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UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT

Author:  William Kehen, PhD. Columbia University

1996

The United States Congress

The Senate 

The U. S. Senate is one of the two houses of the legislature of the United States, established in 1789 under the Constitution. Each state elects two senators for six-year terms, the terms of about one-third of the Senate membership expiring every two years.

The role of the Senate was conceived by the Founding Fathers as a check on the popularly elected House of Representatives. Thus each state, regardless of size or population, is equally represented. Further, until the Seventeenth Amendment of the Constitution (1913), election to the Senate was indirect, by the state legislatures. They are now elected directly by voters of each state.

The Senate shares with the House of Representatives responsibility for all lawmaking within the United States. For an act of Congress to be valid, both houses must approve an identical document.

The Senate is given important powers under the "advice and consent" provisions (Article II, section 2) of the Constitution: ratification of treaties requires a two-thirds majority of all senators present and a simple majority for approval of important public appointments, such as those of Cabinet members, ambassadors, and judges of the Supreme Court. The Senate also adjudicates impeachment proceedings initiated in the House of Representatives, a two-thirds majority being necessary for conviction.

As in the House of Representatives, political parties and the committee system dominate procedure and organization. Each party elects a leader, generally a senator of considerable influence in his own right, to coordinate Senate activities. The Senate leaders also play an important role in appointing members of their party to the Senate committees, which consider and process legislation and exercise general control over government agencies and departments. Sixteen standing committees are grouped mainly around major policy areas, each having staffs, budgets, and various subcommittees. Among important standing committees are those on appropriations, finance, government operations, and foreign relations. At "mark-up" sessions, which may be open or closed, the final language for a law is considered. Select and special committees are also created to make studies or to conduct investigations and report to the Senate--for example, the Select Committee on Ethics and the Special Committee on Aging.

The smaller membership of the Senate permits more extended debate than is common in the House of Representatives. To check a filibuster--endless debate obstructing legislative action--three-fifths of the membership must vote for cloture; if the legislation under debate would change the Senate's standing rules, cloture may be invoked only on a vote of two-thirds of those present. There is a less-elaborate structure of party control in the Senate; the position taken by influential senators may be more significant than the position (if any) taken by the party.

The constitutional provisions regarding qualifications for membership of the Senate specify a minimum age of 30, citizenship of the United States for nine years, and residence in the state from which elected.

 

The House of Representatives

Is one of the two houses of the U.S. Congress, established in 1789 by the Constitution.

The first Congress had 59 members in the House; membership reached 435 in 1912. Two additional representatives were added after the admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states in 1959, but at the next reapportionment membership returned to 435, the number authorized by a law enacted in 1941. The allocation of seats is based on population within the states; membership is reapportioned every 10 years, following the decennial census. House members are elected every two years from one-member districts of approximately equal population created for this purpose.

The House of Representatives shares with the Senate equal responsibility for lawmaking within the United States. As conceived by the Founding Fathers, the House was to represent the popular will, and its members were to be directly elected by the people, rather than indirectly, as originally provided for the Senate.

The Constitution vests certain exclusive powers in the House of Representatives, among the most important of which are the right to initiate impeachment proceedings and the right to originate revenue bills.The organization and character of the House of Representatives have evolved under the influence of political parties, which provide a means of controlling proceedings and mobilizing the necessary majorities. Party leaders, such as the speaker and the majority and minority leaders, came to play a central role in the operations of the House. Party discipline is not always strong, however, in a body whose members stand for reelection every two years and who tend to look toward their districts rather than to parties for support.

A further dominating element of House organization is the committee system, under which the membership is broken up into smaller groups for such purposes as selecting agenda, preparing bills for the consideration of the whole House, and regulating House procedure.

Each committee is controlled by the majority party. Almost all bills are first referred to a committee; the House ordinarily cannot act on a bill until the committee has "reported" it for floor action. There are more than 20 standing committees, organized mainly around major policy areas, each one having staffs, budgets, and subcommittees. They may hold hearings on questions of public interest, propose legislation that has not been formally introduced as a bill or resolution, and conduct investigations. Among important standing committees are those on appropriations, on ways and means, and on rules. Select and special committees are also appointed, usually for a specific project and for a limited period.

The committees also play an important role in the control exercised by Congress over governmental agencies. Departmental heads and other responsible officials are frequently summoned before the committees to explain policy. The Constitution (Article I, section 6) prohibits members of Congress from holding offices in the executive branch of government--a chief distinction between parliamentary and congressional forms of government.

One important result of population changes in the United States in the decade 1970-80 was the gain under reapportionment of 17 congressional seats in states of the South and West; states of the Northeast lost 9 and those of the North Central region 8. For the first time in the 20th century, the majority in the House of Representatives was not based in the traditional North.

The constitutional provisions regarding eligibility for membership of the House of Representatives specify a minimum age of 25, U.S. citizenship for at least seven years, and residence within the state from which a member is elected.

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