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     Congress is the legislative branch of the American national government.  It is one of the three branches making up our separation of power system.  The powers of Congress are defined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.  Congress is made up of two coequal chambers:  The U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.  There are 100 Senators, two from each State of the Union, and 435 Congressmen.  The number 435 has been established by statute.  After each U.S. Census, conducted every ten years, the House and the Electoral College is reapportioned according to the population shifts within the country.  Reapportionment results in a lot of gerrymandering as the party in power at the State level seeks to maximize the number of seats that it is likely to win.  Almost all House seats are now considered to be safe seats, that is one party is almost guaranteed to win.  During the 2014 Off-Year Election, there was only a turnover of 58 seats out of 435.  The Senate had 13 new Freshman Senators.

     Congresses are numbered from the first in 1789 to the current 114th Congress.  Each Congress serves for two years and has two sessions.  On February 11, 2016, the Second Session of the 114th Congress is meeting at the Capitol in Washington, DC.  President Barak Obama has just submitted his Budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from October 1, 2016 to September 2017.  The 115th Congress will convene on January 3, 2017 and a new President of the United States will be inaugurated on January 20, 2017.  We are currently in a Presidential election year.

114th Congress
Jan 3, 2015 - Jan 3, 2017

The Republicans won a major victory during the 2014 Off-Year Election.  They gained control of the Senate and increased their majorities in the House.  The country will be politically divided with a Democratic President and a Republican Congress.

4 November 2014 General Election Results
Republican 31
Democratic 18
Independent 1
Total 50
114th Senate
Republican 54
Democratic 44
Independent 2
Total 100
114th House
Republican 247
Democratic 188
Total 435

113th Congress
Jan 3, 2013 - Jan 3, 2015

The Democrats managed to re-elect President Barak Obama for a second term, gained two additional seats in the U.S. Senate, and picked up nine seats in the House.  The Republicans were disappointed in the results but preserved control of the House of Representatives.

The Green Papers.  Available online at (Accessed on January 28, 2013).

The U.S. House of Representatives.

     Representatives must be at least 25 years of age, citizens of the United States for at least seven years, and, at the time of their election, live in the State whose Congressional District they represent.  Every ten years, a census of the population of the U.S. must be held, after which House seats are reallocated among the states on the basis of population. Each state has at least one Representative; thereafter seats depend on number of people living in that state.

    The Official Web Site of the U.S. House of Representatives is


U.S. Senate

     Senators must be at least thirty years old, citizens of the United States for at least nine years, and must, at the time of their election, be inhabitants of the State which they will represent.  They do not necessarily have to be residents of that state at the time of election.  Senators represent their State and each State is given two U.S. Senators regardless of their population. States with small populations have the same representation as States with large populations.  This obviously violates the democratic principle of one person, one vote.  This concession to the small States dates from Great Compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

        This makes the U.S. Senate a malapportioned or unrepresentative body. Until 1913 when the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was added, U.S. Senators were not even popularly elected.  They were chosen by their respective State legislatures.  Only as our Republic became more democratic did popular election procedures come to be applied to the Senate.

    The Official Web Site of the U.S. Senate is

    Since U.S. Senators serve for six years, one third of the membership is elected every two years.  U.S. Senators are grouped into three classes.  Class 3 States have races for the U.S. Senate in 2016.


Class 3 Class 1 Class 2
[next regular election: [next regular election: [next regular election:
First Tuesday November 2016] First Tuesday November  2018] First Tuesday November 2020]
Alabama Arizona Alabama
Alaska California Alaska
Arizona Connecticut Arkansas
Arkansas Delaware Colorado
California Florida Delaware
Colorado Hawaii Georgia
Connecticut Indiana Idaho
Florida Maine Illinois
Georgia Maryland Iowa
Hawaii Massachusetts Kansas
Idaho Michigan Kentucky
Illinois Minnesota Louisiana
Indiana Mississippi Maine
Iowa Missouri Massachusetts
Kansas Montana Michigan
Kentucky Nebraska Minnesota
Louisiana Nevada Mississippi
Maryland New Jersey Montana
Missouri New Mexico Nebraska
Nevada New York New Hampshire
New Hampshire North Dakota New Jersey
New York Ohio New Mexico
North Carolina Pennsylvania North Carolina
North Dakota Rhode Island Oklahoma
Ohio Tennessee Oregon
Oklahoma Texas Rhode Island
Oregon Utah South Carolina
Pennsylvania Vermont South Dakota
South Carolina Virginia Tennessee
South Dakota Washington Texas
Utah West Virginia Virginia
Vermont Wisconsin West Virginia
Washington Wyoming Wyoming
Class 3 Class 1 Class 2


Organizational Structure of Congress

        Congress is organized on the basis of three overlapping principles:  It is organized on the basis of our political parties.  It is functionally organized on the types of legislation enacted.  And Congress has its own leadership organization.  Both the leadership organization and the committee organization of Congress are linked to the party organization.

    1.  Party Organization. Almost all members of Congress are elected on the basis of their political party affiliation.  They run as either Republicans or Democrats.  Third party candidates, who usually call themselves Independents, are rarely elected.

        Once elected, Congresspeople and Senators affiliate either with the Republican Conference or the Democratic Caucus.  Both political parties have Policy Committees to help the parties make strategic and tactical decisions.  Both parties also maintain Campaign Committees to help members gain re-election and to defeat Members of Congress from the other party.  House and Senate maintain distinct committees.

    2.  Leadership Organization.  Each political party elects its own leaders.  These leaders become the leaders of the Congress.  The party with the majority in the House or Senate had the Majority Leadership positions and the party with the minority in the House and Senate has the minority positions.

U.S. House of Representatives                                  U.S. Senate

Office of the Speaker                                                   President of Senate (Vice President of U.S.)
Office of the Majority Leader                                     President Pro Tempore
Office of the Minority Leader                                    Senate Majority Leader
House Majority Whip                                                 Assistant Majority Leader
House Minority Whip                                                 Senate Minority Leader   
Democratic Caucus                                                      Assistant Minority Leader
House Republican Conference                                  Secretary of the Democratic Conference
House Republican Policy Committee                      Secretary of the Republican Conference


    3.  Committee Organization.  The actual work of Congress, both in the House and Senate, is done through committees.  There are four types of committees:  a)  standing committees, b) select committees, c) joint committees, and d) conference committees.

        a.  Standing Committees are the real workhorses of Congress.  They are functionally organized in ways similar to the organization of the Executive Departments.  All bills are submitted to standing committees and must go through these committees before being approved by the full House or Senate.

        b.  Select Committees are created for special reasons to investigate some current issue or problem, which is not being handled by the regular standing committees.

        c.  Joint Committees have members from both the House and Senate.  They are created for either very important reasons such as the Joint Committee on Intelligence or very mundane reasons such as the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress.  The need for secrecy motivates the first; its narrow significance the creation of the second.

        d.  Conference Committees are created each time a bill is passed in different versions by the House and Senate.  Conference Committees are designed to iron out the differences.  Conference Committees have members from both House and Senate.  They are, thus, a kind of joint committee, but they function only until a given bill is reconciled.

Whichever party has a majority in the House or Senate has a majority of the members on each committee and subcommittee of that legislative body.


Functions of Congress

bulletPresidential Appointments
bulletAdvise and Consent on Treaties
bulletDeclare War
bulletWar Powers Act
bulletConstituent (Constitutional)
bulletPropose Constitutional Amendments (2/3)
bulletCreate Constitutional Convention if Demanded by 2/3 of States.
bulletCounts Electoral College votes for President;
bulletif no majority, House elects President (voting by states) and Senate elects Vice President
bulletCongress judges election returns for its own members.
bulletImpeachment of President, Vice President, Federal Judges (House indicts like grand jury; Senate conducts trial with Chief Justice of U.S. Supreme Court presiding.
bulletEthics charges against members of Congress. May lead to expulsion.
bulletContempt of Congress charges may be placed persons who refuse to testify before Congress or provide Congress with requested information.
bulletSupaena power
bulletAdvise and consent on Judicial Nominations
bulletMay investigate any public issue it wishes. Has supaena powers; may grant immunity from prosecution; in '50s there were massive violations of due process rights of witnesses.
bulletKefauver Hearings into Organized Crime
bulletArmy-McCarthy Hearings
bulletHouse Un-American Activities Committee
bulletSenate Watergate Hearings (Sam Ervin)
bulletIran-Contra Hearings
bulletHow well are Federal programs, enacted by Congress, working? Much neglected function.
bulletSunset Laws.
bulletGeneral Accounting Office (GAO) works for Congress. Feared by Executive.
bulletOmbudsman Function
bulletAdvocate for constituents with Federal Agencies.
bulletImmigration and Naturalization Service.
bulletSocial Security Administration.
bulletConstituency Service:  Helping Constituents.
bulletCollege students wanting information for research papers.
bulletLocal government officials wanting help in getting grants.
bulletBusiness leaders seeking government contracts.
bulletProtecting local military bases.
bulletLegitimate function which can easily lead to abuse, conflicts of interest, extorted campaign contributions, kickbacks, graft, and worse.
bulletFund Raising for Political Campaigns
bulletMajor activity of Senators and Congresspeople.
bulletPolitical Action Committees.
bulletFederal Election Commission.
bulletBest Congress Money Can Buy.
bulletCampaigning for Re-Election
bulletEvery Two Years for House. Safe Seats. Seniority System. $1,000,000 campaigns.
bulletEvery Six Years for Senate. Very expensive to run. Television campaigns needed to cover entire state.
bulletShould there be term limits for Congress?


How a Bill Becomes a Law

House and Senate are co-equal branches of government.
Bills must pass both houses in identical form
"All Bills for raising Revenue shall origi8nate in the House of Representatives." (US Constitution, Art. I, 7,1)  This means that tax and revenue bills originate in the House.

I:  Introduction

Bill is given a number by the Clerk of the House or Senate.  HR No 1 for House or S No 1 for Senate.

Number, title, and sponsors of bill are printed in Congressional Record.  Considered first reading.

Sent to relevant standing committee.

II:  Standing Committee and Subcommittee Action

Most bills die in committee when no action is taken.

Bill is sent to subcommittee.

Back to full committee

Taken up by full committee.  There may be additional hearings; mark up; vote.

A majority and minority report may be printed including discussion and testimony.  This becomes part of the legislative history of the bill.

Reported out of Committee

Placed on appropriate calendar awaiting further action

III:  Calendars

House Calendars

House Calendar
Union Calendar
Consent Calendar
Private bill Calendar
Discharge Calendar

Role of House Rules Committee in managing access to floor of House

Senate Calendar

Senate generally works through unanimous consent.  Majority and minority leaders reach agreement on taking up a bill.

When Bill passes one house, it must also be passed with the exact wording by the other house.

The Congressional record records when a bill has been approved by a Standing Committee.  This constitutes the second reading.

IV:  Floor Action


is the larger body (435 members), more disciplined, more rules, limited debate.

Majority Party runes the House.  Control by leadership:  Speaker of the House, Majority Leader, Majority Whips.

Party loyalty and discipline

Rules Committee has become a tool of leadership.

Minority Party is relatively powerless.


is the smaller body (100 members).  Used to be called the most exclusive club in the world.

is more informal.

power of individual Senator is enhanced by their traditional right to take to the floor at any time and to speak on any subject for any length.  This gives rise to the filibuster.  You can talk a bill to death or threaten to use the filibuster to force concessions (blackmail).

Rules of Senate procedure can be changed at the beginning of a new Congress by a majority vote.  Rarely done because both parties benefit from filibuster.

Abuse of filibuster.

Vote of cloture requires sixty Senators.

Senate has special powers

Treaties require a 2/3 vote by US Senate

Advise and consent of Senate required for most important Presidential appointments:

Federal judges including U.S. Supreme Court justices

Cabinet Secretaries and top political executives within federal bureaucracy

US District Attorneys


Commissions for Officers in the U.S. Military

Voting Procedures

Increased Use of Electronic Voting

Roll Call Votes

Teller Vote

Voice Vote

 Congressional Record records actions of Congress

Approval of a bill by one of the Houses constitutes its third reading.

V.  Conference Committee

If the House and Senate version of a bill differ from each other, then the bill is sent to a Conference Committee.  The leadership in House and Senate create a different Conference Committee for each bill that needs to be reconciled.  An equal number of Representatives and Senators serve on the Conference Committee.  Often, the conferees do horse trading.  Disagreements on the dollar amounts may be split.  It is possible, however, that the House Conferees accept the Senate version.

Riders.  The Senate has the power to add amendments to a bill that are not germane to its main subject matter.  In the House, non relevant amendments are generally prohibited.  A Senate rider might include a civil rights provision in a defense spending bill.  The purpose is to force the President to sign something which he would prefer not to accept.  Since the President has no item veto, he must either accept all of the bill or veto all of it.

If the Conferees reach agreement, the the full Senate and the full House vote on the bill.  A bill must be passed by both Houses in identical form.

VI.  Presidential Action

Once Congress has passed a bill, it is sent to the U.S. President.

1.  The President can sign the bill and it becomes statutory law.

2.  The President can veto the bill and send it back to both houses of Congress with his veto message.  

It takes a 2/3 majority vote of both houses to override a veto of the President

3.  Pocket Veto.  During the last ten days of a Congressional session, the President has the pocket veto.  Unless he signs the bill within ten days of having received it from Congress, the bill is dead.

4.  No Item Veto.  the President does not have the item veto, which many State Governors have.  The item veto allows governors to srike down particular financial items within a bill

VII:  Statutory Law

Once a bill is signed or passed over the President's veto, then the bill becomes a Statute.  The U.S. Code is a compilation of all the statutory laws passed by Congress.

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Updated  January 17, 2015

Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Union County College
Cranford. NJ 07016