy analysis, including the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, employ staffers.

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