Congress, United States

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CONGRESS, UNITED STATES. The principal institution of representative democracy in the United States, Congress is defined in the first and longest article of the Constitution. The Constitution vests all legislative power in the Senate and House of Representatives, requiring them to assemble at least once every year. The length of each Congress is two years, normally divided between a first and second session. The Constitution enumerates a list of congressional powers that include taxation, borrowing and coining money, regulation of foreign and interstate commerce, establishment of post offices and post roads, creating a court system, raising and supporting military forces, and declaring war. It further authorizes Congress to make all laws "necessary and proper" for exercising those powers.

Following American independence, the first national government under the Articles of Confederation (1781–1789) consisted of a unicameral Congress, in which each state had one vote. That Congress lacked the power to tax or to regulate commerce, nor could it compel the states to comply with its actions. Economic decline and civil unrest encouraged the states to send delegates in 1787 to a Constitutional Convention to devise a more effective central government. Seeking to make the government more powerful without allowing it to grow autocratic, they divided authority among executive, legislative, and judicial branches and further split the Congress into two houses. Through this system of checks and balances they prevented any single branch from gaining absolute power.

The Constitutional Convention deadlocked over the issue of representation in Congress. The Virginia Plan, supported by the larger states, would have set member-ship in both houses of Congress according to the size of a state's population. The New Jersey Plan, offered by the smaller states, would have preserved the equality of the states in congressional voting. A special committee then devised the Connecticut Compromise, or Great Compromise, which apportioned the House by population and gave all states, regardless of size, two senators. The Constitution further stipulated (in Article 5) that no state could lose its equal vote in the Senate without its consent.

During the public debate over the Constitution's ratification, opponents objected to the absence of a Bill of Rights. As a remedy, the First Congress proposed the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which among other things prohibited Congress from making any laws regarding freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the right to assemble peacefully and to petition the government (First Amendment). Powers not delegated to the national government were reserved to the states (Tenth Amendment).

House and Senate

When the new government commenced in 1789, members of the House of Representatives were the only federal officials people directly elected by the people. The Electoral College elected the president, while state legislatures chose senators. Representatives had to be twenty-five years or older, residents of their states, and citizens for at least seven years. Members of the House stood for election every two years. In the case of vacancies special elections would be held, since no one could be appointed to the House. The House elected a Speaker, who was initially a neutral presiding officer, although over time that position evolved into a powerful party leader. The larger size of the House (which began at sixty-five members and rose to 435) encouraged the development of rules to limit the time for debate, expedite business, and allow the majority party to exert its will.

With all House seats contested biannually, the framers of the Constitution expected that body to reflect the prevailing political mood. As a "necessary fence" against the "fickleness and passion" of public opinion, they assigned senators six-year terms, with only one-third of the Senate seats contested in any general election. Since two thirds of the senators remained through each election, the Senate defined itself as a "continuing body" that did not need to readopt its rules at the start of each new Congress. Senators had to be at least thirty years of age, residents of their states, and citizens for nine years. Elected by state legislatures, senators were envisioned as "ambassadors" of their states. As a smaller body, the Senate was expected to perfect legislation originating in the House and to serve as an advisory council to the president. The Constitution gave the Senate sole authority to advise and consent on treaties and nominations.

While the "upper house" in most parliamentary governments steadily lost power to the "lower house," the U.S. Senate remained equal with the House of Representatives. This was due in part to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which provided that the admission of each state permitting slavery would be balanced by the admission of a state that prohibited slavery. With the North and South equally divided in the Senate on this emotional issue, such leading members of the House as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun gravitated to the Senate, where debate centered in the tumultuous decades prior to the Civil War. Early in the twentieth century, when European reformers stripped upper houses of the power of the purse and of most of their ability to block legislation, Progressive reformers in the United States instead trusted the will of the people. The Seventeenth Amendment (1913) provided for direct election of senators, although reformers were deeply disappointed when voters reelected every incumbent senator running in 1914. The Senate survived the reform era with all of its powers intact and with the bonds between senators and citizens strengthened by the ballot.

Visiting Congress in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville contrasted the boisterous, "vulgar demeanor" of the House with the sedate decorum and elegant orations of the Senate. He assumed that the Senate drew a better class of legislators; however, Thomas Hart Benton, who represented Missouri in both bodies, pointed out that most senators had previously served in the House. The different ethos of the two bodies reflected their contrasting sizes and rules of procedure. Since the Constitution authorized each house to set its own rules and elect its own officers, the rules and procedures of the two houses evolved differently. The larger House debates under specific rules that determine how many amendments to a bill may be considered and for how long. It can further expedite business by suspending the regular order and operating as a Committee of the Whole, a legislative strategy that the smaller Senate does not employ. The Senate allows for "unlimited debate" and generally does not restrict the number of amendments that senators may offer or require those amendments to be germane to the bill. Senate leaders can seek unanimous consent agreements to establish parameters for floor debates, but the objection of a single senator can prevent adoption of such agreements. The extreme version of unlimited debate is the filibuster. Taken from the Dutch word for pirate, filibusters use extensive speeches and other delaying tactics to hold the floor and prevent the majority from calling for a vote.

Apportionment also accounted for differences between the Senate and the House. By the end of the twentieth century, California, with a population of more than 30 million, elected fifty-two members of the House, while Wyoming, with less than 500,000 residents, had one representative. Yet California and Wyoming each had two senators. Since a majority of the senators represent a minority of the population, the Senate does not operate as a "majoritarian" body. Senate rules and procedures require a supermajority of three-fifths of the senators to vote cloture and cut off filibuster, and they tolerate "holds" by individual senators that can delay votes on bills and nominations.

The Constitution does not require Congress to conduct its business in public. When the First Congress convened in 1789, representatives, who would face voters again in two years, immediately threw open their doors to the public and the press. The first Senate chamber, by contrast, had no public gallery. Senators conducted all business in closed sessions for five years. Even after admitting the public to its legislative debates, the Senate debated and voted on executive business—treaties and nominations—in closed session until 1929. The trend toward legislative openness continued with the enactment of "sunshine" rules in the 1970s that required committees to conduct most business in public view. The Constitution also required each house of Congress to publish a journal of its proceedings. The journals consist of minutes and recorded votes. The verbatim accounts of speeches and floor debates that appear daily in the Congressional Record, however, evolved from notes recorded and published by various newspapers. Congress eventually hired its own reporters of debate and since 1873 has published the Congressional Record. Congress also publishes most of the hearings and reports of its committees and the text of all bills and resolutions.

Congressional Leadership

While the Constitution provided for a Speaker of the House and made the vice president the presiding officer of the Senate, it made no mention of political parties or majority and minority leaders. When members of Congress divided into parties, they established party caucuses or conferences that made committee assignments and steering committees that decided the order of legislative business. The larger House began electing party floor leadership by the mid-nineteenth century. The Senate resisted formally designated leadership until the 1920s. Senate rules and precedents give party leaders few specific powers. The Senate Majority Leader controls the Senate calendar, determining what bills to call up for debate and in what order. Party leaders also have the right of "first recognition," meaning that the presiding officer will call on them before other senators. Otherwise, as Lyndon B. Johnson observed, a majority leader's chief power is the "power of persuasion."

To handle specific legislative tasks, the House and Senate at first elected a stream of ad hoc committees. By 1816 the need for sustained expertise on the myriad of legislative issues caused them to establish standing committees. House and Senate rules set the jurisdictions of these committees and the number of committees on which members could serve. The party conferences appoint members to the standing committees, where they advance via seniority to chairmanships. By the late nineteenth century, the committee chairs had amassed such power over the legislative agendas that they were called "barons." Chairmen could bottle up legislation, refusing to allow bills they opposed to be reported to the floor. Changes in the rules during the 1970s diminished that power and gave other committee members greater voice in matters of staff and agenda. The most influential committees have traditionally been the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, which raise revenue through tariffs and taxation, and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, which authorize all federal funding. Through its "power of the purse" Congress exerts its greatest influence over the executive branch, which can spend nothing without congressional approval.

Congressional committees conduct oversight hearings over the activities of executive agencies and investigate corruption, mismanagement, scandal, and sedition. Congressional investigations date back to 1792, when the House inquired into a military defeat in the Northwest Territory. Other major investigations reviewed the CrÉ-dit Mobilier scandal (1872), Teapot Dome (1923–1924), the Army-McCarthy hearings (1954), Watergate (1973–1974), and Iran-Contra (1987). Most investigations targeted government agencies and officials, but in McGrain v. Daugherty (1927) the Supreme Court ruled that even private citizens could be subpoenaed to testify before congressional committees. Sinclair v. United States (1929) further recognized Congress's right to investigate, whether or not it led to the enactment of any new laws. But the anticommunist investigations of the 1940s and 1950s raised questions about the abuse of witnesses. In Watkins v. United States (1957) the Supreme Court found the investigative powers of Congress subject to the limitations imposed by the Bill of Rights. Successful congressional investigations have required persistence, diligence, sharp questioning, and the ability to focus media attention on the issues under investigation.

Since 1800 Congress has met in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Starting as a small sandstone structure that housed the Senate, House, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress, the Capitol expanded along with the nation. The admission of new states to the union required the construction of massive wings on the Capitol in the 1850s to accommodate larger chambers, and the increased space permitted congressional commit-tees to hire their first clerks. Construction of the first House and Senate office buildings in 1906 and 1909 made room for members to hire personal staffs. Staff sizes remained small until the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 established professional staffs for committees and authorized members to hire administrative assistants. The rapid expansion of both legislative business and staff required construction of a complex of House and Senate office buildings and other support networks on Capitol Hill. Congress's ability to hire its own staff reduced its reliance on the expertise of cabinet agencies, especially after legislators grew suspicious of the executive branch during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Congress eventually amassed the largest legislative staff in the world. Many new members of Congress now come to office with previous experience on the staff.

An Open Branch of Government

Under the "speech and debate" provision of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 6), members of Congress may not be prevented from attending a session or be subject to prosecution for libel or slander regarding anything that they say in Congress. But each house of Congress has the power to punish its own members for disorderly behavior. The House and Senate find it painful to discipline colleagues and would prefer for the voters to judge members' ethics. However, pressure from the press and public, as well as internal outrage, have periodically required Congress to censure or expel some of its members. The House or Senate may censure a member by a simple majority vote. Although censure carries no specific punishment, it is still a severe rebuke in a collegial body. Censured members rarely win reelection. Expulsion requires a two-thirds vote and is generally reserved for cases of treason or for conviction of a crime. The House, by a majority vote, may vote to impeach presidents, judges, and other federal officials. The Senate then sits as a court (with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding at presidential impeachment trials) and may remove that official from office by a two-thirds vote. Presidential impeachment trials of Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999 both resulted in acquittal.

Congress has long operated as the most open branch of government, inviting the public to view its proceedings and establishing press galleries for the media. The Senate authorized the first press gallery in 1841, sixty years before the White House opened a press room. By 1880 both the House and Senate had turned over control of the press galleries to Standing Committees of Correspondents, which reporters themselves elect and which judge applications for press accreditation. Resistance from newspaper correspondents to admitting reporters for other media led Congress to establish separate press galleries for radio and television, periodical press, and press photographers. Congress has regularly employed the newest means of communication to maintain contact with its constituents. The first telegraphic news emanated from the Capitol in 1844. Committee hearings have been broadcast on radio and television, and since 1979 and 1986 the House and Senate respectively have permitted gavel-to-gavel TV coverage of their floor proceedings on C-SPAN (the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network).

Despite these efforts to accommodate the press, presidents have tended to overshadow Congress in attracting media attention. The Cold War vastly increased presidential power and prestige, sharply reducing congressional influence over foreign policy. The adoption of a bipartisan foreign policy and the idea that "politics stops at the water's edge" further ceded authority to presidents, who sent troops into combat without requesting formal declarations of war. Presidents argued that they were better equipped to make decisions about war and peace than were "535 secretaries of state" in Congress. The Vietnam War disrupted bipartisan foreign policy, and the rise of an "imperial presidency" that could impound appropriated funds and ignore public protests over military escalations led Congress to reassert itself. Over presidential vetoes Congress passed the War Powers Act (1973) and Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act (1974).

At the same time the Senate also increased its scrutiny of presidential nominations. While senators have rejected only a tiny percentage of all cabinet nominations, believing that presidents deserve their own advisers, they have voted down a higher percentage of Supreme Court nominations, due to the justices' lifetime appointments and the independence of the judiciary. Some have argued that the Senate should restrict itself to examining a nominee's personal integrity and competence, but some nominees have been rejected because of political differences between the president and the Senate majority, as well as because of ideology, personal character, and offensive behavior. If senators from the nominee's home state object to the nomination, other senators generally support them out of "senatorial courtesy," a system that gives senators leverage over the appointment of judges, U.S. attorneys, federal marshals, and other positions in their states.

To enact legislation, both the House and Senate must pass a bill in the same language. If they produce different versions of the bill, they appoint a conference committee to reach a compromise. Each house must then pass the conference report "up or down," with no further amendments. If the president vetoes the bill, Congress may override that veto by a two-thirds vote in each house. Since 1803 the Supreme Court has claimed the right of judicial review and has declared various acts of Congress unconstitutional. These checks and balances mean that only a fraction of the many bills introduced in each session of Congress will ever become law. A bill will often require many years to make its way successfully to enactment. As cumbersome and frustrating as the process has seemed to activist presidents and reformers of all ideological hues, it reflects the original division of powers that the framers of the Constitution devised. Voters have regularly reinforced those divisions by electing presidents and congressional majorities from different parties, increasing the likeliness of legislative gridlock.

An institution of many contradictions, Congress has sought to balance local interests with national needs. Its members work for consensus legislation, but their individual success depends as much upon maintaining their relations with voters in their districts and states as upon their accomplishments in Washington. As a result, the conflicting demands of lawmaking and representation have often resulted in a low public opinion of the legislative branch as a whole but a high reelection rate of individual members.


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Binder, Sarah A., and Steven S. Smith. Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1997.

Currie, James T. The United States House of Representatives. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1988.

Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. Congress and Its Members. 7th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2000.

Fisher, Louis. The Politics of Shared Power: Congress and the Executive. 4th ed. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1998.

Ornstein, Norman J., Thomas E. Mann, and Michael J. Malbin. Vital Statistics on Congress. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 2000.

Peters, Ronald M., Jr. The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Ritchie, Donald A. The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Donald A.Ritchie

See alsoChecks and Balances ; Confirmation by the Senate ; Constitution of the United States ; District, Congressional ; Federal Government ; Proportional Representation ; Representation ; Rules of the House ; Separation of Powers Steering Committees ; Two-Party System ; andvol. 9:Congress Debates the Fourteenth Amendment .

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