United States Government/The Legislative Branch

Contents Colonial America - Articles of Confederation - The Constitutional Convention - Ratification - The Three Branches - The Federal System - General Provisions - The Bill of Rights - The Later Amendments - Legislative Branch - Executive Branch - Judicial Branch



As has been stated earlier, Congress includes two distinct houses- the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives represents the people of the States based upon the population of each, while the Senate allows two Senators to each state regardless of population.

The Legislative


The Congress is the Legislative Branch. Its main function is to make laws. It also oversees the execution of these laws, and checks various executive and judicial powers. The Congress is bicameral- it is composed of two houses. One house is the House of Representatives, the other is the Senate.

The House of Representatives, or House for short, is currently composed of four hundred and thirty-five members. Each of the fifty states is allocated one or more representatives based on its population as calculated by the decennial (once in ten years) census. Each state is guaranteed at least one representative. A state that is allocated more than one representative divides itself, as state procedures dictate, into a number of districts equal to the number of representatives to which it is entitled. The people of each district vote to elect one representative to Congress (States that have only one representative allocated choose at-large representatives- the state votes as one entire district). The District of Columbia and a number of U.S. territories have been permitted to elect delegates to the House. These delegates may participate in debates, and sit and vote in committee, but are not allowed to vote in the full House. Every House member faces re-election in an even-numbered year and is elected to a two-year term. The House is presided over by a Speaker, who is directly elected by the members of the House.

The Senate is the upper house of the United States' legislative branch, possessing only one hundred members to the house's four hundred thirty-five. Each state chooses two senators, regardless of that state's population. The Constitution originally dictated that a state's senators were to be chosen by the state's legislature; after the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were elected directly by the state's population. In contrast to the House's two-year terms, Senators are elected to a six-year stint in office. In addition, only one-third of the Senate stands for election during an even year. These differences between the two houses were deliberately put into place by the Founding Fathers; the Senate was intended to be a more stable, austere body, whereas the House would be more responsive to the people's will.

The Vice-President is President of the Senate, but he/she only votes if there is a tie. The Senate also chooses a President Pro Tempore to preside in the Vice-President's absence (though, in practice, most of the time, senators from the majority take turns presiding for short periods).

The Senate and the House are both required to approve legislation before it becomes a law. The two houses are equal in legislative power, but revenue bills (bills relating to taxation) may only originate in the House. However, as with any other bill, the Senate's approval is still required, and the Senate may amend such bills.

The Senate holds additional powers relating to treaties and the appointments of executive and judicial officials. This power is known as "advice and consent." The Senate's advice and consent is required for the President to appoint judges and many executive officers, and also to ratify treaties. To grant advice and consent on treaties, two-thirds of the Senators must concur (agree).

While most votes require a simple majority to pass, it sometimes takes three-fifths of senators to bring a bill to a vote. This is because Senate rules hold that a bill cannot be voted on as long as it is being debated--and there is no limit on how long a senator may debate a bill. Senators sometimes use this rule to filibuster a bill--that is, continue debating a bill endlessly so that it cannot be voted on. The only way to end a filibuster is for three-fifths of all Senators to vote for a cloture resolution, which ends all debate and brings the bill up for voting. Use of the filibuster tends to be controversial. Whichever party is in the majority tends to call its use "obstructionism," while the other side sees it as an important check on the majority.

The House has the sole power to impeach federal executive and judicial officers. According to the Constitution, officers may be impeached for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Senate has the sole power to try all such impeachments, a two-thirds vote being required for conviction. The Constitution requires that any individual convicted by the Senate to be removed from office. The Senate also has the power to bar that individual from further federal office. The Senate may not impose any further punishment, although the parties are still subject to trial in the courts. As the Vice-President (being next-in-line to the Presidency) would have an obvious conflict of interest in presiding at a trial of the President, in such cases, the Chief Justice presides. Interestingly, no similar provision prevents the Vice-President from presiding at his or her own trial.

House of Representatives


Every ten years, the United States conducts a Census to determine the population of each state. Then, each state is apportioned, or allocated, a number of seats based on its Census population, with the more populous states receiving more seats than the less populous ones. Currently, one seat equals roughly 600,000 constituents. However, no matter how low a state's population is, it is always entitled to at least one seat.

The state then conducts a process known as redistricting. In this process, the state divides itself into a number of districts of equal population; each district may then elect one representative. Of course, in states entitled to only one representative, the entire state is one district and redistricting does not occur. (See gerrymandering)

In addition to representatives for the states, five American territories- the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa- each choose non-voting members. Puerto Rico chooses a "Resident Commissioner" for a four-year term, while the others choose "Delegates" for two-year terms.

Representatives hold office for two-year terms. The election for Representatives is held on the Tuesday immediately after the first Monday in November of every even numbered year. A Representative actually takes office on January 3rd after the election.

No person may be a Representative unless he qualifies under the Constitution as follows. The requirements are: at least twenty-five years of age, inhabitance in the state of election, and citizenship of the United States for at least seven years.

Though no specific number of Representatives is set by the Constitution, the law of the United States sets the number of Representatives at 435.

The House of Representatives elects a Speaker who presides over the House.[1] The Speaker is traditionally the leader of the majority party of the House.[2] The Speaker of the House does have a significant role outside of the Congress in that she or he is third in line to the Presidency.[3]

Because of its size, the House relies heavily upon fixed rules and strict timetables for debate. When bills are debated on the floor of the House, each party's leader is allocated a fixed amount of time to present their argument for or against the bill, and they can appropriate this time to members of their party as they see fit. During House debates, it is common for representatives to "yield their time" to one another. Times for debate and other procedures are set by the House Rules Committee, which is generally considered to be one of the most powerful committees in Congress.



Each state is entitled to two senators regardless of population. Originally, the state legislatures chose the senators. However, the people of the states choose their own senators at present.

Senators hold office for six-year terms. Elections are held every two years, at the same time as the election for Representatives. The Senators are classified into three separate classes. At each election, the Senate seats of one particular class are up for election.

Constitutional requirements for Senators are slightly more strict than those for Representatives. The qualifications are: at least thirty years of age, inhabitance in the state of election, and citizenship of the United States for at least nine years.

The Vice President of the United States presides over the Senate and holds the title of President of the Senate. His power is considerably lesser than that of the Speaker of the House. He also does not have a vote in the Senate, unless the Senate is tied. As the Vice President normally does not attend unless there is a likelihood of a tie vote, the Senate chooses one of its members to be President of the Senate pro tempore, or temporarily. The President pro tem, as he is often called, is normally the most senior Senator of the majority party. Just as in the house, the President or President pro tem does not preside during most meetings; this task is often given to new Senators so that they may learn the procedures of the body. This is not as easily possible in the House because of the much greater authority of whoever presides over the Representatives.

In comparison to the House, the Senate has relatively few procedural rules, and no fixed schedules for debate. It is possible for a Senator to continue speaking for hours on end to delay unwanted legislation: this tactic is called a "filibuster." Any individual Senator is also allowed, by Senate rules, to stop the introduction of a bill with a motion from the floor, although this is almost never done in practice.

Party leaders, committees, and caucuses


Both major political parties (the Republican Party and the Democratic Party) have designated floor leaders in both houses of Congress. The floor leader for the majority party is called the House (or Senate) Majority Leader, while the floor leader for the minority party is called the House (or Senate) Minority Leader. The second-in-command of each party's delegation is called the Whip, as their job is to "whip" other members of the party into action on various legislative measures.

Each party's leadership is responsible for allocating its members to committees. There are a number of "standing committees" in each house, dedicated to various government functions such as the armed forces, education, and transportation. At any time, there are also several "select committees" that are set up for more timely problems such as government reforms. Occasionally, both houses of Congress will establish a "joint committee" to deal with certain issues.

There are also many less formal associations in Congress, known as "caucuses," which are formed by members interested in various issues, such as relations with specific countries, ethnic issues, and industrial sectors.


  1. U.S. Constitution Article I, Section 2
  2. Sinclair, B. (1995). Legislators, leaders, and lawmaking the U.S. House of Representatives in the postreform era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 67
  3. Presidential Succession Act(3 U.S.C. § 19) and Section 4 of Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution