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The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States of Americamarker, consisting of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both senators and representatives are chosen through direct election.

Each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives represents a district and serves a two-year term. House seats are apportioned among the states by population. The 100 Senators serve staggered six-year terms. Each state has two senators, regardless of population. Every two years, approximately one-third of the Senate is elected at a time. Reelection rates for incumbents often exceed 90%.

Article I of the Constitution vests all legislative power in the Congress. The House and Senate are equal partners in the legislative process (legislation cannot be enacted without the consent of both chambers); however, the Constitution grants each chamber some unique powers. The Senate is uniquely empowered to ratify treaties and to approve top presidential appointments. Revenue-raising bills must originate in the House of Representatives, which also has the sole power of impeachment, while the Senate has the sole power to try impeachment cases.

The Congress meets in the U.S.marker Capitolmarker in Washington, D.C.marker

The term Congress is also used to refer to a particular meeting of the national legislature, reckoned according to the terms of representatives. Therefore, a "Congress" covers two years. The current 111th Congress convened on January 6, 2009.


The Congress of the United States has its roots in the First Continental Congress, a meeting of representatives from twelve of the thirteen British Colonies in North America which two years later declared independence. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, referring to the new nation as the "United States of America".

Under the Articles of Confederation, which came into effect in 1781, the Congress of the Confederation was a unicameral body with equal representation among the states in which each state had a veto over most decisions. With no executive or judicial branch, and minimal authority given to the Congress, this government was weak compared to the state. The Congress of the Confederation had authority over foreign affairs and military matters, but not to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce, or enforce laws. States remained sovereign, and were thus free to ignore any legislation passed by Congress. This system of government led to economic troubles in the states and disputes among the states.

The ineffectiveness of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation led the Congress to summon the Convention of 1787. Originally intended to revise the Articles of Confederation, it instead wrote a completely new constitution. Virginiamarker delegate James Madison called for a bicameral Congress in his Virginia Plan: the lower house elected directly by the people, and the upper house elected by the lower house. The smaller states, however, favored a unicameral Congress with equal representation for all states; William Paterson countered Madison's proposals with the New Jersey Plan. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the House of Representatives was to provide representation proportional by population, whereas the Senate would provide equal representation by states. In order to preserve further the authority of the states, it was provided that state legislatures, rather than the people, would elect senators.

The Constitution gave more powers to the federal government, such as regulating interstate commerce , managing foreign affairs and the military, and establishing a national currency. These were seen as essential for the success of the new nation and resolve the disputes that had arisen under the Articles of Confederation, but the states retained sovereignty over other affairs. To protect against abuse of power at the federal level, the Constitution mandated separation of powers, with responsibilities divided among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Furthermore, the legislative body would be bicameral, so there would be checks and balances. The Constitution was ratified by the end of 1788, and its full implementation was set for March 4, 1789.

The post-Civil War Gilded Age was marked by Republican dominance of the Congress. The Progressive Era saw the Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, which provided for the direct election of senators. The early 20th century witnessed the rise of strong party leadership in both houses of Congress. In the House of Representatives, the office of speaker became extremely powerful. Leaders in the Senate were somewhat less powerful; individual senators still retained much of their influence. After the revolt against Speaker Joe Cannon in 1910, the seniority system emerged. Members became powerful committee chairmen through years of seniority, regardless of the leadership. Committee chairmen remained particularly strong in both houses until the reforms of the 1970s and 1990s.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's election as president in 1932 marked a shift in power towards the presidency. Numerous New Deal initiatives were proposed from the White Housemarker and sent to Congress for approval, rather than legislation originating in Congress. After the Watergate scandal and other abuses of power by the Nixon administration, Congress began to reassert its power to oversee the executive branch and develop legislation.

During Roosevelt's administration, from 1933 until 1945, the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress. Republicans won control of both houses in the 1946 elections, only to lose them in 1948; with Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower's election to the presidency in 1952, Republicans again won both houses. However, after the Democratic Party again won back control in the elections of 1954, it was the majority party in both houses of Congress for most of the next 40 years; Republicans were only able to win control of the Senate for a six-year period from 1981 until 1987. Republicans won a majority in each house of Congress in the elections of 1994 and controlled both houses until 2006, except for the Senate for most of 2001 and 2002, when the Democrats had the majority after Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent and caucus with the Democrats. In 2006, Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, and the Senate elections yielded a makeup of 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and two independents. In the 110th Congress (2007–08), the Democratic voting bloc had a 51-49 majority in the Senate because the two independents, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticutmarker and Bernie Sanders of Vermontmarker, aligned themselves with the Democratic caucus. In the 111th Congress, which convened in 2009, the Democratic Party holds a majority in each house of Congress.


Article I of the Constitution sets forth most of the powers of Congress, which include numerous explicit powers enumerated in Section 8. Constitutional amendments have granted Congress additional powers. Congress also has implied powers derived from the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution.

Congress has authority over financial and budgetary matters, through the enumerated power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States. The Sixteenth Amendment extended power of taxation to include income taxes. The Constitution also grants Congress exclusively the power to appropriate funds. This power of the purse is one of Congress' primary checks on the executive branch. Other powers granted to Congress include the authority to borrow money on the credit of the United States, regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states, and coin money.

The Constitution also gives Congress an important role in national defense, including the exclusive power to declare war, to raise and maintain the armed forces, and to make rules for the military. Congress also has the power to establish post offices and post roads, issue patents and copyrights, fix standards of weights and measures, establish courts inferior to the Supreme Courtmarker, and "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." Congress also has the power to admit new states to the Union (Article Four).

One of the foremost non-legislative functions of the Congress is the power to investigate and to oversee the executive branch. Congressional oversight is usually delegated to committees and is facilitated by Congress' subpoena power. Congress also has the exclusive power of removal, allowing impeachment and removal of the President, federal judges and other federal officers.

Enumerated powers

Among the enumerated powers given Congress in Article I Section 8, are the following:

Other congressional powers have been granted, or confirmed, by constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth Amendments (1870) gave Congress authority to enact legislation in order to enforce rights of African Americans, including voting rights, due process, and equal protection under the law.

Implied powers and the commerce clause

Congress also has implied powers, which are derived from the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution and permit Congress "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." Broad interpretations of this clause and of the Commerce Clause, the enumerated power to regulate commerce, have effectively widened the scope of Congress' legislative authority far beyond that prescribed in Section 8.

Checks and balances

The Constitution provides checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government. The authors of the Constitution expected the greater power to lie with Congress and it has been theorized that that is one reason they are described in Article One.

The influence of Congress on the presidency has varied from one period to another; the degree of power depending largely on the leadership of the Congress, political influence by the president, or other members of congress and the boldness of the president's initiatives. Under the first half-dozen presidents, power seems to have been evenly divided between the president and Congress, in part because early presidents largely restricted their vetoes to bills that were unconstitutional.

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson made the presidency much less powerful than Congress. During the late nineteenth century, President Grover Cleveland aggressively attempted to restore the executive branch's power, vetoing over 400 bills during his first term. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen the rise of the power of the Presidency under Theodore Roosevelt (1901–09), Woodrow Wilson (1913–21), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45), Richard Nixon (1969–74), Ronald Reagan (1981–89), and George W. Bush (2001–09) (see Imperial Presidency). In recent years, Congress has restricted the powers of the President with laws such as the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 and the War Powers Resolution; nevertheless, the Presidency remains considerably more powerful than during the nineteenth century.

The Constitution concentrates removal powers in the Congress by empowering and obligating the House of Representatives to impeach federal officials (both executive and judicial) for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The Senate is constitutionally empowered and obligated to try all impeachments. A simple majority in the House is required to impeach an official; however, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for conviction. A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office in the future.

Impeachment proceedings may not inflict more than this; however, the party may face criminal penalties in a normal court of law. In the history of the United States, the House of Representatives has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted. (Another resigned before the Senate could complete the trial). Only two Presidents of the United States have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999. Both trials ended in acquittal; in Johnson's case, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned from office after impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee indicated he would eventually be removed from office.

The Constitution entrusts certain powers to the Senate alone. The President may only nominate for appointment Cabinet officials, judges, and other high officers with the "by and with the advice and consent" of the Senate. The Senate confirms most presidential nominees, but rejections are not uncommon. Furthermore, treaties negotiated by the President must be ratified by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to take effect. The House of Representatives has no formal role in either the ratification of treaties or the appointment of federal officials, other than filling vacancies in the office of Vice-President.

In 1803, the Supreme Court established judicial review of federal legislation in Marbury v. Madison, holding, however, that Congress could not grant unconstitutional power to the Court itself. The Constitution does not explicitly state that the courts may exercise judicial review; however, the notion that courts could declare laws unconstitutional was envisioned by the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton, for example, mentioned and expounded upon the doctrine in Federalist No. 78. Originalists on the Supreme Court have argued that if the constitution doesn't say something explicitly it is unconstitutional to infer what it should, might or could have said.

Investigations are conducted to gather information on the need for future legislation, to test the effectiveness of laws already passed, and to inquire into the qualifications and performance of members and officials of the other branches. Committees may hold hearings, and, if necessary, compel individuals to testify when investigating issues over which it has the power to legislate by issuing subpoenas. Witnesses who refuse to testify may be cited for contempt of Congress, and those who testify falsely may be charged with perjury. Most committee hearings are open to the public (the House and Senate intelligence committees are the exception); important hearings are widely reported in the mass media.


Article I, Section 5 of the United States Constitution specifies that it is up to each chamber to determine internal rules of operation for any matter not already specified in the Constitution or previously prescribed by law. In the House of Representatives, a Rules Committee sets rules for each measure that is up for debate. The Senate abides by a set of Standing Rules.


At the beginning of each two-year Congress, the House of Representatives elects a speaker. The speaker does not normally preside over debates, but is, rather, the leader of the majority party in the House. The Vice President of the United States is, ex officio, President of the Senate. The Senate also elects a president pro tempore of the Senate. For decades the person elected has been the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate, and has held office until he or she ceases to be a senator or a new president pro tempore is elected (usually after a change in party control). Thus, the Senate does not necessarily elect a new president pro tempore at the beginning of a new Congress.


A term of Congress is divided into two "sessions," one for each year; Congress has occasionally also been called into an extra, (or special) session (the Constitution requires Congress to meet at least once each year). A new session commences on January 3 (or another date, if Congress so chooses) each year. Before the Twentieth Amendment, Congress met from the first Monday in December to April or May in the first session of their term (the "long session"); and from December to March 4 in the second "short session". (The new Congress would then meet for some days, for the inauguration, swearing in new members, and organization.)

The Constitution forbids either house from meeting any place outside the Capitol, or from adjourning for more than three days, without the consent of the other house. The provision was intended to prevent one house from thwarting legislative business simply by refusing to meet. To avoid obtaining consent during long recesses, the House or Senate may sometimes hold pro forma meetings, sometimes only minutes long, every three days. The consent of both bodies is required for Congress's final adjournment, or adjournment sine die, at the end of each congressional session. If the two houses cannot agree on a date, the Constitution permits the President to settle the dispute.

Joint sessions

Joint Sessions of the United States Congress occur on special occasions that require a concurrent resolution from both House and Senate. These sessions include the counting of electoral votes following a Presidential election and the President's State of the Union address. Other meetings of both House and Senate are called Joint Meetings of Congress, held after unanimous consent agreements to recess and meet. Meetings of Congress for Presidential Inaugurations may also be Joint Sessions, if both House and Senate are in session at the time, otherwise they are formal joint gatherings.

At some time during the first two months of each session, the President customarily delivers the State of the Union Address, a speech in which he assesses the situation of the country and outlines his legislative proposals for the congressional session. The speech is modeled on the Speech from the Throne given by the British monarch, and is mandated by the Constitution of the United States—though it is not necessarily required to be delivered each year or in the customary manner. Thomas Jefferson discontinued the original practice of delivering the speech in person before both houses of Congress, deeming it too monarchical. Instead, Jefferson and his successors sent a written message to Congress each year. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson reestablished the practice of personally attending to deliver the speech; few Presidents have deviated from this custom since.

Joint Sessions and Joint Meetings are traditionally presided over by the Speaker of the House except for the joint session to count electoral votes for President, when the Constitution requires the President of the Senate (the Vice President of the United States) to preside.

Bills and resolutions

The House Financial Services committee meets.
Committee members sit in the tiers of raised chairs, while those testifying and audience members sit below.
A proposal may be introduced in Congress as a bill, a joint resolution, a concurrent resolution, or a simple resolution. Most legislative proposals are introduced as bills, but some are introduced as joint resolutions. There is little practical difference between the two, except that joint resolutions may include preambles but bills may not. Joint resolutions are the normal method used to propose a constitutional amendment or to declare war. On the other hand, concurrent resolutions (passed by both houses) and simple resolutions (passed by only one house) do not have the force of law. Instead, they serve to express the opinion of Congress, or to regulate procedure.

Members of Congress often introduce legislation at the behest of lobbyists. Lobbyists advocate the passage (or rejection) of bills affecting the interest of a particular group (such as a corporation or a labor union). In many cases, the lobbyists write legislation and submit it to a member for introduction. Congressional lobbyists are legally required to be registered in a central database, and are employed by political organizations, corporations, state governments, foreign governments, and numerous other groups. In 2005, there are almost 35,000 registered Congressional lobbyists, representing a doubling since 2000. Some of the most prominent lobbyists are ex-members of Congress, others are family members of sitting members. As an example, Harry Reid, Dennis Hastert, former Representative Tom DeLay, and Roy Blunt all have immediate family members who are (or were) lobbyists.

Bills (and other proposals) may be introduced by any member of either house. However, the Constitution provides that: "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives." As a result, the Senate does not have the power to initiate bills imposing taxes. Furthermore, the House of Representatives holds that the Senate does not have the power to originate appropriation bills, or bills authorizing the expenditure of federal funds. Historically, the Senate has disputed the interpretation advocated by the House. However, whenever the Senate originates an appropriations bill, the House simply refuses to consider it, thereby settling the dispute in practice. Nevertheless, while the Senate cannot originate revenue and appropriation bills, it does retain the power to amend or reject them.

Each bill goes through several stages in each house. The first stage involves consideration by a committee. Most legislation is considered by standing committees, each of which has jurisdiction over a particular subject matter, such as Agriculture or Appropriations. The House has twenty standing committees; the Senate has sixteen. In some cases, bills may be sent to select committees, which tend to have more narrow jurisdictions than standing committees. Each standing and select committee is led by a chair (who belongs to the majority party) and a ranking member (who belongs to the minority party). Committees are permitted to hold hearing and collect evidence when considering bills. They may also amend the bill, but the full house holds the power to accept or reject committee amendments. After considering and debating a measure, the committee votes on whether it wishes to report the measure to the full house.

A decision not to report a bill amounts to a rejection of the proposal. Both houses provide for procedures under which the committee can be bypassed or overruled, but they are rarely used. If reported by the committee, the bill reaches the floor of the full house. The house may debate and amend the bill; the precise procedures used by the House of Representatives and the Senate differ. A final vote on the bill follows.

Once a bill is approved by one house, it is sent to the other, which may pass, reject, or amend it. In order for the bill to become law, both houses must agree to identical versions of the bill. If the second house amends the bill, then the differences between the two versions must be reconciled in a conference committee, an ad hoc committee that includes both senators and representatives. In many cases, conference committees have introduced substantial changes to bills and added unrequested spending, significantly departing from both the House and Senate versions. President Ronald Reagan once quipped, "If an orange and an apple went into conference consultations, it might come out a pear." If both houses agree to the version reported by the conference committee, the bill passes; otherwise, it fails.

After passage by both houses, a bill is submitted to the President. The President may choose to sign the bill, thereby making it law. The President may also choose to veto the bill, returning it to Congress with his objections. In such a case, the bill only becomes law if each house of Congress votes to override the veto with a two-thirds majority. Finally, the President may choose to take no action, neither signing nor vetoing the bill. In such a case, the Constitution states that the bill automatically becomes law after ten days, excluding Sundays. However, if Congress adjourns (ends a legislative session) during the ten day period, then the bill does not become law. Thus, the President may veto legislation passed at the end of a congressional session simply by ignoring it; the maneuver is known as a pocket veto, and cannot be overridden by the adjourned Congress.

Every Act of Congress or joint resolution begins with an enacting formula or resolving formula stipulated by law. These are:
  • Act of Congress: "Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled."
  • Joint resolution: "Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled."

Quorum and vote

The Constitution specifies that a majority of members constitutes a quorum to do business in each house. The rules of each house provide that a quorum is assumed to be present unless a quorum call demonstrates the contrary. Representatives and senators rarely force the presence of a quorum by demanding quorum calls; thus, in most cases, debates continue even if a majority is not present.

Both houses use voice voting to decide most matters; members shout out "aye" or "no," and the presiding officer announces the result. The Constitution, however, requires a recorded vote on the demand of one-fifth of the members present. If the result of the voice vote is unclear, or if the matter is controversial, a recorded vote usually ensues. The Senate uses roll call votes; a clerk calls out the names of all the senators, each senator stating "aye" or "no" when his or her name is announced. The House reserves roll call votes for the most formal matters, as a roll-call of all 435 representatives takes quite some time; normally, members vote by electronic device. In the case of a tie, the motion in question fails. In the Senate, the Vice President may (if present) cast the tiebreaking vote.


It is neither expected nor possible that a member of Congress be an expert on all matters and subject areas that come before Congress. Congressional committees provide invaluable informational services to Congress by investigating and reporting back in regard to specialized subject matter.

While this investigatory function is indispensable to Congress, procedures such as the House discharge petition process (the process of bringing a bill onto the floor without a committee report or mandatory consent from its leadership) are so difficult to implement that committee jurisdiction over particular subject matter of bills has expanded into semi-autonomous power. Of the 73 discharge petitions submitted to the full House from 1995 through 2007, only one was successful in securing an definitive yea-or-nay vote for a bill on the floor of the House of Representatives. Not without reason have congressional committees been called independent fiefdoms.

In 1931 a reform movement did temporarily reduce the number of signatures required on discharge petitions in the U.S. House of Representatives from a constitutional majority of 218 down to 145, i.e. from one-half to one-third of the House membership. This reform was abolished in a 1935 counterattack led by the intra-House oligarchy. Thus the era of the Great Depression marks the last across-the-board change, albeit a short-lived one, in the autonomy of House standing committees. On strategy for an enduring reform in the system of semi-autonomous committees see the citation.

In the course of committee work, members will often develop personal expertise on the matters under the jurisdiction of their respective committee(s). Such expertise, or claims thereof, are invariably cited during disputes over whether the parent body should bow to obdurate committee negatives.

Congress divides its legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks among approximately 200 committees and subcommittees. Within assigned areas, these functional sub-units gather information, compare and evaluate legislative alternatives, identify policy problems and propose solutions, select, determine, and report measures for full chamber consideration, monitor executive branch performance (oversight), and investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

Decision on which areas individual members choose to specialize may be influenced by their constituency and regional issues of importance to them, as well as prior background and experience of the member. Senators will also try to differentiate themselves from the other senator from the same state, so that areas of specialization do not overlap.

Constituent services

A major aspect of the job for a Senator and a Congressman consists of services to his or her constituency. Members receive thousands of letters, phone calls, and e-mails, with some expressing opinion on an issue, or displeasure with a member's position or vote. Other constituents request help with problems, or ask questions. Members of Congress want to leave a positive impression on the constituent, rather than leave them disgruntled. Thus, their offices will be responsive, and go out of their way to help steer the citizen through the intricacies of the bureaucracy. Here the Congressman and his staffers perform the function of an Ombudsman, at the Federal level. This unofficial job has become increasingly time consuming, and has significantly reduced the time that Congressmen have for the preparation or inspection of bills.

It is noteworthy that an incumbent member of Congress has considerably more clout than most official ombudsmen at the state level, and in other countries, given the appointive and relatively diminutive character of such offices. As Morris Fiorina notes, the involvement of the legislative branch in the ombudsman process carries one major advantage: members of Congress exercise "control over what bureaucrats value most – higher budgets and new program authorizations." This kind of leverage over the bureaucracy is a potent tool that appointed ombudsmen lack.

Accordingly, to improve on today's 435 de facto ombudsmen—constituent services by overworked Congressmen—congressional reforms have been proposed that would approximate the legislative leverage now exercised by Congressmen, but in an office where the intra-bureaucratic troubleshooting duties are full time. Along these lines, some Congressmen themselves have suggested that each congressional district should elect a second U.S. Representative to handle constituent services.


Under the Constitution, members of both houses enjoy the privilege of being free from arrest in all cases, except for treason, felony, and breach of the peace. This immunity applies to members during sessions and when traveling to and from sessions. The term "arrest" has been interpreted broadly, and includes any detention or delay in the course of law enforcement, including court summons and subpoenas. The rules of the House strictly guard this privilege; a member may not waive the privilege on his or her own, but must seek the permission of the whole house to do so. Senate rules, on the other hand, are less strict, and permit individual senators to waive the privilege as they see fit.

The Constitution also guarantees absolute freedom of debate in both houses, providing, "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." Hence, a member of Congress may not be sued for slander because of remarks made in either house. However, each house has its own rules restricting offensive speeches, and may punish members who transgress them.

Obstructing the work of Congress is a crime under federal law, and is known as contempt of Congress. Each house of Congress has the power to cite individuals for contempt, but may not impose any punishment. Instead, after a house issues a contempt citation, the judicial system pursues the matter like a normal criminal case. If convicted in court, an individual found guilty of contempt of Congress may be imprisoned for up to one year.

From 1789 to 1815, members of Congress received only a per diem (daily payment) of $6 while in session. Members began receiving an annual salary in 1815, when they were paid $1,500 per year.

As of 2006, rank-and-file members of Congress received a yearly salary of $165,200. Congressional leaders are paid $183,500 per year. The Speaker of the House of Representatives earns $212,100 per annum. The salary of the President pro tempore for 2006 is $183,500, equal to that of the majority and minority leader of the House and Senate.

Members elected since 1984 are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Those elected prior to 1984 were covered by the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). In 1984 all members were given the option of remaining with CSRS or switching for FERS. As it is for all other federal employees, congressional retirement is funded through taxes and the participants' contributions. Members of Congress under FERS contribute 1.3% of their salary into the FERS retirement plan and pay 6.2% of their salary in Social Security taxes.

The amount of a Congressperson's pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest 3 years of his or her salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member's retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary. In 2006, the average annual pension for retired senators and representatives under CSRS was $60,972, while those who retired under FERS, or in combination with CSRS, was $35,952.

Another privilege is the use of the Library of Congressmarker. One of the Library's missions is to serve the Congress and its staff. To do this, the Congressional Research Service provides detailed, up-to-date and non-partisan research for senators, representatives, and their staff to help them carry out their official duties. The franking privilege allows members of Congress to send official mail to constituents at government expense. Though they are not permitted to send election materials, borderline material is often sent, especially in the run-up to an election by those in close races.

A legislator in either house is a "member of Congress," though usually only representatives are referred to in speech as a congressman, congresswoman, or congressperson, because senators are almost universally referred to as senator.

Comparison with parliamentary systems

Many of the world's democracies and republics operate not within a congressional model of government, but rather a parliamentary system. The most significant difference between a parliamentary government and the U.S. Congress is that a parliament typically encompasses the entire governmental regime, containing legislative and executive branches within its structure (the executive organs are often referred to as "The Government"), as well as the monarch, if one exists. The U.S. Congress exercises only legislative powers, and is but one of three co-equal and independent branches of the larger federal government.

In a parliament, the executive branch of the government is chosen from or by the representative branch. This generally comprises the prime minister and the governing cabinet. Congressional leaders merely administer the daily business of Congress itself, while it is in session, and not the functioning of the national government as a whole. So, while in structure the Speaker of the House of Representatives resembles a prime minister, in substance and practice he or she only moderates the functioning of the U.S. Congress, while the wholly separate executive branch of government administrates the daily functioning of the federal government. In the U.S. Congress, legislation originates within the legislative branch, whereas in a parliamentary system, legislation is drafted by the government in power and then sent to parliament for debate and ratification.

Members of the U.S. Congress are generally elected from one of two parties, but its members are free to vote their own conscience or that of their constituents. Many members can and do cross party lines frequently. Retribution from party leadership for doing so is nonexistent in the Senate and exceedingly rare in the House. In a parliamentary system, members may be compelled to vote with their party's bloc, and those who vote against are often cast out of their respective parliamentary parties and become less influential independents. Theoretically, the lack of superpowerful political parties allows U.S. members to more faithfully represent their constituents than members of parliament can—a member is ultimately responsible to their constituents alone, not to their party. Additionally, as Congress does not wield executive power, dissenting votes from the majority party cannot result in the collapse of the ruling Government and new elections, as occasionally happens in parliamentary systems. Conversely, the congressional system also allows for a larger role for extra-governmental actors such as lobbyists, as the lack of strong party whips present in parliamentary systems exposes members of Congress to greater outside influence.

The offices of Speaker of the House of Representatives and Speaker of the House of Commons, while holding very similar titles and presiding over their respective bodies, differ greatly. In the British House of Commons, the speaker is officially and actively non-partisan, and must resign from his or her party upon accepting the office. His or her role duties in-camera include ensuring active and fair debate, and recognising members of all parties, including back-benchers. Ex-camera, the Speaker of the House of Commons supervises the support offices of Parliament. By contrast, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is the leader of his or her party's members in the House (senior even to the Majority Leader) and has considerable authority to appoint members to committees and otherwise reward or punish members. When the President of the United States is not of the same party as the majority in House of Representatives, the Speaker is the de facto "leader of the opposition."

Criticism of the United States Congress

The United States Congress has been subject to controversy and criticism throughout its existence. Battles between federalists and anti-federalists about the its scope, power, role, and authority happened before ratification of the Constitution. In 2009, criticism generally falls into one of several categories.

  • Congressional pay. Some critics feel congresspersons, who have the power to determine their own salaries, are overpaid. In 2008, congresspersons earned $169,300 annually compared with a median American income of $45,113 for men and $35,102 for women. Others have countered that congressional pay is consistent with other branches of government. Congress has been criticized for trying to conceal its pay raises by slipping them into a large bill at the last minute. Others have criticized the wealth of members of Congress.

  • Low approval ratings. Public opinion polls asking people if they approve of the job Congress is doing have, in the last few decades, generally been low. Approval ratings in December 2007 were 25%, meaning 3 out of 4 Americans disapproved of Congress. Approval ratings from 1974 to 2009 have varied within a range from 20% to 50%, with variation, with a spike of over 84% in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. From 2006 to 2009, ratings have hovered in the 25% range, with a high of 37% in early 2007, and an all-time low of 14% in late 2008.

  • Partisan gridlock. Some critics have charged that fierce political infighting between Democrats and Republicans has prevented lawmakers from tackling tough issues such as global warming and deficit spending and prevented them from finding acceptable bipartisan compromises on issues. In 2009, two former secretaries of State, one Republican, one Democrat, described America in 2009 as "riven with partisan bickering as we confront a range of serious threats — economic, political and military."

  • Congressional power to declare war. Some critics charge that the executive branch has usurped Congress's Constitutionally-defined task of declaring war. While historically presidents initiated the process for going to war, they asked for and received formal war declarations from Congress for the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the Spanish–American War, World War I, and World War II, although President Theodore Roosevelt's military move into Panama in 1903 did not get Congressional assent. Presidents have initiated war without Congressional war declarations for the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and described these conflicts as "police actions". In 1970, Time magazine noted: "All told, it has been calculated, U.S. presidents have ordered troops into position or action without a formal congressional declaration a total of 149 times" before 1970. In 1993, one writer noted "Congress's war power has become the most flagrantly disregarded provision in the Constitution," and that the "real erosion (of Congressional authority to declare war) began after World War II." President George H. W. Bush claimed he could begin Operation Desert Storm and launch a "deliberate, unhurried, post-cold war decision to start a war" without Congressional approval. Critics charge that President George W. Bush largely initiated the Iraq War with little debate in Congress or consultation with Congress, despite a Congressional vote on military force authorization.

  • Legislative and budgetary powers. Some critics charge that the presidency acting under the doctrine of the unitary executive has assumed important legislative and budgetary powers which should normally belong to Congress. One critic charged that presidents can appoint a "virtual army of 'czars' -- each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White Housemarker". "Vesting such broad authority in the hands of people not subjected to Senate confirmation and congressional oversight poses a grave threat to our system of checks and balances," according to this critic. Presidents have been accused of "trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not going through Congress at all." So-called signing statements are one way in which a president can "tip the balance of power between Congress and the White Housemarker a little more in favor of the executive branch," according to one account. Past presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have made public statements when signing congressional legislation about how they understand a bill or plan to execute it, and commentators have described this practice as against the spirit of the Constitution. There is some evidence that President Barack Obama intends to limit but not abandon this practice. During the George W. Bush presidency, administration officials argued for an "expansive view of presidential power," with requests for broader presidential power; in 2009, a treasury secretary asked Congress for "unprecedented powers to initiate the seizure of non-bank financial companies, such as large insurers, investment firms and hedge funds, whose collapse would damage the broader economy." In 2008, critic George F. Will called the Capitol Building a "tomb for the antiquated idea that the legislative branch matters." He wrote: "On Friday the president gave the two automakers access to money Congress explicitly did not authorize" and elaborated that this was more evidence of the "marginalization" of Congress. Will sees an "increasingly swollen executive branch" and "the eclipse of Congress" and said that this process has been continuing "for decades."

  • Congressional oversight. Some critics have charged that Congress has in some instances failed to do an adequate job of overseeing the other branches of government. In the Valerie Plame Wilson episode sometimes known as the Plame affair, some critics, including congressperson Henry A. Waxman, charged that Congress was not doing an adequate job of oversight in this case. Other critics charge Congress was lax in its oversight duties regarding presidential actions such as warrantless wiretapping, although others respond that Congress did investigate the legality of decisions by President George W. Bush involving such matters.

  • Congressional elections. Critics often point to attack ads which smear an opponent's reputation or make unfounded accusations without discussing issues as being unpopular with the public. The consensus is that negative advertising is effective since "the messages tend to stick." Attack ads are prevalent in most Congressional races today. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law limited campaign donations for broadcast TV and radio ads, but didn't limit contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, commonly known as soft money. Critics charge that candidates must spend heavily to get elected and races often cost millions of dollars. Some districts are so heavily Democratic or Republican that they are called a safe seat; any candidate winning the primary will almost always be elected, and don't need to spend money on advertising. When a Congressional seat becomes vacant, then both parties may spend heavily on advertising in these so-called "competitive races"; in California in 1992, only four of twenty races for House seats were considered "highly competitive".

  • Apathetic voters. Prominent Founding Fathers writing in the Federalist Papers believed it was "essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people," and felt that a bond between the people and the representatives was "particularly essential." They wrote "frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured." In 2009, however, few Americans were familiar with leaders of Congress. Numerous reports suggest voter apathy is widespread and growing. The percentage of Americans eligible to vote who did, in fact, vote was 63% in 1960, but has been falling since. Vanderbilt professor Dana D. Nelson in Bad for Democracy argues that all citizens seem to do, politically, is vote for president every four years, and not much else; they've abandoned politics. Apathy was less in the 2008 election which featured a competitive election for president. Voter turnout in 2008 (62%) was the highest since 1968.

  • Campaign costs. Critics have suggested that the cost of campaigning has risen steadily over time and brings adverse consequences. In 1971, the cost of running for congress in Utahmarker was $70,000. Since then, campaign costs have climbed. The biggest campaign expense is television ads, although campaign staff and materials are expensive too. One essayist noticed in 1971 that the "growing dominance of TV on every level of political salesmanship has raised campaign costs astronomically." By 1986, the average Senate race cost $3 million; average House races cost $350,000. By 1994, the cost to run for a congressional seat was about $500,000 on average; in 2004, a decade later, the cost was significantly higher. One congressional race in 2004 cost $4.5 million. "Largely because of the ever-increasing cost of television advertising, the average price tag for waging a winning campaign is likely to zoom past the million-dollar mark this year for the first time, analysts say," according to one report. One critic suggested the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law failed to rein in excessive campaign money, since so-called soft money contributions remained legal. As a result, money plays a huge role in congressional elections. Since fundraising is vital, "members of Congress are forced to spend ever-increasing hours raising money for their re-election" and "campaign costs continue to skyrocket." The Supreme Courtmarker has treated campaign contributions as a free speech issue. Some see money as a good influence in politics since it "enables candidates to communicate with voters and parties to organize efforts to get out the vote." In the 2008 election, spending for all campaigns (including presidential) approached $2 billion in early 2008.

  • Constant re-election efforts. Running for re-election can be a grueling process of distant travel, fund-raising, which prevents representatives from paying attention to governing, according to some critics. University of Virginiamarker professor Larry Sabato, author of A More Perfect Constitution, proposed an amendment to organize primaries to prevent a "frontloaded calendar" long before the election to prevent a "race by states to the front of the primary pack" which subverts the national interest, in his view.

  • Advantages of incumbency. One reporter noted "nearly all incumbents raise far more (money) than do their challengers" which brings a huge advantage to incumbents. "PACs give most of their money to incumbents because they are more likely to win; incumbents win largely because PACs heavily finance them." "Election to Congress ... is therefore like getting life tenure at a university," wrote one critic. In 1986, of 469 House and Senate elections, only 12 challengers succeeded in defeating incumbents. Most challengers are at a huge disadvantage in terms of fundraising. Advantages such as access to campaign contributions, free mailings also known as franking privileges, and gerrymandering give incumbents an unfair advantage, according to some critics; as a result, re-election rates of congresspersons seeking repeated terms hovers around 90% according to many sources. Academics such as Princeton's Stephen Macedo have proposed solutions to fix gerrymandering.

  • Rural states versus urban states. Kentuckymarker Professor Richard Labunski sees small rural states as having an unfair advantage in the Senate: "If the 26 least populated states voted as a bloc, they would control the U.S. Senate with a total of just under 17% of the country’s population," he wrote. University of Texasmarker law professor Sanford Levinson has similar concerns about a "steady redistribution of resources from large states to small states."

  • Political action committees. Critics have charged that political action committees, also known as PACs, exert excessive influence over Congress and distort the democratic process. There is consensus among political analysts that money is important for winning elections. One source suggests post-Watergate laws amended in 1974 meant to reduce the "influence of wealthy contributors and end payoffs" instead "legitimized PACs" since they "enabled individuals to band together in support of candidates." From 1974 to 1984, the number of PACs grew from 608 to 3,803, and PAC donations leaped from $12.5 million to $120 million. In 2009, there were 4,600 business, labor and special-interest PACs. Big PACs include the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the National Association of Realtors. From 2007 to 2008, 175 members of Congress received "half or more of their campaign cash from political action committees in 2007-08." Both Republicans and Democrats get PAC money; for example, in 2007-2008, Republican Representative Mitch McConnell of Kentuckymarker got $3,754,331 from PACs while Democratic representative Max Baucus of Montanamarker got $3,257,396. There were reports that some of the federal bailout money in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) for distressed banks during the economic downturn of 2007-2008 was being doled out as campaign contributions to lawmakers who oversee TARP. In 1988, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. wrote "government regulation is more pervasive than ever" since the US economy is large and varied; and this encourages government officials to get "more and more involved in every aspect of our lives" which spurs special interests to use money to influence legislation. Some PAC members feel resentful of congresspersons yet "go along with their demands for contributions for fear of losing vital access in Congress." Critics of PACs say it allows special interests to wield too much influence in Congress; proponents dispute the assertion that PACs represent narrow constituencies. Bipartisan groups have tried to reduce the influence of PACs, generally unsuccessfully. But reform efforts have been stymied because of perceptions that changes may benefit one political party or the other.

See also



  • (Legislative procedure, informal practices, and other information)

Further reading

  • Baker, Ross K. (2000). House and Senate, 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton. (Procedural, historical, and other information about both houses)
  • Barone, Michael and Richard E. Cohen. The Almanac of American Politics, 2006 (2005), elaborate detail on every district and member; 1920 pages
  • Berg-Andersson, Richard E. (2001). Explanation of the types of Sessions of Congress (Term of Congress)
  • Berman, Daniel M. (1964). In Congress Assembled: The Legislative Process in the National Government. London: The Macmillan Company. (Legislative procedure)
  • Bianco, William T. (2000) Congress on Display, Congress at Work, University of Michigan Press.
  • Hamilton, Lee H. (2004) How Congress Works and Why You Should Care, Indiana University Press.
  • Herrick, Rebekah. (2001). "Gender effects on job satisfaction in the House of Representatives." Women and Politics, 23 (4), 85–98.
  • Hunt, Richard. (1998). "Using the Records of Congress in the Classroom," OAH Magazine of History, 12 (Summer): 34–37.
  • Imbornoni, Ann-Marie, David Johnson, and Elissa Haney. (2005). "Famous Firsts by American Women." Infoplease.
  • Lee, Frances and Bruce Oppenheimer. (1999). Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. (Equal representation in the Senate)
  • Rimmerman, Craig A. (1990). "Teaching Legislative Politics and Policy Making." Political Science Teacher, 3 (Winter): 16–18.
  • Ritchie, Donald A. (1997). "What Makes a Successful Congressional Investigation." OAH Magazine of History, 11 (Spring): 6–8. (Congressional investigations and committee hearings)
  • (Legislative procedure, informal practices, and other information)
  • Story, Joseph. (1891). Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. (2 vols). Boston: Brown & Little. (History, constitution, and general legislative procedure)
  • Tarr, David R. and Ann O'Connor. Congress A to Z (CQ Congressional Quarterly) (4th 2003) 605pp
  • Wilson, Woodrow. (1885). Congressional Government. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Some information in this article has been provided by the Senate Historical Office.

External links

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