Congress is bicameral

It contains the House of Representatives, which has 435 members (congressmen) represent districts

They are elected for 2 year terms

They must be at least 25, a US citizen for 7 years, a resident of the district they represent

The Senate contains 100 members (Senators), 2 for each state

They are elected for six year terms.  One third of the Senate is up for election at any one time

They must be at least 30,  citizen for 9 years, resident of the state they represent

How representative is Congress?

What does Congress do?

Each house has exclusive powers and joint powers

The House;

  • To begin consideration of money bills
  • To impeach any member of the executive or judicial branches of Federal government
  • To elect the president if the Electoral College is deadlocked

The Senate;

To confirm appointments to the executive and judicial branches

  • To ratify all treaties negotiated by the president
  • To try cases of impeachment
  • To elect the vice-president if the Electoral College is deadlocked

Joint powers;

  • To pass legislation, including the budget
  • To conduct investigations regarding the actions of the executive branch
  • To declare war
  • To confirm the appointment of a newly appointed vice-president
  • To initiate constitutional amendments

Who presides over Congress

In the House of Representatives the speaker is elected at the beginning of each new Congress and is usually the nominee of the majority party

They are next in line to the presidency after the vice-president

Current Speaker – Nancy Pelosi

The speaker

  • Acts as presiding officer of the House
  • Interprets and enforces the rules of the House
  • Refers bills to committees
  • Appoints and select and conference committee chairs
  • Appoints majority party members of the House Rules Committee
  • Can exercise considerable influence in the flow of legislation

There is also a Minority Leader and  aMajority Leader

In the Senate the Vice-President if officially presiding officer but usually the Senate is presided by a President pro tempore who is elected by the Senate

There are minority and majority leaders

How are laws made? – ****

First Reading

Committee stage


Second reading

Third reading

Conference committee

Presidential action

First Reading

All money bills must be introduced in house

There is no debate and no vote

Bills are sent to committee stage

Committee stage

Bills are referred to a standing committee

(see later)


In the Senate a unanimous consent agreement is made

In the House, the House Rules Committee decides

Second Reading

Bills are debated in the whole house

In the Senate bills can be subject to filibustering

Amendments can be made

Votes will be taken on amendments

A voice vote or a recorded vote

A simple majority is required to pass the bill

Third Reading

Final opportunity to debate the bill

Conference committee

Presidential Action

How do congressmen decide how to vote?

Political party


The administration (pork-barrel politics)

Pressure groups

Colleagues and staff

Personal beliefs

Why is it so difficult to pass a bill?

Both houses have equal power when dealing with legislation

Bills pass through the House and senate concurrently

A congress lasts for 2 years

Any bills not completed in one congress must start the process again at the beginning in the next Congress

A huge number of bills – around 9,000 are introduced during a congress

Only a small proportion of these (around 400) will make it into law

Supporters of a bill must win at each stage

There is little party discipline

The President has no formal control over Congress

The Center on Congress at Indiana University

How do members of Congress decide how to vote?

Mr Smith goes to Washington – How a bill is passed

Mr Smith goes to Washington – will the Senator yield?

Why are committees so important? ****

Standing committees are permanent and have fixed jurisdictions

Some are divided into sub committees

Examples of standing committees are;

The House Rules Committee

The Ways and Means Committee

The Appropriations Committee

The Foreign Affairs Committee

After a first reading a bill is allocated to a standing committee

  • The standing committee must choose which bills it will back
  • The standing committee must thrash out the bill and produce something which congressmen can debate and vote on
  • The committee holds hearings and takes evidence from witnesses who might be members of the administration, pressure groups or the public
  • They also hold investigations into how well legislation is working
  • Some standing committees have large budgets

For this reason the chairman of a standing committee is very important

Select committees

These are temporary and are set up to report on a particular topic eg the Senate Committee on Whitewater

Joint Committees

Permanent bodies – eg the Joint Economic Committee

Conference Committees

Since 1970s

Committee chairs  are elected by secret ballot

Committees can be called into session by a majority vote of members

No member can chair more than one committee

Committees with more than 20 members must have at least four subcommittees

Subcommittees choose their own chairs

Committee hearings are held in public (generally)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s