The Structure and Function of the Legislative Branch Notes. Section 1: The Senate and the House of Representatives

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1 Attachment A The Structure and Function of the Legislative Branch Notes Section 1: The Senate and the House of Representatives The Role of Congress Congress is the lawmaking or legislative body of our national government. It meets in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to debate issues and vote on the passage of laws. Established by Article I of the Constitution, the Legislative Branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Together these houses have the authority to enact legislation, declare war, the right to confirm or reject presidential appointments and investigative powers. Congress is Divided Into Two Parts or Houses The U.S. Congress is divided into two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. This is known as a bicameral legislature. Bicameral means twohouse body. The Great Compromise, which was established at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, created our bicameral legislature to appease members from small populated states and large populated states. The founders designed our bicameral system so that the members of the House of Representatives were elected directly. The founders were nervous about this power and therefore gave the House of Representatives a two-year term. When the Constitution was written, the people did not elect senators directly. They were appointed by the state legislatures. The Senate was design to be the higher body of our legislature with officials who would have more experience. This system changed in 1913 with the passage of the 17 th Amendment which then provided for the direct election of senators by the voting citizens. Our two- house system has many advantages. The Senate s equal representation for all states allows the lesser-populated states to have an equal voice with the larger states. The larger states get their fair share of the power in the House of Representatives where representation is based on population. By having a bicameral legislature, laws are created with both the minority states and the more populated states needs in mind. Above all, this system ensures that laws are passed carefully and not hastily. House of Representatives There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. The number of representatives each state has depends on the population of the state. Every state is entitled to at least one. The number of representatives may increase or decrease every ten years as a result of the census, or population count. Even though the

2 number of representatives each state receives can change the number of representatives will not exceed 435. Representatives are elected for a two- year term in November of even number years. Term limits restrict the amount of terms elected officials are allowed to serve. Neither Senators nor Representatives are term limited. US Representatives serve their congressional districts from their state. The Constitution lists the qualifications that members of Congress must meet. A representative must meet the following qualifications: be at least 25 years old have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, be a legal resident of the state he or she represents. Senate The Constitution provides for two members, or senators, to the Senate from each state regardless of its population. This was done to ensure equality for all states regardless of their population. The Senate has a total of 100 members. One third of the senate is elected every 2 years in order to ensure continuous representation. Each senatorial term lasts six years. Senators represent their entire state. A senator must meet the following qualifications: be at least 30 years old have been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, be a legal resident of the state he or she represents. Although the Constitution does not discuss any other qualifications most members of Congress have had previous political experience, are lawyers or businesspeople, and are active members of the community. When the Constitution was drafted the founders were concerned about the experience members of Congress were going to have if they were to be elected by the people. Section 2: How Congress is Organized In both of the houses of Congress, officers are chosen in order to ensure that the duties of the legislative branch get carried out. The Constitution provides for only three congressional officers. First, it directs the House of Representatives to select a presiding officer. The presiding officer of the House of Representatives is known as the Speaker of the House. Second, it names the Vice President of the United States as president of the Senate. Third, it calls for the selection of a senator to preside in the vice president s absence. The president pro tempore, a president for the time being is by custom elected from the majority party. These are the only directions given by the Constitution about the organization of Congress.

3 Congress has other ways of organizing itself as well. The political party that has more members in each house is known as the majority party. The majority leader in both houses serves as a spokesperson for their party. Their main responsibility is to work to advance the policies of their party. The minority party is the political party with the fewer members. The minority leader is also chosen by his/her peers to guide legislation and policies in favor of their party. He or she helps the minority party stand united against the majority party. Also, there are whips for both the majority and minority parties. The whip is the person who circulates on the floor and keeps his or her party members committed to voting along party lines. The Speaker of the House is almost always the leader of the majority. The speaker is in line to assume the presidency if the president dies or is unable to fulfill their official duties. The speaker has the power to control the debate on the floor of the House by being able to determine the speaking list. The speaker also has the power to build support for bills that are important to his or her party. He or she also assigns bills to committees. The speaker also makes committee assignments. This makes him/her the most powerful person in the house because all members have to serve on at least two committees and those positions are very important to the representatives. The vice president is given the position of President of the Senate. The President of the Senate directs the debate but only votes if there is a tie. One Senate office that has no match in the House is the President Pro Tempore. This person is usually the most senior member of the majority party. His or her responsibility is to sit in as President of the Senate when the vice president is absent. The president pro tempore is a senator and can vote on the questions. Section 3: Congressional Committees Both the House and Senate depend upon committees to consider the thousands of bills that are proposed each session. Committees are the key power centers in Congress. Lawmakers in committees listen to supporters and opponents of a bill, work out compromises, and decide which bills will or will not have a chance to become law. Through public hearings and investigations, committees bring issues and problems to the public. Congress has four basic kinds of committees: (1) standing committees, each with several subcommittees that specialize in a subcategory; (2) select (or temporary) committees; (3) joint committees made up of House and Senate members; and (4) conference committees that resolve differing versions of a House and Senate bill. Permanent committees are known as standing committees. They specialize in specific aspects of the operations of government. The permanent committees divide into subcommittees in order to accomplish more work. Some committees are made

4 of members from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. These are known as joint committees. They are created when Congress feels it would be more efficient for members of both houses to work together on an issue. A conference committee is formed when both houses pass different versions of the same bill. They work out the differences in order to create one version of the same bill. Select committees are temporary such as when a specific need arises. Once they have completed their assignment and the committee is no longer needed, it is disbanded. Assignment to the "right" committee can help congressional careers, putting members in a position to act on bills important to their constituents, to influence national policies, and to influence other members in Congress. The key House of Representative committees are: Rules, Ways and Means, and Appropriations. The most prestigious Senate committees are Foreign Relations, Finance, and Appropriations. Party leaders in both the House and Senate have the job of assigning members to a limited number of standing committees and subcommittees. The chairpersons of standing committees are the most powerful people in Congress. About the Senate Committee System Due to the high volume and complexity of its work, the Senate divides its tasks among 20 committees, 68 subcommittees, and 4 joint committees. Although the Senate committee system is similar to that of the House of Representatives, it has its own guidelines within which each committee adopts its own rules. This creates considerable variation among the panels. Standing committees generally have legislative jurisdiction. Subcommittees handle specific areas of the committee s work. Select and joint committees generally handle oversight or housekeeping responsibilities. The chair of each committee and a majority of its members represent the majority party. The chair primarily controls a committee s business. Each party assigns its own members to committees, and each committee distributes its members among its subcommittees. The Senate places limits on the number and types of panels any one senator may serve on and chair. Committees receive varying levels of operating funds and employ varying numbers. When a committee or subcommittee favors a measure, it usually takes four actions. First, it asks relevant executive agencies for written comments on the measure. Second, it holds hearings to gather information and views from noncommittee experts. At committee hearings, these witnesses summarize submitted statements and then respond to questions from the senators. Third, a committee meets to perfect the measure through amendments, and non-committee members sometimes attempt to influence the language. Fourth, when language is agreed upon, the committee sends the measure back to the full Senate, usually along with a written report describing its purposes.

5 About the House Committee System The House s 20 standing committees have different legislative jurisdictions. Each considers bills and issues and recommends measures for consideration by the House. Committees also have oversight responsibilities to monitor agencies, programs and activities within their jurisdictions, and in some cases in areas that cut across committee jurisdictions. Current standing committees of the House are: Agriculture; Appropriations; Armed Services; Budget; Commerce; Education and the Workforce; Ethics; Financial Services; Foreign Affairs; Homeland Security; House Administration; Judiciary; Natural Resources; Oversight and Government Reform; Rules; Science, Space and Technology; Small Business; Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans Affairs; and Ways and Means. The Committee of the Whole House is a committee of the House on which all representatives serve and which meets in the House Chamber for the consideration of measures from the Union calendar. Before members are assigned to committees, the party leaders must decide each committee s size and the proportion of Republicans to Democrats. The total number of committee slots allotted to each party is approximately the same as the ratio between majority party and minority party members in the full chamber. Staff and Support Agencies Trained staffers help lawmakers draw up bills, are informed on issues, and represent their constituents. Lawmakers rely heavily on personal staffers, about one-third of which work in the lawmakers' home states and the rest in the capital. Personal staffers include administrative assistants, legislative assistants, and caseworkers who handle requests from constituents. Lawmakers also rely on committee staffers who work for the many House and Senate committees. Committee staffers are largely responsible for the work involved in making laws. Several agencies in the legislative branch provide services that support Congress. The Library of Congress has a Congressional Research Service that does research for lawmakers, staffers, and committees. The Congressional Budget Office coordinates the budget work of Congress and studies the proposals put forward by the president each year. The Government Accountability Office is the nation's watchdog over how the funds Congress appropriates are spent. The Government Printing Office does the printing for the entire federal government, including the Congressional Record and the Statistical Abstract of the United States.

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