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Congress of the United States

From lawbrain.com

The Congress of the United States is the highest lawmaking body in the United States and one of the oldest national legislatures in the world. Established under the terms of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the House of Representatives and the Senate have for over 200 years created the federal laws governing the United States. Congress remains one of the few national assemblies that research and draft their own legislation rather than simply voting on bills created by the government in power. In addition to its legislative functions, the U.S. Congress is empowered by the Constitution to ensure that the administration of government is carried out according to the laws it establishes, to conduct special investigations, and to exercise other special powers in relation to the executive and the judiciary.


History and Structure

Between 1774 and 1789, the Continental Congress served as the federal lawmaking body for the 13 American colonies and (after it passed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) the United States. The Continental Congress proved to be an ineffective national legislature, however, particularly after ratification of its founding constitution, the articles of confederation, in 1781. This congress lacked the authority to raise funds from the states and was not adept at the administration of federal government.

The Framers of the Constitution, meeting in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, attempted to repair the shortcomings of the Continental Congress by creating a more effective federal legislature. The resulting Congress, made up of a House of Representatives and a Senate, first met with a quorum of members on April 1, 1789, in New York City, eventually reaching its full size at 65 representatives and 26 senators.

Article I of the Constitution sets forth the basic form and powers of Congress. As designed by the Constitution's Framers, the House is more responsive to public sentiment, and the Senate is a more deliberate and stable body. James madison, writing in The Federalist, no. 62, argued that members of the Senate should have a "tenure of considerable duration" and should be fewer in number in order to avoid the "intemperate and pernicious resolutions" often passed by "single and numerous" legislative assemblies. Accordingly, the Constitution requires that senators serve six years in office, with one-third of them up for reelection every two years—whereas all House members, called representatives, go up for reelection every two years. In addition, the Constitution requires that senators be at least 30 years old to take office, whereas representatives must be a minimum of 25 years old. Moreover, senators were originally elected by state legislatures and representatives rather than the general population, but this procedure

was ended with the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.

Congress has grown steadily in size as the nation has gained population and added states. The House reached its current size of 435 members in 1912, and the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 (46 Stat. 21, 26, 27) fixed its size at this number. The Senate reached 100 members after the admission of Hawaii as a state in 1959.

Powers of Congress

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution defines the powers of Congress. These include the powers to assess and collect taxes; to regulate commerce, both interstate and with foreign nations; to coin money; to establish post offices and post roads; to establish federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court; to declare war; to establish rules for the government; and to raise and maintain an army and navy.

Article I, Section 8, also declares that "Congress shall have Power … To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof." Called the necessary and proper clause or the Implied Powers Clause, this part of the Constitution enables Congress to undertake activities not specifically enumerated by the Constitution but implied by its provisions. The Necessary and Proper Clause has been used to greatly expand congressional authority (mcculloch v. maryland 17 U.S. [4 Wheat.] 316, 4 L. Ed. 579 [1819]).

Another power vested in Congress is the right to propose amendments to the Constitution upon approval by two-thirds of both houses. Should two-thirds of the state legislatures demand changes in the Constitution, Congress must call a constitutional convention. Proposed amendments are valid as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures or by conventions of three-fourths of the states. Either means of ratification may be proposed by Congress.

Congress retains a number of other special powers. It may act as a judicial body to impeach and try a president or other civil officer for misconduct; in such cases, the House impeaches, or charges, the official, and the Senate conducts the trial. Congress is also empowered to create and use administrative agencies and boards, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Mediation Board,to determine facts and to enforce its legislative policies and enactments.

The Constitution vests each house of Congress with distinct powers as well. The House, for example, has sole responsibility for originating all tax bills, and the Senate has power to approve treaties. The House also chooses the president and vice president if no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes in the presidential election.

Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution imposes prohibitions upon Congress. This section forbids Congress to suspend the privilege of habeas corpus, except in cases of rebellion; to pass ex post facto, or retroactive, laws; to impose duties on exports; or to grant titles of nobility.


Seats in the Senate are apportioned, or distributed, evenly across the states, with each state receiving two. Seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned between the states on the basis of population, with the most populated states receiving the most representatives and no state receiving less than one. The Constitution requires that a census be conducted every ten years in order to determine the number of seats allotted to each state. An apportionment method called equal proportions is used so that no state will receive less than one member.

The Constitution does not mandate that states having more than one representative be divided into congressional districts, although a state legislature can make such a division. States cannot apportion congressional districts on a discriminatory or unreasonable basis.


The Senate and the House of Representatives, acting together or independently, can authorize investigations, or hearings, to obtain information for use in connection with the exercise of their constitutional powers. Information gathered in congressional hearings helps lawmakers draft legislation and monitor the actions of government. It also informs the public about important issues confronting the nation. Noted congressional investigations have included the Teapot Dome inquiry in 1923, the 1973–74 Senate Watergate hearings, and the iran-contra investigation in 1987. Congress has also examined perceived threats to the government, as in the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 in which Senator joseph r. mccarthy (R-WI) led an investigation into Communist influence in the U.S. government.

A congressional committee may conduct an appropriate investigation under the authority granted to it, but the methods used in the exercise of its investigative power must not violate the constitutional rights of those under investigation. The extent of the authority of a congressional committee must be determined at the time the particular information is sought and cannot be extended by later action of Congress.

Congressional investigations can be held to obtain information in connection with Congress's power to legislate and to appropriate funds, in addition to other express powers it possesses. Congress has wide discretion to determine the subject matter it studies as well as the scope and extent of its inquiry. An investigation must, however, be based on direct statements made to Congress, its members, or its committees. Congress or its committees may not indiscriminately examine private citizens in order to learn valuable information or to inhibit the exercise of constitutionally protected rights, such as freedom of speech.

Individuals summoned in a proper manner, or subpoenaed, by Congress or a committee must comply and conform with the summoner's procedure. However, witnesses are legally entitled to refuse to answer questions that are beyond the power of the investigating body or that are irrelevant to the matter under inquiry. A witness who has not been given a grant of immunity can refuse to answer questions that tend to be incriminating under the protection afforded by the Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

Committees and Staff

The work of preparing and considering legislation is done largely by committees of both houses of Congress. The membership of the standing committees of each house is chosen by the political parties in Congress. Committee seats are generally distributed to members of different political parties in a ratio equivalent to party membership in the larger House or Senate. Thus, if a party has two-thirds of the seats in the House, it will have approximately two-thirds of the seats in each House committee.

Each bill and resolution is usually referred to the appropriate committee, which may report it

out (send it to the floor of the House or Senate) in its original form, favorably or unfavorably; recommend amendments; or allow it to die in committee without action.

A growing workload and the increasingly complex nature of the legislation it passes have caused Congress to hire an increasing number of staff. Thousands of staff workers support the Congressional members in their work.

Further Readings

Corwin, Edward S. 1978. The Constitution and What It Means Today. 14th ed. Rev. Harold W. Chase and Craig R. Ducat. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. 1981– . Congress and Its Members. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Egan, Tracie. 2004. How a Bill Becomes a Law. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.

Felten, Eric. 1992. The Ruling Class: Inside the Imperial Congress. Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation.

"Gingrich Puts More Power into Speaker's Hands." 1995. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report (October 7).

"Glossary of Congressional Terms." Congressional Quarterly's Washington Alert (February).

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1787– 88. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. Reprint, New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1961.

Harrigan, John J. 1984. Politics and the American Future. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

"How a Bill Becomes Law." 1994. Congressional Quarterly's Washington Alert.

Jones, Gordon S., and John A. Marini, eds. 1989. The Imperial Congress: Crisis in the Separation of Powers. Mahwah, NJ: World Almanac Books.

Oleszek, Walter J. 1989. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Riddick, Floyd M. 1985. Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 3. S. Doc. 99-3.

See Also