UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT
Author: William Kehen, PhD. Columbia University
The United States Congress
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
one of the two houses of the U.S. Congress, established in 1789 by 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.