The Legislative Brach of the federal government is made up of two Chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. These two bodies draft and pass laws that, if signed by the President of the United States, govern the United States and it’s citizens.
The bicameral (two-house) Congress emerged from a compromise between delegates from large and small states at the Constitutional Convention, which convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States. The Articles of Confederation, which had governed the country since 1783, left the national government powerless to resolve trade disputes with other countries and to prevent ruinous economic competition between the states. The delegates worried, however, that giving too much authority to the national government would result in the kinds of abuses of power that had led the colonies to break away from Great Britain.
To prevent such problems, the framers of the Constitution gave most political power to the Congress, rather than to a single leader such as a king or president. The convention delegates disagreed over how to select members of Congress, however. The more populous states, such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, wanted power in the legislature that reflected their population and wealth. They favored a system that assigned congressional seats based on the number of residents in each state. Smaller states, such as New Jersey and Connecticut, feared that their interests would be ignored if they did not have equal representation in Congress.
The House of Representatives, combined with the Senate, is the world’s most powerful legislature. Acting in tandem, the two chambers rarely accept legislation proposed by the president without debating and amending it. The two chambers can, and often do, reject the president’s pet proposals. They frequently write and pass legislation that the president opposes, daring the chief executive either to veto it or seek a compromise.
The Constitution gives Congress all of the legislative powers of the national government. The House and Senate share most of these powers. This includes the broad enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution—for example, coining money, regulating interstate and foreign commerce, raising and equipping a military, and declaring war. The House and the Senate share most lawmaking powers. Bills must clear both chambers in exactly the same form before they are sent to the president for approval or veto.
The delegates compromised, deciding that seats in the House of Representatives would be distributed according to population and that seats in the Senate would be distributed equally among the states. The small states could rely on the Senate to defend their interests if the House passed legislation that threatened their rights. The framers of the Constitution specified that House members would be elected by popular vote every two years, so members of the House would be constantly in touch with the citizens that they represent. In contrast, the framers decided to shield the Senate from popular pressures by giving senators six-year terms.
The House of Representatives is the larger of the two legislative chambers that make up the Congress of the United States. Usually called simply “the House,” it consists of 435 members chosen for two-year terms from districts of about equal population.
House members are usually called representatives; they are also referred to as congressmen or congresswomen, although technically these titles apply to both House and Senate members. Representatives must be at least 25 years old, U.S. citizens for at least seven years, and residents of the state from which they are elected. Only an amendment to the Constitution can change these three requirements.
Voters in congressional districts elect House members to office. When the first Congress met in 1789, it had 65 members who represented districts of no more than 30,000 people. The House added members throughout the 19th century as the country’s population grew and new states were admitted. After 1910 the size was fixed at 435 members. Today each House member represents about 600,000 people.
Most representatives start their political careers in state or local government before they run for election to the House. These years of experience give them time to become familiar with issues affecting their districts, and it gives voters a chance to learn about the candidates.
Because of the high cost of elections and the short two-year term of office, members of the House campaign almost constantly. They spend much of their time raising campaign funds, and they frequently return to their districts to keep in touch with voters. Because the elections are so frequent, House members tend to pay close attention to how their votes in Congress will be seen in the short term.
Representatives constantly juggle lawmaking, tending to the concerns of voters, and campaign work. In Washington, D.C., members are expected to study and discuss proposed laws, attend committee meetings, attend floor debate or follow it on television, and cast votes in the chamber. To serve their constituents, they meet with citizens in Washington, D.C., or in the home district, communicate by mail or media, oversee their staffs, and help citizens deal with the federal agencies. Most return as often as possible to their home districts.
Members are given funds and up to 18 staff aides to help with these tasks. In addition to space in one of three House office buildings on Capitol Hill, most members maintain one or more offices in their districts—mainly to handle citizens’ requests and problems. House members are paid a salary of $136,700 per year. They also receive a housing allowance and reimbursement for travel expenses.
The House has special authority over taxing and spending. In opposing British rule, Americans had protested, “taxation without representation is tyranny!” Mindful of this complaint, the framers of the Constitution required that all tax laws begin in the House of Representatives. The House also has the sole power to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president and other high officials, but the Senate must conduct the trial.
The House lacks two specific powers granted to the Senate. Only the Senate can approve treaties negotiated and submitted by the president. However, the House has the power to withhold funding to carry out the agreements, and thus has leverage over many treaties. The Senate also has sole power to confirm cabinet members and other key government officers. Because these officials work on policies such as housing and agriculture that fall under House control, however, they must work with committees in both chambers once in office.
The House also establishes joint committees to collaborate with the Senate. Joint committees include members of both the House and the Senate. They are created to investigate specific problems, but lack the authority to recommend legislative action. The House sometimes creates special investigative committees, usually called select committees, to delve into specific problems, such as corruption in a government agency.
The party with the most seats in the House selects a Speaker of the House, who presides over the chamber and leads the majority party. The Speaker refers bills to committees, appoints members to special committees, and grants members the right to speak during chamber debates. The Speaker does not usually vote on bills except in the case of ties. With the help of deputies, the Speaker also influences committee assignments, oversees committee handling of bills, and schedules bills for debate and voting by the House. This control over committee assignments and scheduling gives the Speaker considerable influence over which laws are eventually approved by the chamber. Because more laws originate in the House than in the Senate, the Speaker of the House can have a decisive impact on the laws of the United States. The broad powers make the Speaker the most prominent person in Congress.
The Constitution allows the House to make up its own rules and procedures. Control of important House committees often changes when House rules are revised, so members often really duke it out over proposals to change a rule.
Because the House has so many members, its floor proceedings have typically been loud, raucous, and trying. Today, however, House rules allow leaders to determine which bills reach the House floor, how much time each one gets, and even sometimes the number and type of amendments to be offered. Most debates attract few members beyond those directly concerned with the measure at hand. Others, occupied with duties elsewhere on Capitol Hill, can follow the debate on television monitors in their offices.
Bells ring to announce impending floor votes, and the chamber soon fills with members talking and milling around. Although the House’s 435 members do not have individually assigned seats, they customarily sit on either side of the center aisle—Democrats to the left facing the Speaker, Republicans to the right. To cast votes, members insert a plastic card into small boxes located throughout the chamber and vote “aye,” “no,” or “present” (“I don’t give a crap.”). Their votes are recorded electronically and displayed on a large tally board on the front wall of the House gallery. Lights on the board show each member’s vote, “yes” noted with a green light, “no” with red, and “present” with amber. After the vote is announced, the chamber empties and the House turns to the next order of business.
The Senate is the smaller of the two legislative bodies of the Congress of the United States. The Senate exercises some powers that the House of Representatives does not, such as approving treaties between the United States and other countries. The Senate has 100 members, two from each state.
The founding fathers of the United States designed the Senate to be more stable and insulated from popular sentiment than the House of Representatives. Only one-third of the Senate runs for office in each election, giving it more continuity than the House, where the entire membership is elected every two years.
Members of the House have always been popularly elected, but senators were appointed by state legislatures until 1913. Keeping the selection of Senate members out of voters’ hands, the framers reasoned, would help the Senate focus on the country’s broad interests and keep it from becoming mired in short-term political shifts. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution gave voters the power to select the Senate through direct elections.
The Constitution requires a senator to be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state from which he or she is elected. It is more difficult to win election to the Senate than to the House of Representatives, because unlike members of the House, who are elected in districts of about half a million people, Senators campaign for election across their whole state.
Members of the Senate tend to come from relatively wealthy backgrounds, and many senators are millionaires. The unusual wealth of senators stems partly from the fact that about three-fourths of senators work in banking, business, or law before winning election to the chamber. Few working-class people—those who work for others and earn an hourly wage—come even close to winning a Senate seat. The scarcity of working-class senators is caused by many factors, including the high cost of campaigns and the need for connections to the political and social elite to mount an effective campaign.
The Senate membership also fails to reflect the country’s racial composition. Only four African Americans—Carol Moseley-Braun, Edward Brooke, Blanche Bruce, and Hiram Revels—have ever held Senate seats. Other minorities have also found it difficult to win Senate seats. In 1993, when Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado took his Senate seat, he stood as the lone Native American in the chamber, and the first elected to the body since the 1930s. Octaviano Larrazolo of New Mexico became the first Hispanic American elected to the Senate in 1928. Hiram Fong of Hawaii, the first Asian American in the Senate, served from 1959 to 1977.
Women have also found it difficult to win Senate seats. Hattie Caraway became the first woman to win a full six-year term in 1932. Before Caraway, senators’ wives were sometimes appointed to fill seats when their husbands died in office. Since Caraway’s victory, only 13 other women have won election to full six-year Senate terms.
IV. What the Senate Does
Along with the House of Representatives, the Senate wields lawmaking powers of the national government granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution. This includes the broad enumerated (listed) powers of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution—for example, issuing currency, regulating banking and interstate or foreign commerce, providing for military forces, and declaring war. Article I, Section 8, also gives Congress implied powers—to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for carrying out the enumerated powers, and to investigate and oversee the executive branch. The Senate also has the power to conduct impeachment trials against the president, federal judges, and other officials. The Senate can only impeach someone after the House brings charges, however. A two-thirds majority vote of the senators in the chamber is necessary for a conviction.
The Senate has two special duties not shared by the House. When the president negotiates treaties with other countries, they must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate before becoming law. Although the Senate rejects few treaties outright, it often refuses to act or it tries to change them. The Senate approves without change about seven of every ten treaties submitted by the president. The Senate also confirms by a majority vote the president’s choices for cabinet members, ambassadors, federal judges, and many other important government officials. The Senate usually allows presidents free rein in selecting cabinet officers and other members of their own administrations. On the other hand, the Senate often closely scrutinizes nominees for the Supreme Court and other judicial positions, which are lifetime appointments.
Some bicameral (two-house) political systems have an upper chamber with more power than the second, lower chamber. Some experts claim that one house of Congress is more important than the other—for example, that the Senate has more prestige or that the House pays more attention to legislative details. However, the two houses stoutly defend their equal roles and zealously guard their powers. Although the Senate was the stage for eloquent debates before the Civil War, and the House and its committees shaped federal programs in more recent decades, neither chamber dominates today.
B. The Committee System
The Senate has a system of specialized committees similar to that in the House of Representatives. Permanent legislative committees—usually called standing committees—have the most important duties. The Senate’s 16 standing committees and their nearly 70 subcommittees hold hearings, draft new bills, review bills proposed outside the committee, and supervise legislative research staff. The committees and subcommittees then make recommendations to the Senate as a whole to approve or reject the bills. The Senate normally follows these recommendations. Standing committees also supervise government agencies that fall under their area of specialization.
Key committees include the Appropriations Committee, which recommends annual federal spending amounts; the Finance Committee, which considers revenue measures; and the Budget Committee, which prepares the annual budget. Other standing committees, roughly paralleling those in the House, consider such subjects as foreign relations, the armed services, banking, commerce, and agriculture. Normally a senator sits on about three committees and seven subcommittees.
The Senate also creates joint committees in cooperation with the House. Joint committees, which usually have an equal number of members from the House and the Senate, can conduct hearings but cannot consider legislation. The Senate also establishes select, or investigative, committees to conduct inquiries into specific scandals or problems. Select committees usually have temporary authority, and most lack the power to formally consider legislation.
As in the House of Representatives, power in the Senate is generally distributed according to the seniority system, in which political parties appoint their members to committee positions based on their years of service in the chamber. The most senior senators—those with the most years in the chamber—are ensured of appointment to the most influential committees, but because the Senate is so small, even junior senators usually serve on at least one important committee. The Senate is less structured than the House of Representatives. Because the Senate’s rules allow virtually unlimited debating time for its members, senators can potentially block any type of legislation by prolonging debate. This tactic, known as a filibuster, means that individual senators can try to influence virtually any bill before the Senate by threatening to block the measure.
The majority and minority parties in the Senate select floor leaders to organize their members. These leaders, sometimes called the majority and minority leaders, are helped by assistants called whips. The whips try to persuade members of their parties to support the party on Senate votes. When the two parties cannot agree on legislation, these party leaders help negotiate a compromise. Responsibility for particular bills falls upon leaders called floor managers, generally the bill’s prime sponsor or the chair of the committee responsible for it. The floor manager of the majority party tries to shepherd the bill through the Senate, and the minority floor manager tries to alter the measure or defeat it outright.
The Senate conducts votes, debates, and other business under the direction of the Senate’s presiding officer. The presiding officer is usually a junior senator who is assisted by a parliamentarian—an expert in Senate procedure. The duties of the presiding officer are sometimes assumed by the Senate’s president pro tem (temporary president), who is usually the most senior member of the majority party. On even more unusual occasions, the vice president of the United States presides over the Senate. Article I, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution grants this authority to the vice president, but vice presidents usually limit their appearances to ceremonial events and infrequent instances when a Senate vote is tied. The vice president cannot vote unless the chamber is tied.
D. Rules and Procedures
The Senate follows rules governing procedures for amending and voting on bills, quorum requirements (the minimum number of senators needed to conduct business), and many other matters. These rules give Senate leaders less control over their members than their House counterparts. Because only a third of the Senate changes with each election, Senate rules remain in place from session to session. In contrast, House rules are modified and adopted after each election, every two years. The Senate often speeds its business by unanimously agreeing on how to consider a bill. This procedure, which is known as a unanimous consent agreement, allows the majority and minority leaders to arrange procedures that will satisfy all senators who have a special interest in the measure at hand.
The Senate follows more elaborate rules when the chamber is divided over a bill. These procedures can sometimes slow the proceedings to a crawl. Senators cherish their right to be consulted on bills being considered, to offer amendments, and to speak at length on measures. The Senate rules that permit filibusters give members the power to obstruct legislation merely by threatening to use the procedure. A filibuster can only be stopped if 60 senators vote to invoke cloture, a rule that imposes time limits on further discussion of the issue at hand. Because of the flexible rules for debating, and thereby blocking, legislation, Senate leaders spend much of their time seeking compromises that will satisfy their colleagues and allow the chamber to act. The House of Representatives, in contrast, imposes much more restrictive time constraints on debates.
Senate floor debate is quiet and even leisurely compared to that of the House of Representatives, and (as in the House) attendance is usually sparse. Senators address the chamber from assigned desks on the Senate floor, taking their time and engaging their colleagues in prolonged exchanges called colloquies. An informal code of conduct prevents senators from insulting one another. Modern custom dictates that senators not only refrain from personal attacks on one another while on the Senate floor, but that they avoid even mentioning other senators by name. Instead, if a senator wants to challenge a senator from New York, she or he would address the remarks to the president of the Senate (or to whomever is presiding), and refer to the colleague only as “the senator from New York.” For floor votes—votes of the entire Senate—a clerk calls the roll and records senators’ votes individually. Senators stream onto the floor to cast votes or answer quorum calls, but even then the hubbub is subdued.
V. The Life of a Senator
Senators generally work very long hours. Most arrive at their offices early in the morning to meet with their staff and plan the day’s work. Committee meetings, floor votes, and informal meetings with other senators fill the day. Senators must also make time to give interviews to the press, handle pressing citizen complaints, and plan legislative strategies with their colleagues. On top of this full schedule, senators try to make time to study complex policy questions.
To help them in lawmaking and in dealing with citizens of their states, senators are provided with staff aides and funds according to the population of their state. Some senators have more than 70 people on their staff, but the average senate office has about 35 aides. Some of these workers assist in drafting legislation in complex areas, such as military weapons, transportation planning, and agriculture. Senators rely on their most trusted assistants to confer with other members of the Senate about pending legislation. Senate staff also work on large projects, such as securing federal grants to fund roads and schools in their state.
Some Senate staff spend all their time on constituency service, solving problems that individual citizens have with government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Veterans Administration. Most senators maintain offices in several major cities in their state. These offices help senators keep in touch with voters and make it easier for their staff to work on citizens’ problems. Many senators choose to assign as many as one-third of their staff to these offices.
In 1998 senators were paid an annual salary of $136,700. They also receive reimbursement for travel and housing expenses.