Congress of the United States
Congress of the United States the legislature of the United States of America, established under the Constitution of 1789 and separated structurally from the executive and judicial branches of government. It consists of two houses, the Senate (q.v.), in which each state, regardless of its size, is represented by two senators, and the House of Representatives (see Representatives, House of), to which members are elected on the basis of population. Among the express powers of Congress as defined in the Constitution are the power to lay and collect taxes, borrow money on the credit of the United States, regulate commerce, coin money, declare war, raise and support armies, and make all laws necessary for the execution of its powers.
Although the two chambers of Congress are separate, for the most part, they have an equal role in the enactment of legislation, and there are several aspects of the business of Congress that the Senate and the House of Representatives share and that require common action. Congress must assemble at least once a year and must agree on the date for convening and adjourning. The date for convening was set in the Constitution as the first Monday in December; however, in the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution the date was changed to January 3. The date for adjournment is voted on by the House and the Senate.
Congress must also convene in a joint session to count the electoral votes for the president and vice-president. Although not required by the Constitution, joint sessions are also held when the president or some visiting dignitary addresses both houses.
Of common interest to both houses of Congress are also such matters as government printing, general accounting, and the congressional budget. Congress has established individual agencies to serve these specific interests. Other agencies, which are held directly responsible to Congress, include the Copyright Royalty Tribunal, the Botanic Garden, and the Library of Congress.
The term of Congress extends from each odd-numbered year to the next odd-numbered year. For its annual sessions, Congress developed the committee system to facilitate its consideration of the various items of business that arise. Each house of Congress has a number of standing (permanent) committees and select (special and temporary) committees. Together the two chambers of Congress form joint committees to consider subjects of common interest. Moreover, because no act of Congress is valid unless both houses approve an identical document, conference committees are formed to adjust disputed versions of legislation.
At the beginning of a session, the president delivers a State of the Union address, which describes in broad terms the legislative program that the president would like Congress to consider. Later, the president submits an annual budget message and the report on the economy prepared by the president's Council of Economic Advisors. Inasmuch as congressional committees require a period of time for preparing legislation before it is presented for general consideration, the legislative output of Congress may be rather small in the early weeks of a session. Legislation not enacted at the end of a session retains its status in the following session of the same two-year Congress.
In terms of legislation, the president may be considered a functioning part of the congressional process. The president is expected to keep Congress informed of the need for new legislation, and government departments and agencies are required to send Congress periodic reports of their activities. The president also submits certain types of treaties and nominations for the approval of the Senate. One of the most important legislative functions of the president, however, is that of signing or vetoing proposed legislation. The president's veto may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of each chamber of Congress; nevertheless, the influence of the president's potential power may extend to the procedures of Congress. The possibility that a bill may be vetoed gives the president some influence in determining what legislation Congress will consider initially and what amendments will be acceptable. In addition to these legal and constitutional powers, the president has influence as the leader of a political party; party policy both in Congress and among the electorate may be molded by the president.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has no direct relations with Congress, the Supreme Court's implied power to invalidate legislation that violates the constitution is an even stronger restriction on the powers of Congress than the presidential veto. Supreme Court and federal court decisions on the constitutionality of legislation outline the constitutional framework within which Congress can act.
Congress is also affected by representative interest groups, though they are not part of the formal structure of Congress. Lobbyists play a significant role in testifying before congressional hearings and in mobilizing opinion on select issues.
Many of the activities of Congress are not directly concerned with enacting laws, but the ability of Congress to enact law is often the sanction that makes its other actions effective. The general legal theory under which Congress operates is that legal authority is delegated to the president or executive departments and agencies and that the latter, in turn, are legally responsible for their actions. Congress may review any actions performed by a delegated authority; and in some areas of delegated legislation, such as in proposals for governmental reorganization, Congress must indicate approval of specific plans before they go into effect. Congress may also retain the right to terminate legislation by joint action of both houses.
Congress exercises general legal control over the employment of government personnel. Political control may also be exercised, particularly through the Senate's power to advise and consent to nominations. Neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives has any direct constitutional power to nominate or otherwise select executive or judicial personnel (although in the unusual event that the electoral college fails to select a president and vice-president, the two houses, respectively, are expected to do so). Furthermore, Congress does not customarily remove officials. Congress, however, does have the power of impeachment. In such proceedings the impeachment is made by the House of Representatives, and the case is tried before the Senate--a vote of two-thirds of the senators present is required for conviction.
The power to levy and collect taxes and to appropriate funds allows Congress considerable authority in fiscal matters. Although the president has the initial responsibility for determining the proposed level of appropriations, once estimates for the next fiscal year are submitted to Congress, a single budget bill is not enacted, but rather a number of appropriation bills for various departments and agencies are passed during the first six or seven months of a session.
In its nonlegislative capacity, Congress also has the power to initiate amendments to the Constitution, and it must determine whether the states should vote on a proposed amendment by state legislatures or by special state conventions. Finally, Congress has the right to investigate any subject that affects its powers. Congressional investigating committees may call witnesses and require them to produce information. These committees may also be given the power that persons who deliberately block the legislative process may be charged with contempt of Congress and may be issued warrants for their arrests.
Powers of Congress
Congress has no general legislative power such as is enjoyed by the British Parliament, and to a lesser degree by the legislatures of the American states; it has only such functions and authority as are expressly conferred on it by the Constitution or are implied in the Constitution. Many of the express powers are defined in Article I, Section 8. Among these are the power “to lay and collect taxes,” “borrow money on the credit of the United States,” “regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several States,” “coin money,” “establish post offices,” “declare war,” “raise and support armies,” and “make all laws” necessary for the execution of its own powers and “all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States.” This section also empowers Congress to administer the District of Columbia, which contains the seat of the federal government. Other express powers are conferred on Congress in other articles of the Constitution. Among the implied powers of Congress is the right to establish legislative machinery to give effect to its express powers.
In most respects the two houses of Congress have an equal role in the enactment of legislation, but a number of functions are reserved by the Constitution to each house. The confirmation of presidential appointments, by a simple majority of those voting, and the consent to treaties, by a two-thirds majority of those voting, is reserved to the Senate. The Senate also has “the sole power to try all impeachments,” which, however, may be initiated only by the House of Representatives. Only the House may initiate revenue bills.
Limitations and Restrictions
Important limitations on the powers vested in Congress are defined in Article I, Section 9, and in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. These limitations are primarily in the form of general prohibitions against the abridgment or destruction of fundamental rights.
Apart from these limitations and a number of others found or implied in parts of other articles of the Constitution, two general and important restrictions are placed on the powers of Congress: the presidential veto and the invalidation of legislation as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The veto power of the president is defined in Article I, Section 7. Every bill passed by Congress must be submitted to the president, who, according to the Constitution, has ten days in which to sign or veto the bill. If vetoed by the president, a bill cannot become law unless passed a second time and by a two-thirds majority of those voting in each house. If the president fails to act within ten days, the bill becomes law without the presidential signature, if Congress is in session. If Congress has adjourned in the interim, the bill lapses, and failure of the president to sign it is known as a pocket veto.
A stronger restriction than the presidential veto on the power of Congress is the power of the Supreme Court to invalidate legislation that violates the Constitution. Although not specifically vested with this power, the Supreme Court, in the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803, held for the first time that its right to invalidate legislation as unconstitutional was implied in the Constitution. With occasional exceptions, the power thus assumed by the Supreme Court has been honored ever since that time. The power of judicial review has, however, been used sparingly against Congress.
When the Supreme Court invalidates federal laws, Congress may redraft them, eliminating the provisions found objectionable by the Court. Or it may initiate an amendment to the Constitution, establishing its right to enact legislation of the type desired. In this way a Supreme Court decision, holding that a tax on income derived from property had to be apportioned among the states, led to the enactment of the 16th Amendment (1913), giving Congress the power to levy “taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States … ” It is also within the power of Congress to initiate a constitutional amendment depriving the Supreme Court of its power to invalidate legislation. Although an amendment of this type has been suggested as a means of increasing the power of Congress, none has been adopted.
Political Parties and Congress
Although not contemplated by the Founding Fathers and not provided for in the Constitution, political parties are important in the functioning of Congress. Party programs, policies, and interests influence the votes of members of Congress. All committees in both houses are composed of members of the majority and minority parties in proportion to their strength. Members of the majority party chair the committees. A majority and a minority leader in each house are chosen by caucuses of their respective fellow party members. As political leaders they are not, in that capacity, officers of Congress, but are influential in scheduling and shaping legislation and in determining the attitude of Congress toward the executive branch of the government.
The Constitution leaves to the states the right to fix “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives.” Each house, however, is the judge of the qualifications and fitness of its members and may punish and expel them for cause. Members of Congress cannot be sued for utterances made in Congress, and, while attending congressional sessions, senators and representatives also enjoy immunity from arrest, except in cases involving “treason, felony and breach of the peace.” Their remuneration is fixed by their respective house. Members of Congress are provided with offices and secretarial and clerical assistance; those who serve for six years or more are eligible to retire on annuity at the age of 62.
The term of a Congress extends from each odd-numbered year to the next odd-numbered year; the 1st Congress convened in 1789. The 20th Amendment, in effect since 1933, provides for an annual meeting of Congress, called a session, commencing on January 3, unless Congress itself designates another date. By terms of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (Public Law 601), Congress must adjourn its annual meeting sine die by July 31 at the latest, except in time of war or other national emergency, when the meeting may be extended by