Understanding Congress

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  1. Laying the Groundwork: The Role of Individual Members of Congress
  2. The Nature and Function of Congress | Boundless Political Science
  3. Understanding Congress: Primer for the Intelligence Community

The Constitution concentrates removal powers in the Congress by empowering and obligating the House of Representatives to impeach both executive and judicial officials for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors". Impeachment is a formal accusation of unlawful activity by a civil officer or government official.

The Senate is constitutionally empowered and obligated to try all impeachments. A simple majority in the House is required to impeach an official; however, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for conviction. A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office in the future. Impeachment proceedings may not inflict more than this; however, a convicted party may face criminal penalties in a normal court of law.

In the history of the United States, the House of Representatives has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted. Another resigned before the Senate could complete the trial. Only two presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in and Bill Clinton in Both trials ended in acquittal; in Johnson's case, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction.

In , Richard Nixon resigned from office after impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee indicated he would eventually be removed from office. The Senate has an important check on the executive power by confirming Cabinet officials, judges, and other high officers "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate". It confirms most presidential nominees but rejections are not uncommon.

Furthermore, treaties negotiated by the President must be ratified by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to take effect. As a result, presidential arm-twisting of senators can happen before a key vote; for example, President Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton , urged her former senate colleagues to approve a nuclear arms treaty with Russia in In , the Supreme Court established judicial review of federal legislation in Marbury v. Madison , holding, however, that Congress could not grant unconstitutional power to the Court itself.

The Constitution does not explicitly state that the courts may exercise judicial review; however, the notion that courts could declare laws unconstitutional was envisioned by the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton , for example, mentioned and expounded upon the doctrine in Federalist No.

Originalists on the Supreme Court have argued that if the constitution does not say something explicitly it is unconstitutional to infer what it should, might or could have said. It is a huge check by the courts on the legislative authority and limits congressional power substantially.

In , for example, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of a congressional act of in its Dred Scott decision. The congressional inquiry into St.

Laying the Groundwork: The Role of Individual Members of Congress

Clair's Defeat of was the first congressional investigation of the executive branch. Committees may hold hearings, and, if necessary, compel individuals to testify when investigating issues over which it has the power to legislate by issuing subpoenas. Most committee hearings are open to the public the House and Senate intelligence committees are the exception ; important hearings are widely reported in the mass media and transcripts published a few months afterwards.

Congress also plays a role in presidential elections. Both Houses meet in joint session on the sixth day of January following a presidential election to count the electoral votes, and there are procedures to follow if no candidate wins a majority. The main result of congressional activity is the creation of laws, [] most of which are contained in the United States Code, arranged by subject matter alphabetically under fifty title headings to present the laws "in a concise and usable form".

Congress is split into two chambers—House and Senate—and manages the task of writing national legislation by dividing work into separate committees which specialize in different areas. Some members of Congress are elected by their peers to be officers of these committees. Further, Congress has ancillary organizations such as the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress to help provide it with information, and members of Congress have staff and offices to assist them as well. In addition, a vast industry of lobbyists helps members write legislation on behalf of diverse corporate and labor interests.

The committee structure permits members of Congress to study a particular subject intensely. It is neither expected nor possible that a member be an expert on all subject areas before Congress. Committees investigate specialized subjects and advise the entire Congress about choices and trade-offs. The choice of specialty may be influenced by the member's constituency, important regional issues, prior background and experience. Committees write legislation, while procedures, such as the House discharge petition process, can introduce bills to the House floor and effectively bypass committee input, yet they are exceedingly difficult to implement without committee action.

Committees have power and have been called independent fiefdoms. Legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks are divided among about two hundred committees and subcommittees which gather information, evaluate alternatives, and identify problems. At the start of each two-year session the House elects a speaker who does not normally preside over debates but serves as the majority party's leader.

In the Senate, the Vice President is the ex officio president of the Senate. In addition, the Senate elects an officer called the President pro tempore. Pro tempore means for the time being and this office is usually held by the most senior member of the Senate's majority party and customarily keeps this position until there is a change in party control.

Accordingly, the Senate does not necessarily elect a new president pro tempore at the beginning of a new Congress. In both the House and Senate, the actual presiding officer is generally a junior member of the majority party who is appointed so that new members become acquainted with the rules of the chamber. The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in It is primarily housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill , but also includes several other sites: the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Washington, D.

Meade, Maryland; and multiple overseas offices. The Library had mostly law books when it was burned by a British raiding party during the War of , but the library's collections were restored and expanded when Congress authorized the purchase of Thomas Jefferson 's private library. One of the Library's missions is to serve the Congress and its staff as well as the American public.


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It is the largest library in the world with nearly million items including books, films, maps, photographs, music, manuscripts, graphics, and materials in languages. The Congressional Research Service provides detailed, up-to-date and non-partisan research for senators, representatives, and their staff to help them carry out their official duties. It provides ideas for legislation, helps members analyze a bill, facilitates public hearings, makes reports, consults on matters such as parliamentary procedure, and helps the two chambers resolve disagreements. It has been called the "House's think tank" and has a staff of about employees.

It was created as an independent non-partisan agency by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of It helps Congress estimate revenue inflows from taxes and helps the budgeting process. It makes projections about such matters as the national debt [] as well as likely costs of legislation. Lobbyists represent diverse interests and often seek to influence congressional decisions to reflect their clients' needs. Lobby groups and their members sometimes write legislation and whip bills.

In , there were approximately 17, federal lobbyists in Washington, D. Some lobbyists represent non-profit organizations and work pro bono for issues in which they are personally interested. Congress has alternated between periods of constructive cooperation and compromise between parties, known as bipartisanship , and periods of deep political polarization and fierce infighting, known as partisanship. The period after the Civil War was marked by partisanship, as is the case today.

It is generally easier for committees to reach accord on issues when compromise is possible. Some political scientists speculate that a prolonged period marked by narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress has intensified partisanship in the last few decades, but that an alternation of control of Congress between Democrats and Republicans may lead to greater flexibility in policies, as well as pragmatism and civility within the institution.

A term of Congress is divided into two " sessions ", one for each year; Congress has occasionally been called into an extra or special session. A new session commences on January 3 each year, unless Congress decides differently. The Constitution requires Congress meet at least once each year and forbids either house from meeting outside the Capitol without the consent of the other house. Joint Sessions of the United States Congress occur on special occasions that require a concurrent resolution from both House and Senate.

These sessions include counting electoral votes after a presidential election and the president's State of the Union address. The constitutionally mandated report , normally given as an annual speech, is modeled on Britain's Speech from the Throne , was written by most presidents after Jefferson but personally delivered as a spoken oration beginning with Wilson in Joint Sessions and Joint Meetings are traditionally presided over by the Speaker of the House, except when counting presidential electoral votes when the Vice President acting as the President of the Senate presides.

Ideas for legislation can come from members, lobbyists, state legislatures, constituents, legislative counsel, or executive agencies. Anyone can write a bill, but only members of Congress may introduce bills. Most bills are not written by Congress members, but originate from the Executive branch; interest groups often draft bills as well.

The usual next step is for the proposal to be passed to a committee for review. Representatives introduce a bill while the House is in session by placing it in the hopper on the Clerk's desk.

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The Nature and Function of Congress | Boundless Political Science

Joint resolutions are the normal way to propose a constitutional amendment or declare war. On the other hand, concurrent resolutions passed by both houses and simple resolutions passed by only one house do not have the force of law but express the opinion of Congress or regulate procedure. Bills may be introduced by any member of either house.

Congress has sought ways to establish appropriate spending levels. Each chamber determines its own internal rules of operation unless specified in the Constitution or prescribed by law. Each branch has its own traditions; for example, the Senate relies heavily on the practice of getting "unanimous consent" for noncontroversial matters. Each bill goes through several stages in each house including consideration by a committee and advice from the Government Accountability Office. The House has twenty standing committees; the Senate has sixteen.

Standing committees meet at least once each month. Witnesses and experts can present their case for or against a bill.

Understanding Congress: Primer for the Intelligence Community

After debate, the committee votes whether it wishes to report the measure to the full house. If a bill is tabled then it is rejected. If amendments are extensive, sometimes a new bill with amendments built in will be submitted as a so-called clean bill with a new number. Generally, members who have been in Congress longer have greater seniority and therefore greater power. A bill which reaches the floor of the full house can be simple or complex [] and begins with an enacting formula such as "Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled.

A final vote on the bill follows. Once a bill is approved by one house, it is sent to the other which may pass, reject, or amend it. For the bill to become law, both houses must agree to identical versions of the bill. The Constitution specifies that a majority of members, known as a quorum , be present before doing business in each house. However, the rules of each house assume that a quorum is present unless a quorum call demonstrates the contrary.


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  • Since representatives and senators who are present rarely demand quorum calls, debate often continues despite the lack of a majority. Voting within Congress can take many forms, including systems using lights and bells and electronic voting. The Constitution, however, requires a recorded vote if demanded by one-fifth of the members present.

    If the voice vote is unclear or if the matter is controversial, a recorded vote usually happens. The Senate uses roll-call voting , in which a clerk calls out the names of all the senators, each senator stating "aye" or "no" when their name is announced. In the Senate, the Vice President may cast the tie-breaking vote if present.

    The House reserves roll-call votes for the most formal matters, as a roll call of all representatives takes quite some time; normally, members vote by using an electronic device. In the case of a tie, the motion in question fails. Most votes in the House are done electronically, allowing members to vote yea or nay or present or open. After passage by both houses, a bill is enrolled and sent to the president for approval.

    A vetoed bill can still become law if each house of Congress votes to override the veto with a two-thirds majority. Finally, the president may do nothing—neither signing nor vetoing the bill—and then the bill becomes law automatically after ten days not counting Sundays according to the Constitution. But if Congress is adjourned during this period, presidents may veto legislation passed at the end of a congressional session simply by ignoring it; the maneuver is known as a pocket veto , and cannot be overridden by the adjourned Congress.

    Senators face reelection every six years, and representatives every two. Reelections encourage candidates to focus their publicity efforts at their home states or districts. Nevertheless, incumbent members of Congress running for reelection have strong advantages over challengers. As a result, reelection rates of members of Congress hover around 90 percent, [6] causing some critics to accuse them of being a privileged class.

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    Both senators and representatives enjoy free mailing privileges, called franking privileges ; while these are not intended for electioneering, this rule is often skirted by borderline election-related mailings during campaigns. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has treated campaign contributions as a free speech issue. Elections are influenced by many variables. Some political scientists speculate there is a coattail effect when a popular president or party position has the effect of reelecting incumbents who win by "riding on the president's coattails" , although there is some evidence that the coattail effect is irregular and possibly declining since the s.

    If a seat becomes vacant in an open district, then both parties may spend heavily on advertising in these races; in California in , only four of twenty races for House seats were considered highly competitive. Since members of Congress must advertise heavily on television, this usually involves negative advertising , which smears an opponent's character without focusing on the issues. Prominent Founding Fathers writing in The Federalist Papers felt that elections were essential to liberty, that a bond between the people and the representatives was particularly essential, [] and that "frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured".

    Unlike the presidency, Congress is difficult to conceptualize. The rough-and-tumble world of legislating is not orderly and civil, human frailties too often taint its membership, and legislative outcomes are often frustrating and ineffective Still, we are not exaggerating when we say that Congress is essential to American democracy. We would not have survived as a nation without a Congress that represented the diverse interests of our society, conducted a public debate on the major issues, found compromises to resolve conflicts peacefully, and limited the power of our executive, military, and judicial institutions The popularity of Congress ebbs and flows with the public's confidence in government generally Also, members of Congress often appear self-serving as they pursue their political careers and represent interests and reflect values that are controversial.

    Scandals, even when they involve a single member, add to the public's frustration with Congress and have contributed to the institution's low ratings in opinion polls. An additional factor that confounds public perceptions of Congress is that congressional issues are becoming more technical and complex and require expertise in subjects such as science, engineering and economics. When the Constitution was ratified in , the ratio of the populations of large states to small states was roughly twelve to one.

    The Connecticut Compromise gave every state, large and small, an equal vote in the Senate. But since , the population disparity between large and small states has grown; in , for example, California had seventy times the population of Wyoming. A major role for members of Congress is providing services to constituents. One way to categorize lawmakers, according to political scientist Richard Fenno , is by their general motivation:. Members of Congress enjoy parliamentary privilege , including freedom from arrest in all cases except for treason , felony , and breach of the peace , and freedom of speech in debate.

    This constitutionally derived immunity applies to members during sessions and when traveling to and from sessions. The rules of the House strictly guard this privilege; a member may not waive the privilege on their own, but must seek the permission of the whole house to do so. Senate rules, however, are less strict and permit individual senators to waive the privilege as they choose.

    The Constitution guarantees absolute freedom of debate in both houses, providing in the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place". Accordingly, a member of Congress may not be sued in court for slander because of remarks made in either house, although each house has its own rules restricting offensive speeches, and may punish members who transgress. Obstructing the work of Congress is a crime under federal law and is known as contempt of Congress.

    Each member has the power to cite individuals for contempt but can only issue a contempt citation—the judicial system pursues the matter like a normal criminal case. If convicted in court, an individual found guilty of contempt of Congress may be imprisoned for up to one year. The franking privilege allows members of Congress to send official mail to constituents at government expense.

    Though they are not permitted to send election materials, borderline material is often sent, especially in the run-up to an election by those in close races. The petition, "Remove health-care subsidies for Members of Congress and their families", garnered over 1,, signatures on the website Change. Like other federal employees, congressional retirement is funded through taxes and participants' contributions. And like federal employees, members contribute one-third of the cost of health insurance with the government covering the other two-thirds. The size of a congressional pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest three years of their salary.

    Members of Congress make fact-finding missions to learn about other countries and stay informed, but these outings can cause controversy if the trip is deemed excessive or unconnected with the task of governing. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Legislature of the United States. For the current Congress, see th United States Congress. For the building, see United States Capitol. President of the Senate. Mike Pence R since January 20, Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi D since January 3, President pro tempore of the Senate. Chuck Grassley R since January 3, Federal Government.

    Constitution of the United States Law Taxation. Presidential elections Midterm elections Off-year elections. Political parties. Democratic Republican Third parties Libertarian Green. Other countries Atlas. Play media. Main article: History of the United States Congress. Main article: Powers of the United States Congress. Main article: Territories of the United States. Main article: U. Congress in relation to the president and Supreme Court. Main article: Structure of the United States Congress. Main article: United States congressional committee.

    Main article: Library of Congress. Main article: Congressional Research Service. Main article: Congressional Budget Office. Main article: Lobbying in the United States. Main article: United States Capitol Police. Main article: Procedures of the United States Congress. Main article: Joint session of the United States Congress. Congress and citizens. See also: Salaries of members of the United States Congress. Sullivan July 24, House of Representatives.

    Retrieved November 27, Hamilton How Congress works and why you should care. Indiana University Press. Retrieved September 11, Smith; Jason M. Roberts; Ryan J. Vander Wielen Cambridge University Press. Rakove; Alan Taylor, eds. Houghton Mifflin Company. August 31, The Washington Post. Retrieved September 20, Retrieved January 6, Kramnick, Isaac ed.

    Common Sense. Penguin Classics. Retrieved October 10, October 10, The Library of Congress — American memory.


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