Daily Operations of the Legislative Branch

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Daily Operations of the Legislative Branch

Congress is the legislative branch of the government of the United States of America. The legislature is the branch that makes the laws. Congress has two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House has 435 representatives, one from each of 435 districts in the United States. The Senate has one hundred senators, two from each of America's fifty states.

Making laws is one of the things that representatives and senators do daily, but it is not the only thing. Members of Congress meet with lobbyists, people working for businesses or interest groups that want Congress to pass certain laws. They also work on the national budget, America's plan for raising money through taxes and spending it on governmental programs. Members of Congress do casework, helping voters from their districts or states with governmental problems. They also spend time campaigning for reelection. Finally, Congress operates miscellaneous offices, such as the Library of Congress, that perform services for the government.


Before Congress can propose a law, the idea for the law needs to come from somewhere. Sometimes the legislators in Congress propose the idea, and other times the president of the United States does. The legislators and the president often get their ideas from business leaders, lobbyists, and private interest groups.

Lobbyists are people who work for private interests to get favorable legislation passed in Congress. Private interests can be single entities, such as a defense contractor, or an organization that represents many people or groups, such as People For the American Way, a group that advocates a diverse democratic society. The word "lobbyist" comes from the fact that they spend a great deal of time in the halls and lobbies of Congress, meeting with members and congressional staffers. According to Walter E. Volkomer in American Government, the term was first used in Great Britain to describe journalists waiting to meet with legislators in the lobbies of the House of Commons, a chamber of the British legislature.

Many of the lobbyists in Washington, D.C., represent business interests. According to Michael Parenti in Democracyfor the Few, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) once said:

Suppose you go to Washington and try to get at your Government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the big stake—the big bankers, the big manufacturers, and the big masters of commerce. . . . The masters of the Government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States.

Lobbyists help members of Congress analyze how their votes on particular bills will affect their chances to be reelected. They also analyze the chances that different bills, or proposed laws, have of passing Congress. Lobbyists supply members of Congress with information concerning the subject matter of congressional bills. When congressional committees hold hearings, lobbyists testify, or speak, before the committees in an effort to influence the passing of a law their clients want.

Washington, District of Columbia

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress control over the seat of government of the United States of America. Since 1801 that seat has been the city of Washington, District of Columbia.

Throughout the capital city's history, Congress has created the laws for the District of Columbia through committees. As of 2005, this responsibility rests in the House Government Reform Committee, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and the District of Columbia Appropriations Subcommittees of both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

The residents of the District of Columbia pay taxes to the federal government. They do not, however, have voting members in Congress. Over the years, this "taxation without representation" has resulted in movements for giving the District of Columbia voting representation in Congress.

In 1871, Congress passed a law giving the District of Columbia a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. This delegate, Norton P. Chipman (1834–1924), was allowed to represent the District's interests in House committees and on the House floor, but was not allowed to vote on any bills or other issues before Congress. The delegate position lasted only four years, until 1875, when Congress changed the form of government in the District of Columbia and ended the delegate position.

In 1970, Congress passed a law to revive the position of nonvoting delegate in the House. The residents of the District of Columbia get to elect the delegate. Walter E. Fauntroy (1933–) held this position from 1971 to 1991. He was succeeded by Eleanor Holmes Norton (1937–), who, as of 2005, remained in the seat. In 2001, 2003, and 2005, Norton introduced a bill called the "No Taxation Without Representation Act." (U.S. senator Joseph Lieberman [1942–] of Connecticut did the same on the Senate side.) If passed, the bill would give the District of Columbia voting members in both the House and the Senate. According to a national poll in 2005, 82 percent of Americans support voting rights in Congress for the District of Columbia.

Opposition to "taxation without representation" is not the only reason some people want the District of Columbia to have voting representatives in Congress. Since the Constitution gives Congress the power to make the laws for the capital city, voting representation would give the residents more say in the city's laws and daily government affairs. This is called the "home rule" issue, because it concerns whether the residents of the capital city have control over their local government.

In 1802, Congress passed a law for the District of Columbia to be governed by a mayor appointed by the president of the United States. From 1802 to 1967, the ability of the residents of the capital city to elect their local officials varied with different congressional laws. According to the Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the Congress of the United States, many members of Congress, particularly from the south, did not want to give home rule to the District because most of its residents were African Americans.

In 1967, Congress passed yet another law. This one provided for the District to be governed by a mayor and council composed of nine people. In 1973, Congress expanded the council to thirteen members and gave the residents the right to elect both the mayor and council members.

As of 2005, the mayor, council, and many local agencies do most of the day-to-day work of governing the city. Congress, however, still has the power to approve the city's annual budget and to pass, change, or abolish any laws it wants for the District. Meanwhile, capital city residents still have no voting power in Congress. Since adoption of the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution in 1961, however, citizens of the District of Columbia have been allowed to vote in presidential elections.

According to Parenti, "Lobbyists make themselves so helpful that members of Congress sometimes rely on them to perform tasks normally done by congressional staffs. Lobbyists will draft legislation, write speeches, and plant stories in the press on behalf of cooperative lawmakers."

Lobbyists also help members of Congress through campaign contributions from the interest groups the lobbyists represent. Businesspeople regularly donate money to individual legislators and political parties who work for favorable legislation. Because it is illegal for corporations to donate money directly to a congressional campaign, businesses create political action committees, called PACs. Corporations use the PACs to raise money from corporate executives and other contributors for donation to members of Congress. Labor unions, which represent workers, use PACs to raise money for politicians, too.

There are many nonbusiness interest groups that hire lobbyists. Environmental, religious, and other organizations hire lobbyists to represent their general interests. Many single-issue organizations hire lobbyists, too, such as groups that support or oppose abortion and reproductive rights.

According to Jack Anderson in "Lobbyists: The Unelected Lawmakers in Washington," Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill (1912–1994) once said, "The grab of special interests is staggering. It will destroy the legislative process." Many Americans, like O'Neill, believe PACs allow financial contributors to have too much control over congressional policy. Others believe PACs allow people and businesses to avoid campaign finance restrictions by using complicated financial maneuvers. For example, in early 2005, U.S. representative Tom DeLay of Texas faced charges that he ran corporate contributions through the Republican Party's national organization and then back to individual races for the state House of Representatives in Texas. Under Texas law, it was illegal for corporate contributions to help state legislative candidates.

Supporters of PACs say the First Amendment freedom of speech protects the right to influence government by supporting politicians and political causes with financial contributions.

Enacting legislation

On September 29, 1789, President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) signed the first appropriations law for the United States of America. An appropriations law gives money to a particular government program. The law President Washington signed that September was only a few lines long. It provided $568,000 for government salaries, the Department of War, the Department of the Treasury, and pensions.

The lawmaking process has grown more complicated and specialized since then. It begins when a representative or senator introduces a bill in either the House or the Senate. From there, the bill is assigned to a House or Senate committee for consideration. If the committee sends the bill back to the House or Senate, the representatives or senators debate, or discuss, the bill and then vote on it.

If a bill passes both the House and the Senate by simple majorities, it goes to the president of the United States for consideration. If the president signs it, the bill becomes law. If the president vetoes, or rejects, the bill, it does not become law unless two-thirds of both chambers of Congress vote to override the president's veto.

Introduction of a bill

A bill is a draft of a proposed law. Any senator or representative can introduce a bill into his or her chamber of Congress. Senators introduce bills in the Senate by sending them to the Senate desk on the Senate floor. Representatives introduce bills by putting them in a hopper, a mahogany box, on the House floor.

The president of the United States cannot introduce bills into Congress. The president, however, is the source of many bills introduced by senators and representatives. Every year in January, the president delivers a State of the Union address to Congress. The president is required to give the address under Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution. Part of the address describes what laws the president would like Congress to enact in the upcoming year. People who work for the president in the executive branch draft many bills for these proposed laws, and members of Congress who favor the president's proposals introduce the bills into the House or Senate.

Each year, of the thousands of bills introduced in the House and the Senate, only hundreds make it through the legislative process to become laws.

Committee consideration

President Woodrow Wilson once said, "Congress in session is Congress on exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work," according to the authors of The Challenge of Democracy. The most important committees in both chambers of Congress are called standing committees, or permanent committees. Standing committees cover the major areas of government. Examples include the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary Committees in the Senate, and the Agriculture, Science, and Small Business Committees in the House. As of 2005, the Senate had sixteen standing committees, and the House had nineteen. Most standing committees have subcommittees that handle specific portions of the committee's area of concern.

Committees are like miniature chambers of Congress. Each senator and representative gets to serve on a small number of committees and subcommittees. The majority party, the political party with the most members in the House or Senate, gets to have the most members on each committee and subcommittee. The chair, or head, of each committee is always from the majority party. The minority party, the party with the second most members in each chamber, is allotted fewer members on each committee than the majority party. This way, the majority party controls each committee just as it controls the entire House or Senate.

After a bill is introduced into Congress, the next step is for it to be sent to a committee for consideration. The majority party in each chamber gets to decide which committees get which bills. Sometimes a bill is sent to more than one committee.

When a bill reaches a committee, the committee first decides whether it wants to consider it. The vast majority of bills get tabled, or set aside, dying without consideration. The rest of the bills are studied, usually by a subcommittee.

Standing Committees in the House and Senate, 108th Congress (2003–5)

House Committees: Agriculture; Appropriations; Armed Services; Budget; Education and the Workforce; Energy and Commerce; Financial Services; Government Reform; House Administration; International Relations; Judiciary; Resources; Rules; Science; Small Business; Standards of Official Conduct; Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans Affairs; and Ways and Means

Senate Committees: Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Appropriations; Armed Services; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; Finance; Foreign Relations; Governmental Affairs; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Judiciary; Rules and Administration; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and Veterans Affairs

When a subcommittee gets a bill, it uses its staff to study and research the bill to decide whether Congress should enact it. If the bill is particularly important, the subcommittee might hold hearings on it. Hearings allow the subcommittee to collect testimony on whether and why Congress should enact the bill, what the bill should accomplish, and how the bill should be written. Hearings feature testimony by experts, officials from federal agencies, lobbyists, and other people interested in the legislation. The subcommittee can rewrite the bill and decide whether to report it, or send it, to the main committee for a vote.

Iron Triangles

Members of Congress do much of their legislative work in committees. Each committee is devoted to one or more areas of government, such as commerce or the military. A committee usually has many subcommittees, which are smaller committees devoted to a specific area of government for which the committee is generally responsible.

Starting in the 1950s, congressional committee work depended largely on relationships called iron triangles. An iron triangle was a relationship between a specific congressional committee or subcommittee, an agency in the executive branch of government, and private interest groups, all of which specialized in a particular area of government. Burdett A. Loomis described an iron triangle for sugar in The Contemporary Congress:

In the 1950s, . . . sugar interests worked with the appropriate Agriculture Committee subcommittees in the House and the Senate and the relevant U.S. Department of Agriculture officials to maintain domestic sugar prices that were consistently several times higher than those in world markets. By the 1960s, various interests began to challenge the tidy, profitable sugar subsystem. Consumer and environmental groups, among others, began to influence agricultural policies. In 1974, the sugar triangle broke apart, as the subcommittee could not maintain control over the price support policies. Subsequently, however, sugar interests succeeded in lobbying a broad mix of legislators to reconstruct a similar marketing that continues to fix U.S. prices at a considerably higher level than elsewhere in the world.

The number of private interest groups working through lobbyists in Washington, D.C., has grown tremendously since the 1950s. According to Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey Berry, and Jerry Goldman in The Challenge of Democracy in 1997, "The explosion in the number of interest groups and the growth of government and overlapping jurisdictions [areas of responsibility] put an end to iron triangles." These authors explain that iron triangles have been replaced by issue networks—large, informal groups made up of members of Congress, committee staffers, agency officials, lobbyists, and others who specialize in specific government issues. Because the growing numbers of interest groups and agency regulators are competing for a fixed amount of government dollars, these authors say issue networks have much more conflict than iron triangles had.

When the main committee gets a bill back, it can conduct research and hold hearings just like the subcommittee did. Committee hearings used to be closed to the public, but are now usually open since the House changed its rules in the 1990s. A committee considers a bill line-by-line and creates a report on why the bill is important. Committee members opposed to the bill can include their concerns in the report. Then the committee votes on the bill. If the vote is against the bill, it dies in the committee. If the vote is in favor of the bill, it goes back to the House or Senate.


If a Senate committee votes in favor of a bill, the bill goes to the full Senate, where it is placed on a calendar. The Senate consider smost bills in the order in which they appear on the calendar. The leaders of the parties in the Senate, called the majority leader and minority leader, work together to arrange a time for debating the bill. They also set limitations on what kinds of amendments, or changes, senators can offer for the bill on the Senate floor. Their agreement on debate and amendments is called unanimous consent, because the entire Senate must approve it.

If a House committee votes in favor of a bill, the bill goes to the full House, where it is placed on one of various House calendars. If the bill is an appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee works with the Speaker of the House and the House majority leader to set the time for debate. If the bill is not an appropriations bill, the House Rules Committee gets to set the time for debate and to decide what kinds of amendments representatives can offer on the floor. The House has complicated rules for determining the order in which it considers bills from its various calendars.

Floor procedure

Debate is a chance for members of Congress to show their supporters, both voters and private interest groups, how hard they are working for them. When it is time to debate a bill, the House follows the arrangement worked out by the House Rules Committee. The House has strict rules governing who may speak on a bill and for how much time.

Debate in the Senate is not restricted as much as in the House. In fact, a senator can normally speak for as long as desired about a particular bill. This occasionally results in a filibuster, which happens when one or more senators speak for a long time so that the time for considering a bill runs out before a vote is taken. A successful filibuster kills a bill before the full Senate gets to vote on it. The longest filibuster on record was by U.S. senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke against civil rights legislation for 24 hours, 18 minutes, on August 28–29, 1957.

Beginning in 1917, the Senate adopted a cloture rule, which is a way to end a filibuster. (The word comes from the alteration of a French word meaning "closure.") Under the cloture rule as of 2005, three-fifths of the Senate, or sixty senators, can bring a filibuster to an end by voting for cloture.

When debate has ended in either the House or the Senate, the senators and representatives who are present vote on the bill under consideration. To pass one chamber, the bill must receive a simple majority of votes. This means that in the House, at least 218 of the 435 representatives must vote in favor of a bill to pass it. In the Senate, fifty-one senators (or fifty senators and the vice president of the United States) must vote in favor of a bill to pass it. When the Senate is split 50-50, the vice president of the United States gets to cast the tie-breaking vote as president of the Senate under Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution.

If only one chamber of Congress passes a bill, it dies there. If both chambers pass identical versions of the same bill, it goes to the president of the United States for consideration. If the House and Senate pass different versions of the same bill, the two bills go to a congressional conference committee.

Conference committees

When the House and Senate have different versions of the same bill, they usually work out the differences informally. Often the chairs, or heads, of the committees that wrote the bills meet to agree on a single, identical version.

If the bill is very important or controversial, meaning there is a lot of disagreement, the two chambers may pass their own versions and then send them to a conference committee. About 20 percent of all bills that pass Congress go through conference committees.

Conference committees have members from both the House and Senate, usually between three and nine altogether. The Speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate appoint the conference committee members with advice from the chairs of the committees that wrote the bills. The Speaker and Senate majority leader normally appoint members from the very committees that wrote the bills being sent to conference.

Members of a conference committee meet to work out the differences in the House and Senate bills. If a majority of the committee can agree on a single version of the bill, that version goes to the House and Senate with a conference report. The report explains the version that the committee agreed upon. The House and Senate then vote on that version. They are not allowed to make any changes to it.

If both chambers pass the conference committee's bill by simple majorities, it goes to the president of the United States for consideration. If the bill fails to pass in both chambers, it either dies or can be sent back to the conference committee for further work.

Presidential consideration

When both chambers of Congress pass a bill, it is signed by the president of the Senate (the vice president of the United States) and by the Speaker of the House. The bill then goes to the president of the United States for consideration. If the president signs the bill, it becomes law.

The president, however, can veto, or reject, a bill by sending it back to Congress with reasons for the veto. This is called a return veto. If the president vetoes a bill, it does not become law unless Congress votes to override the president's veto. For a bill to become law despite a president's veto, two-thirds of both the House and Senate must vote for the bill in the override vote. According to a study in 2004, prior to 1969, Congress overrode one out of every eighteen return vetoes. Since 1969, Congress has overridden one out of every five return vetoes. As of 2005, the most recent override happened in February 1998, when Congress overrode a veto from President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) of a bill for funding thirty-eight military construction projects.

Committee work

Drafting legislation is not the only work members of Congress do in committees. Standing committees do oversight work, select committees investigate specific issues, and joint committees handle matters that require action by both chambers of Congress.

Legislative oversight

Many congressional laws concern the operation of federal departments and agencies. Departments and agencies are offices that administer programs for a specific area of government. The Department of Agriculture, for example, administers federal programs for American agribusinesses and farmers. The Central Intelligence Agency collects intelligence (information) concerning national security, or safety.

Most departments and agencies function in the executive branch of the federal government, under the president of the United States. Congress and its standing committees, however, are responsible for the legislation concerning these departments and agencies. To make sure the departments and agencies are working properly, the standing committees of Congress engage in oversight work.

Oversight work can take many forms. Committee members and their staffs often meet informally with agency officials to learn how things are going and to discuss specific problems. A committee might require a department to provide a report about an area of concern. If a department or agency is having a major problem, the committee can hold formal hearings to investigate the situation.

Oversight work can lead to correction of a problem by the department or agency. It also can result in new legislation to change the way a department or agency works or is funded.

Select committees

Select committees, also called special committees, are committees that the House and Senate create, individually, to investigate specific issues. Select committees are usually temporary instead of permanent.

Select committees can investigate governmental problems. In 1987, for example, both chambers of Congress created select committees to investigate the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89), which sold weapons to Iran and used the money illegally to provide weapons to rebels fighting the government in Nicaragua. After the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001, the House created the Select Committee on Homeland Security to develop government policies regarding homeland safety in America and to oversee homeland safety activities in the executive branch. It became a standing committee in January 2005.

The chambers of Congress also use select committees to investigate new areas of legislation. Usually, however, select committees cannot receive bills that are introduced into Congress for consideration or send bills to Congress for a vote.

Joint committees

Joint committees are committees that both chambers of Congress create together. These committees usually conduct research and provide Congress with information. The Joint Economic Committee, for example, studies and provides information on the nation's economy. The Joint Committee on Taxation studies and provides information on the tax effects of America's laws and policies. As with select committees, joint committees usually cannot receive bills from Congress for consideration or send bills to Congress for a vote.

The national budget

The national budget is the plan for how America is going to raise and spend money each year. The Constitution gives Congress the power to raise money through taxes and debt, or borrowing, and to decide how to spend it. Under this authority, Congress had primary responsibility for preparing the national budget each year until 1921.

In 1921, Congress passed the Budgeting and Accounting Act, or BAA. The BAA gave the president of the United States the job of preparing an initial budget plan each year. It also created the Bureau of the Budget, a governmental office for helping the president prepare the annual budget. (In 1970, the Bureau of the Budget was renamed the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB.)

Even after 1921, Congress retained the constitutional power to pass the final budget each year in tax and spending laws. The president's power under the BAA, however, made it hard for Congress to change the president's annual budget plan very much. So in 1974, Congress passed another law, called the Budget and Impoundment Control Act, or BICA. This act created standing budget committees in both chambers of Congress. It also created the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). CBO helps Congress with the budget process just as OMB helps the president.

To give Congress more control over the federal budget, BICA established a schedule for the process. It made the government's official budget planning year, or fiscal year, the period that runs from October 1 through the following September 30. Each year by the first Monday in February, the president must present the administration's proposed budget for the upcoming October through September cycle. With assistance from OMB, the president prepares the proposal with budget requests from the various government departments and agencies.

In February, the budget committees of both chambers of Congress begin studying the president's proposal with assistance from the CBO. By spring, the budget committees prepare their own proposal for overall government revenue, debt, and spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year. Congress's standing committees then work on budgets for their areas of concern using the budget committees's spring resolutions as a guide.

For the revenue side of the budget, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee work on laws pertaining to taxes and other sources of income.

Authorization committees in the various standing committees prepare bills for appropriating, or giving, money to mandatory government programs. A mandatory program is one that must be funded under the law. As of 2005, mandatory spending covers about two-thirds of the annual federal budget.

Finally, the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate work on thirteen bills assigning discretionary money to the various government departments and agencies. Discretionary money covers programs that are not mandatory, or required, but that Congress chooses to fund. For example, Congress might decide to give money to the Department of Defense for new bomber aircraft. The thirteen bills drafted by the Appropriations Committees cover thirteen broad areas of government.

During the whole process, members of Congress and their staffs meet with the president and the president's staff to negotiate deals on how the final budget will look. If all goes according to plan, which it usually does not, Congress passes the budget in the form of the mandatory appropriations bills and the thirteen discretionary appropriations bills by October 1. If some of the bills are not passed by then, Congress has to pass temporary laws to provide money to keep the government running until all the appropriations bills pass.


Members of Congress and their staffs spend lots of time on casework, helping constituents with personal governmental problems. Constituents are the people whom a member of Congress represents. A senator's constituents are the residents of the senator's entire state. A representative's constituents are the residents of the congressional district for which the representative was elected. Each congressional district has an average of about six hundred thousand residents.

Constituents ask members of Congress for help with a variety of governmental issues. Some might be having trouble getting a refund from the Internal Revenue Service, which


Representatives are elected to the House from districts, or sections, that are created in each state. Districts are supposed to be formed fairly so that they do not give any political party an advantage in elections. History, however, includes many examples of districts that were shaped unfairly to crowd voters from a state's weaker political party into fewer districts.

One of the most popular examples of such an occurrence is named for Governor Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) of Massachusetts. In 1812, Gerry signed a law creating new districts in Massachusetts for election to the state senate. The law shaped the districts so that Elbridge's party, the Democratic-Republicans, would control most of the districts, while the Federalist Party would control fewer.

Crowding Federalist Party voters into fewer districts had a curious result. On a map, the outline of one of the districts looked like the shape of a lizard. The shape reminded cartoonist Elkanah Tisdale of a salamander. In a political cartoon in the Boston Gazette, Tisdale called the district a "Gerry-mander."

"Gerrymandering" became a term for the strategy of shaping election districts for political advantage. America's most infamous example of gerrymandering may be the "shoestring" district in Mississippi. This district crowded African American voters into a district that looped like a lazy shoestring, stretching 300 miles long and only 20 miles wide.

Gerrymandering took an interesting turn after the census of 1990, which counted and assessed the makeup of the population of America. States used the census to create new district boundaries, an issue they reconsider each decade after the new federal census comes out. Many of the new districts specifically gave African Americans and Latino Americans a majority of votes to allow them to elect members to Congress. The result was that fifty-eight minorities won election to the House in 1992, up from thirty-eight in 1990.

The new districts, however, faced challenges in the federal court system. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandering done to favor racial groups violates the Constitution. Political gerrymandering continues, however, becauseit is possible to create districts that look fair but still give major parties a political advantage.

collects federal income taxes. Others might be having trouble getting a passport from the Department of State for traveling to foreign countries. Senators and representatives help constituents by talking to people in the appropriate government offices to try to resolve such problems. According to Mark Roelofs in The Poverty of American Politics, one estimate says members of Congress spend 80 percent of their time on casework.

Doing casework for constituents is part of building support for reelection. When Congress is in session, the members are usually in committee meetings and on the floor of Congress from Tuesday through Thursday. The rest of the week they fly back to their home states or districts to make public appearances, meet with constituents, campaign for reelection, and pay attention to casework. According to Walter E. Volkomer in American Government, when U.S. representative Gary Ackerman (1942–) of New York was asked how important casework is, he said, "About second to breathing."


Campaigning is not technically part of the job for senators and representatives. They are paid to make laws, not to run for reelection. Campaigning, however, consumes a lot of time for members of Congress.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the entire House of Representatives is up for election every two years. This means representatives who want to serve more than one term have to begin working on reelection campaigns soon after taking office. Representatives who make careers out of working in the House have reelection campaigns working all the time.

Senators face reelection every six years. This means they do not have to spend quite as much time on reelection campaigns as representatives do. The Senate seats are divided into three groups for election purposes. Every two years, when the entire House is up for election, one group of Senate seats faces reelection, so there are always some members of the Senate working on reelection.

The first thing members of Congress must do to get reelected is raise lots of money. In 2000, winning candidates in the House spent an average of about $636,000 on their campaigns. Winning senators spent an average of $5.6 million.

The money for campaigns comes from many sources. Candidates can spend as much of their own money as they want to get elected, which means that wealthy people often have an advantage over candidates who are not as financially endowed. The rest of the money raised during campaigns comes from donations, mostly from political action committees (PACs) and individual citizens.

PACs are organizations that businesses and other groups form for collecting money for donation to political candidates. Members of Congress usually get more donations from PACs than their challengers get. This is because members of Congress can already pass laws favorable to the businesses and organizations that make PAC donations.

In addition to raising money, campaigning involves making public appearances, visiting with voters, creating media advertising campaigns, debating challengers, and appearing on the evening news whenever possible. Name recognition goes a long way toward winning an election.

Statistics show that members of the House who run for reelection win about 90 percent of the time. Senators who run for reelection win most of the time too, but less frequently than members of the House. This is because senators have to win support from an entire state. Representatives only have to win support from a district of about six hundred thousand people, and these districts are usually drawn to favor one of the major political parties, the Republicans or the Democrats.

Miscellaneous offices

Congress has miscellaneous offices that support the lawmaking process or serve another governmental function. One of the most well known is the Library of Congress. President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) and Congress created the Library by law in 1800. In 1801, it received its first collection of materials, 740 books and 3 maps ordered from London.

In 1814, during the War of 1812 (1812–14), Great Britain burned many government offices in Washington, D.C., including the 3,000-volume Library of Congress. The next year, former president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) restocked the library by selling his personal collection of 6,487 books to Congress for $23,940. As of 2005, the Library has 29 million books and 99 million other items on 530 miles of shelving. According to the Library's Web site, its mission is "to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations."

Other congressional offices include the Architect of the Capitol, which develops, operates, and maintains the Capitol and congressional office buildings, Library of Congress buildings, Supreme Court building, U.S. Botanic Garden, Capital power plant, and other facilities. The U.S. Botanic Garden operates indoor greenhouses and outdoor gardens for plants from the United States and around the world. The Government Printing Office, created in 1860 to serve as a printer for Congress, collects and publishes information about the federal government for all three of its branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

For More Information


Beard, Charles A. American Government and Politics. 10th ed. New York: Macmillan Co., 1949.

Burnham, James. Congress and the American Tradition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003.

Congressional Quarterly Inc. Guide to the Congress of the United States. 1st ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Service, 1971.

Green, Mark. Who Runs Congress? 3rd ed. New York: The Viking Press, 1979.

Janda, Kenneth, Jeffrey M. Berry, and Jerry Goldman. The Challenge of Democracy. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Loomis, Burdett A. The Contemporary Congress. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

McClenaghan, William A. Magruder's American Government 2003. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall School Group, 2002.

Parenti, Michael. Democracy for the Few. 6th ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Roelofs, H. Mark. The Poverty of American Politics. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Shelley, Mack C., II. American Government and Politics Today. 2004–2005 ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2003.

Volkomer, Walter E. American Government. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

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