Congress of the United States



When the framers wrote the U.S. Constitution, they intended for the federal legislature, or Congress, to be the "people's branch" of the government. They also saw Congress, with its lawmaking power, as in some ways the most important branch and thus devoted Article 1 of the Constitution to the legislative branch. They established two chambers, the House of Representatives, with the number of members per state based on the state's population, and the Senate, with two members per state. Each chamber has different terms of office; House members serve for two years before facing reelection while senators serve for six. Originally, the manner of election differed as well, with House members elected by the people and senators elected by state legislatures. Since adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, however, senators have been popularly elected. The Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, some of which are unique to each chamber. A hierarchical structure has developed in each chamber, with majority and minority leaders attempting to guide the position of their parties' members. Each chamber has also developed a committee structure that heavily influences which bills become law and the content of legislation.

At A Glance

  • The Constitution gives the legislative powers of government to Congress and sets the eligibility requirements and specific terms for members of Congress.
  • Although most members of Congress have been white men, the demographics have changed, with more women and racial and ethnic minorities winning election to both chambers since the 1970s.
  • There are three models of how members of Congress should represent their constituents: as trustees who exercise their own judgment based on experience, as delegates to represent their constituents' interests, and as politicos who act as both trustees and delegates while also considering public opinion.
  • Members of Congress are supported by personal staff; committee staff; and agencies that include the Congressional Research Service, which provides in-depth information; the Congressional Budget Office, which reports on the costs of pending legislation; and the Government Accountability Office, which is a government watchdog.
  • Congress exercises several enumerated powers specifically assigned to it by the Constitution, including the important power to declare war, as well as implied powers that fall under the necessary and proper clause. Congress also has the role of bureaucratic oversight, reviewing the actions of executive branch agencies.
  • The Constitution grants specific and exclusive powers to each chamber of Congress, including the power of the House to choose a president if no candidate receives an electoral majority, the power of the Senate to approve treaties and confirm cabinet and judicial nominees, and the different roles of the two chambers in impeachment of public officials.
  • Before the 1930s the courts viewed legislation based on the commerce clause with some skepticism. From 1937 to 1995, courts viewed congressional reliance on this clause more favorably, but in the early 21st century, the courts have again been more skeptical about its applicability.
  • Under the Constitution, the House chooses a Speaker; the members of each party also choose a party leader and officials named whips, who promote party discipline. Because it sets the rules for debate, the House Rules Committee is one of the most powerful committees in the House.
  • The presiding officer of the Senate is the vice president or, in that official's absence, the president pro tempore. As in the House, the Senate has majority and minority leaders and whips, who guide senators in their party.
  • Each party has a caucus of all members in each chamber of Congress that establishes the party position on issues facing Congress and chooses the party's leaders in the chamber. In addition, members with shared ideology, interest in a set of issues, or membership in an ethnic group form caucuses that try to marshall support for their groups' legislative goals.
  • The committee system plays an enormous role in how legislation moves through Congress.
  • There are many steps to move a bill to law, from its initial introduction in one of the chambers until it becomes a law.
  • Although senators can use the filibuster rule to prevent a piece of legislation from coming to a vote, a supermajority can vote for cloture, or an end to debate. In the 2010s, the Senate cut the majority needed for cloture to 51 votes in cases of presidential nominees..