Legislative Basics

What does Congress do?

Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government.  It makes the laws, determines which government agencies and programs will be created, and approves all funds spent by the government.

Congress also has specific powers: to collect taxes, raise armies, declare war, regulate commerce and provide for general welfare.  It can also pass any law necessary to execute the powers granted to it by the Constitution.

Congress enacts legislation but cannot implement it.  That’s left to the executive branch.  But Congress does have oversight power and may investigate how the executive branch has administered the programs or laws Congress has approved.

What is Congress?

Each two-year term of the U.S. Congress is called a Congress.  Congresses are numbered consecutively from the first to the current (example: 109th, 110th, etc.).  A Congress always begins on January 3 of odd-numbered years and has two regular session, one each year beginning in January.  A session of Congress may continue for the entire year and bills under consideration remain alive from one session to the next.  Bills that have not been approved by the close of Congress die automatically.

Why does Congress have two “chambers?”

The Congress of the United States is the legislative branch of the federal government. Comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the two-chamber design is consistent with the basic principle of government embraced by our Constitution that government must be divided into units which share power with one another, providing a check against tyranny.

The two chambers are considered equal, although they differ from one another in many ways.  In terms of legislative power, both must concur in and adopt identical legislation in order for it to be enacted into law.  That is why when you see a piece of legislation, it is titled S. 589, meaning a Senate bill and you’ll also find a H.R. 623, a bill pending in the House of Representatives.

The Senate is sometimes called the upper body and the House the lower body.  These are popular misnomers, arising from the simple fact that when Congress first met in New York City, the Senate chamber was located on the floor above the House.  The two legislative bodies are equal, but different, and each is granted exclusive powers by the U.S. Constitution.

How many members make up the Senate and the House of Representatives?

There are 100 Senators; two are elected from each state and they serve a 6 year term.

There are 435 members in the House of Representatives.  The number of representatives from each state is based on the number of people in each district.  They are elected every two years.

What are the special duties of the Senate?

While the Senate shares legislative powers with the House, the Constitution also assigned it other special duties as part of the system of checks and balances.  For example, the Senate shares certain executive powers with the President confirmation of appointments, including both executive branch officials and judicial branch nominees and ratification of treaties.  In addition Senate shares power in the impeachment process the House has the power to bring charges against an accused official, while the Senate conducts the trial for removal from office.  Following the presidential elections, both the Senate and the House count the electoral votes.  If the vice presidential candidate fails to win an electoral majority, the Senate decides the winner, the House chooses the president if no candidate wins an electoral majority in that race.

What are the special duties of the House?

Although the House shares the power to legislate with the Senate, the Constitution gives it three special duties. The House

  1. originates all revenue-raising bills
  2. initiates impeachment proceedings against federal officials
  3. chooses the President if no candidate wins a majority in the electoral college

The steps of legislative procedure:

The official legislative process begins when a bill or resolution is numbered, (H.R.  signifies a House bill and S. a Senate bill), referred to a committee, and printed by the Government Printing Office.

  1. Referral Committee: With few exceptions, bills are referred to standing committees in the House or Senate according to carefully delineated rules of procedure.
  2. Committee Action: When a bill reaches a committee it is placed on the committee’s calendar. A bill can be referred to a subcommittee or considered by the committee as a whole. It is at this point that a bill is examined carefully and its chances for passage are determined. If the committee does not act on a bill, the bill is effectively dead.
  3. Subcommittee Review: Often, bills are referred to a subcommittee for study and hearings. Hearings provide the opportunity to put on the record the views of the executive branch, experts, other public officials, supporters, and opponents of the legislation.
  4. Mark Up: When the hearings are completed, the subcommittee may meet to “mark up” the bill, that is, make changes and amendments prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. If a subcommittee votes not to report legislation to the full committee, the bill dies.
  5. Committee Action to Report a Bill: After receiving a subcommittee’s report on a bill, the full committee can conduct further study and hearings, or it can vote on the subcommittee’s recommendations and any proposed amendments.  The full committee then votes on its recommendation to the House or Senate. This procedure is called “ordering a bill reported.”
  6. Publication of a Written Report: After a committee votes to have a bill reported, the committee chairman instructs staff to prepare a written report on the bill. This report describes the intent and scope of the legislation, impact on existing laws and programs, position of the executive branch, and views of dissenting members of the committee.
  7. Schedule Floor Action: After a bill is reported back to the chamber where it originated, it is placed in chronological order on the calendar.
  8. Debate: When a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate, there are rules and procedures governing the debate on legislation.
  9. Voting: After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members voting.
  10. Referral to Other Chamber: When a bill is passed by the House or Senate it is referred to the other chamber where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.
  11. Conference Committee Action: If only minor changes are made to a bill by the other chamber, it is common for the legislation to go directly to the President for signature. However, when the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee members’ recommendations for changes. Both the House and Senate must approve the conference report.
  12. Final Action: After a bill has been approved by both the House and Senate in identical form, it is sent to the President. If the President approves of the legislation, he signs it and it becomes law. Or, the President can take no action for ten days, while congress is in session, and it automatically becomes law. If the President opposes the bill he can veto it; or if he takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session, it is a “pocket veto” and the legislation dies.
  13. Overriding a Veto: If the President vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to “override the veto.” This requires a two-thirds roll call vote of the members who are present in sufficient numbers for a quorum.