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AQA, Edexcel, OCR

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Congress is the name of the Legislative Branch of US Politics. It has a balanced bicameral structure meaning it has two chambers, an upper and a lower one of equal legislative power.

The upper chamber is known as the Senate, and the lower chamber the House of Representatives.

Congress has 535 members made up of 100 in the Senate, and 435 in the House of Representatives. In addition to this there are 5 Delegates who represent the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, The US Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Finally there is 1 Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico. These Delegates and Commissioner sit in the House of Representatives.

Congress & The Constitution

The Constitution refers to Congress in Article I, it divides Congress into two chambers, the House of Representatives or the Senate, this bicameral system is known as the Connecticut Compromise. In addition to this the powers of Congress are also detailed, those that are explicitly referenced in the Constitution are known as enumerated powers. However, Congress does have powers that are not explicitly included in the Constitution. These powers known as implied powers and arise from the final clause of Article I, Section 8 known as ‘The Necessary and Proper Clause’ or the ‘Elastic Clause’.

The Necessary and Proper Clause

This clause states

“The Congress shall have Power ... 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.”

This means that in order for Congress to fulfil its duty as a law making body they should be able to make all laws which are necessary to fulfil this duty. This belief often brings Congress into conflict with the individual states over the issue of whether something is in the federal jurisdiction or the state jurisdiction such as the issue of Federal Income Tax.

The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of Congress and has 435 members from congressional districts. The number of representatives allocated to each state is proportional to its population, so the more populous states receive more Representatives. California has the largest number of representatives totalling 53 whereas states like Alaska, Montana, North and South Dakota only have 1.

Each state is divided into areas called Congressional Districts and each member represents their districts. Unlike in the UK whereby constituencies have names such as Crewe & Nantwich or Newcastle West, US Congressional districts have numbers. Districts, therefore become for example the California 8th District or the Ohio 12th District.

Members serve 2-year terms before having to re-elected, and when elections occur the entire House is up for re-election.

The House of Representatives is led by the Speaker of the House, as well as Majority and Minority leaders.

The Senate

The Senate is the upper chamber in Congress and consists of 100 members. Every state has two Senators to represent them. This means that every state Is equal in the Senate, unlike the House of Representatives. Senators serve for six-year terms and are elected in thirds. This means that in every election cycle only one-third of the Senators are seeking re-election. This means that the make up the Senate is unlikely the change greatly between election cycles.

The Senate is lead according to the Constitution by the Vice President, who holds the title President of the Senate. However, in practice the Senate is lead by the Majority Leader. This is the leader of the party who holds the majority.

The Senate is also unique in US Politics by having the power of unlimited debate. However, whilst this can be a good thing, it can be used to delay legislation and for political purposes. In order to disrupt the passage of legislation or appointments, Senators can filibuster a bill. This can be done by an individual or a group of Senators whereby they attempt to talk a bill to death. If a Senator can keep talking without stopping or leaving for the toilet, then they could kill off a bill. Notable filibusters have included Senator Strom Thurmond in 1957, he filibustered a Civil Rights Bill for 24 hours 18 minutes, or more recently Senator Rand Paul filibustering the appointment of John Brennen as CIA Director at 12hrs 52mins. Individual filibusters are normally unsuccessful; but, group filibusters can be more successful. However, if three-fifths of the Senate vote to end a filibuster they can. This is known as a cloture motion.

Congressional Committees

Committees form a very important part of the legislative process and as such Congress has a huge number of committees. Congress has Standing Committees which generally shadow departments of the Federal Government and Select Committees which are used for special investigations on an ad hoc basis.


Congress holds considerable powers that are given to it by the US Constitution. These are called enumerated powers. However, the powers of Congress can be divided into three categories; Concurrent, House and Senate. Those powers reserved to the House or Senate are known as Exclusive Powers. It is important you know which powers lie with each chamber, and which powers are shared between them.

Concurrent Powers:

  • Equal Legislative Power
  • Override Presidential Veto
  • Initiate Constitutional Amendments
  • Declarations of War
  • Confirm appointed Vice Presidents

Powers of the House

  • Initiate money bills (known as Power of the Purse)
  • Vote on Impeachment
  • Elect a President should the Electoral College deadlock

Powers of the Senate

  • Confirm Presidential appointments
  • Ratify Treaties
  • Try the accused in cases of impeachment
  • Elect the Vice President in the case of Electoral College deadlock

Further Reading and Study [See what bills are coming to the floor of the House]

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