Key Positions in the Legislative Branch

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Key Positions in the Legislative Branch

Congress is the legislative branch of the U.S. government, the branch that passes laws. It has two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. When Congress votes on a bill, or proposed law, each representative, or member, in the House and each senator in the Senate gets one vote. A bill must pass both chambers by a simple majority to go to the president of the United States for consideration. If the president signs it, it becomes law. If the president vetoes, or rejects, a bill, Congress can still make it a law if two-thirds of the representatives and two-thirds of the senators vote to override the president's veto.

House of Representatives

The House of Representatives has 435 members. The fifty states in the United States are divided into 435 congressional districts, and one member is elected for each district. Besides the job of representative, key positions and organizations in the House include Speaker of the House, majority leader, minority leader, whips, the Democratic Caucus, the Republican Conference, and congressional staff.


Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution governs the election of representatives to the House. The Constitution requires that people who want to be elected to the House be at least twenty-five years old, live in the state from which they are elected, and be a citizen of the United States for at least seven years.

Elections to the House take place once every two years, including the year of presidential elections (held once every four years) and two years after that. Elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

After being elected in November, a representative joins the House when it begins its next session the following January. The most visible work a representative does includes voting on bills to determine whether they become laws. Many laws concern how to raise money through taxes and how to spend it on government programs, such as Social Security for retired people. Other laws create rules on matters of national concern, such as controlling airline traffic, constructing interstate highways, regulating radio and television broadcasting, and preventing racial discrimination. Criminal laws define illegal behavior and the punishment for those who break them.

Voting on bills, however, is only a small part of a member's work. Committee work is a larger part of what a member does. Committees are smaller groups of representatives that handle specific government topics, such as agriculture, the federal budget, or national security. As of 2005, the House has nineteen permanent committees, called standing committees, plus many other committees and subcommittees. Working in committees is how members prepare most of the bills to be voted on in Congress.

Proportional Representation

The United States uses a winner-takes-all system for elections to the House of Representatives. Under this system, the states are carved into 435 legislative districts. At election time, the person who gets the most votes in a district gets to represent the entire district in the House.

The Ninth Congressional District for Pennsylvania, for example, had a special election in May 2001. Four people were candidates to serve the Ninth District: William Shuster from the Republican Party, Scott Conklin from the Democratic Party, Alanna Hartzok from the Green Party, and John Kensinger II from the Reform Party. On Election Day, Shuster got 52 percent of the votes, Conklin got 44 percent, and Hartzok got 4 percent. This gave Shuster the privilege of representing everyone in the Ninth District.

Many Americans believe a winner-takes-all system is unfair. Some say it prevents the people who vote for losing candidates from having someone represent their interests in Congress. It even makes it possible for someone who gets less than half the votes to win. The winner-takes-all system makes it almost impossible for people to be elected unless they are members of the two major political parties, the Republicans or Democrats. It also makes it harder for women and people from racial minorities to get elected.

Proportional representation is an alternative to the winner-takes-all system. Under proportional representation, states would be carved in fewer, larger districts, and each district would get a certain number of representatives. At election time, the seats in each district would be divided in proportion to the number of votes each political party received in that district.

For example, imagine that the Ninth Congressional District was a larger district that got ten representatives in the House. In the election above, the Republicans would have won 52 percent of the seats, or five of them, and the Democrats would have won the other half. If the Green Party had received 10 percent of the votes instead of just 4 percent, it would have won one of the ten seats. With proportional representation, more political parties, and hence more Americans, would be represented in Congress.

Many democratic countries use proportional representation instead of the winner-takes-all system in their elections. The United States, Canada, and Great Britain are major countries that rely solely on a winner-takes-all system. Because proportional representation would allow so-called third parties to take legislative seats away from Democrats and Republicans, it is unlikely that the United States will ever adopt such a system for Congress, given the power of the current two-party structure.

Members also spend much of their time on casework. This is personal work to help voters from the member's district with particular problems, such as getting veteran's benefits or a tax refund. Members also spend time meeting with voters who want certain bills to become law. Generating goodwill by helping voters is an important part of getting reelected.

Two other parts of a member's day-to-day work are important to reelection. The first is meeting with lobbyists. Lobbyists are people who represent businesses or organizations that want Congress to pass certain laws. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, lobbies Congress for laws helpful to American businesses. The National Rifle Association lobbies Congress for laws protecting the right for individuals to own guns and other weapons. The people and groups who lobbyists represent donate money to help members get elected, so members make lots of time to hear their wishes.

The second task important to reelection is campaigning. Representatives face reelection every two years. This means they must begin working on a reelection campaign, or strategy, soon after getting into office. Once in, however, it is much easier to win an election. Statistics show that a representative in office, called the incumbent, has a 90 percent chance of beating an outsider who runs for the same position at election time.

Speaker of the House

The Speaker of the House is the only House leadership position specifically mentioned in the Constitution. The Constitution says, "The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other officers." The House makes this choice at the beginning of every two-year term after the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Conference each nominate one person for the position. (The Democratic Caucus and Republican Conference are House organizations for members of those political parties.) Since the whole House selects the Speaker from the two choices, the Speaker is always a member of the majority party, the political party that has the most members in the House.

The position of Speaker was very powerful until 1910, which marked the end of the Speakership for the combative Joseph G. Cannon (1836–1926), a Republican from Illinois who became Speaker in 1903. Until 1910, the Speaker got to decide which members served on and chaired, or headed, the House's various committees. The Speaker was allowed to be chair of the House Rules Committee, which makes the rules for how the House operates. This allowed the Speaker to control which bills made it from House committees to the floor for a vote.

Cannon used his power to the fullest during his term as Speaker. This upset many members who had trouble bringing their desired bills to a vote. According to Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the Congress of the United States, if a representative would get up to speak on the House floor before checking with Cannon, Cannon would ask, "For what purpose does the gentleman rise?" Cannon used his power to prevent people from speaking if he did not want them to.

In 1910, House Democrats joined with unhappy House Republicans to force the House to change the rules for the Speaker. Since then, the Speaker is not allowed to serve on the House Rules Committee, and the whole House makes appointments to its various committees.

The Speaker, however, still has special powers. The Speaker presides over House sessions, recognizing members who want to speak and interpreting House rules. The Speaker assigns new bills to committees, which can often affect whether a bill makes it back out of the committee for a vote on the floor. The Speaker also gets to appoint members to special committees, including joint committees with the Senate for resolving differences between bills in the two chambers. In these cases, the Speaker often appoints people recommended by the chair, or head, of the House committee that wrote the bill.

House majority leader

With 435 members, the House is too large for one person to run alone. As Neil MacNeil wrote in Forge of Democracy, "The House has been from the beginning such a sprawling, discordant [disagreeing] mass of men that the Speaker has had to depend on lieutenants to guide and oversee its multiple operations in its committees and on its floor, and to ensure the orderly flow of responsible legislation."

After the Speaker of the House, the House majority leader is the next most powerful person in the House. Until 1911, the Speaker of the House selected the majority leader. Since the revolt against Cannon, the majority party as a whole has appointed the majority leader. This means the Democratic Caucus appoints the majority leader when it controls the House, and the Republican Conference does so when it controls the House.

The majority leader's main job is to help the Speaker and other party leaders plan and carry out legislative strategy. In other words, they must decide what bills they want to pass and make sure those bills get into and out of the proper committees for a vote on the House floor.

For bills where the vote might be close, the majority leader works to convince undecided members to pass bills that the party likes. The job requires strong people skills and the ability to bargain. Often an undecided member will agree to vote for (or against) a particular bill in exchange for promised support on another bill. When the time comes for the House to debate, or discuss, a particular bill, the majority leader lets the Speaker know which members should be heard by the House.

House minority leader

Just as the party in charge appoints a majority leader, the party with the second most members appoints a minority leader. This happens through either the Republican Conference or the Democratic Caucus, depending on which party is the minority party. The minority leader usually ends up being the person that the minority party nominated to be Speaker of the House.

The minority party has little hope of passing bills that the majority party does not want. This means the minority party usually does not develop a legislative program of its own. Instead, led by the minority leader, the minority party develops a strategy for changing or defeating the majority party bills it does not like. The minority leader may arrange meetings with undecided members to convince them to defeat unwanted bills when the vote is going to be close.

Since the minority party loses most close votes in the House, the position of minority leader is very difficult. A 1967 study by Randall B. Ripley in Party Leaders in the House of Representatives found that out of thirteen minority leaders from 1900 to 1967, five had left the job and three had been dismissed by their party. In comparison, out of twelve majority leaders, only two had left the job and none had been dismissed. Since 1967, five representatives have served as minority leader; three left the job (one, Gerald Ford, to become vice president), one retired, and one is still serving as of 2005. Eight have served as majority leader since 1967; four became Speaker of the House, one became minority leader, one died, one retired, and one is still serving as of 2005.

Newt Gingrich (1943–) and the Contract with America

Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, was Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999. Gingrich was a key player in the Republican Revolution of 1994 and the Contract with America.

As of 1994, the Republican Party had not been the majority party in the House for forty years. At that time, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and had President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) in office. At a meeting in Salisbury, Maryland, in February 1994, House Republicans hatched a plan. They called it the Contract with America. It was a set of changes that House Republicans promised to strive for in government if they gained control of the House in the upcoming November elections.

On September 27, 1994, more than three hundred Republicans running for Congress gathered in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. There they revealed the Contract with America to the public. The Contract covered ten major areas of change. These included a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget, term limits for members of Congress, and a line-item veto. The line-item veto would give the president of the United States power to veto, or reject, portions of spending bills instead of having to veto whole bills to get rid of unwanted portions.

Led by Gingrich, the Republicans enjoyed heavy victories in the November 1994 elections, putting them in control of both the House and the Senate at the start of the 104th Congress in January 1995. Gingrich, as a result, won election as Speaker of the House in December 1994.

Gingrich delivered on the Contract with America by bringing each of its proposals to a vote in the House within the first hundred days of the 104th Congress. Most of the proposals passed in the House, with few Republicans voting no. Some that passed died in the Senate or were vetoed by President Clinton, but others became law. The line-item veto became law, the balanced budget amendment failed to pass in the Senate, and term limits for members of Congress did not even pass in the House.

Gingrich's popularity began to decline in 1996, the same year President Clinton won reelection to a second term. Although Gingrich was reelected to office that year, too, and remained Speaker of the House, he decided to resign from Congress before the new term began in January 1999. He retired from public office after twenty years as a U.S. representative.


Just as the Speaker gets help from the majority leader, the majority and minority leaders get help from the whips. According to Guide to the U.S. Congress of the United States, the term "whip" comes from the fox-hunting term "whipper-in," the person in charge of keeping the hounds together as they chase the fox. The British Parliament, Great Britain's legislative body, first used the term "whip" around 1770. The U.S. House of Representatives got its first official whip in 1899.

Chief, or head, whips are elected by the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Conference. In turn, the chief whips choose many assistant whips to help them with the job. The main job of the whips is to encourage members to appear for votes, count how votes are likely to go, and help convince undecided or unfavorable members to change their minds and vote the party line. If the majority leader or minority leader cannot be on the House floor for some reason, the majority or minority whip temporarily serves as acting party leader.

Democratic Caucus and Republican Conference

Republican and Democratic members of the House meet privately and separately in either the Republican Conference or the Democratic Caucus. The Democratic Caucus is the older of the two organizations. According to its Web site, a forerunner of the Caucus formed in April 1792 to oppose a treaty with Great Britain that it felt was bad for American sailors.

The Caucus is a forum for developing party strategy, nominating party leadership, and approving the assignment of Democrats to House committees. In the hierarchy of House leadership for the Democrats, the chair and vice chair of the Democratic Caucus come after the chief Democratic whip.

The Republican Conference serves the same function as the Democratic Caucus. Over their histories, both the Conference and the Caucus have varied in how active they have been as organized units.

Since the nineteenth century, almost all members of the House have been Democrats or Republicans. Occasionally, however, someone from a so-called third party gets elected to the House. In the twentieth century, the Progressive Party, the Prohibition Party, and the Socialist Party all succeeded in winning seats in Congress. Also, people called Independents, who are not affiliated with any political party, sometimes reach the House. As of 2005, the only Independent in the House is U.S. representative Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who was first elected to the House in 1990. Members from third parties might seek to meet with either the Republican Conference or the Democratic Caucus, depending on which party most closely resembles their own political views. The Caucus or Conference, however, may say no to such a request.

Congressional staff

Each member of Congress gets to hire staffers. Staffers help the members run their offices, both in Washington, D.C., and in their home districts. Staffers meet with lobbyists and constituents, or voters, because members do not have time for everyone who wants to see them. Staffers also research how a member's constituents, lobbyists, and other supporters feel about specific bills to help the member decide how to vote. Finally, staffers do a lot of the work that is involved in casework for constituents.

Members are restricted to a specific number of staffers, and have additional staffers working for them in the various House committees. The total cost of congressional staff throughout Congress is large. According to Mark Roelofs in The Poverty of American Politics, the cost of paying for Senate and congressional staffs, committee and subcommittee staffs, staffs of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and the Congressional Budget Office, staff of the offices of the sergeant-at-arms and the parliamentarian, and staff at the shops, discount stores, gymnasiums, TV/video facilities, restaurants, and cafeterias for Congress is over one billion dollars each year.


The Constitution says that each state gets two senators in the Senate. When Hawaii became the fiftieth state in 1959, the Senate arrived at a total of one hundred senators. Besides the job of senator, key positions and organizations in the Senate include president of the Senate, president pro tempore, majority leader, minority leader, whips, the Democratic and Republican Conferences, and staff.


Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution governs the election of senators. To be a senator, a person must be at least thirty years old, a citizen of the United States for nine years, and a resident of the state to be represented.

The Constitution requires each senator's seat to be up for election every six years. To accomplish this, all the seats in the Senate are divided into three groups. Every year that the House is up for election, about one-third of the senatorial seats are up for election. Two years later, when the whole House faces election again, the second group of senatorial seats faces election. Two years later, again during an election for the entire House, the third group of senatorial seats faces election.

Senators, like representatives, begin service in Congress the January after their November elections. Also like representatives, senators spend much of their time working in Senate committees to draft bills. Then they meet on the Senate floor to debate and vote on bills that get that far.

If both the Senate and the House pass a bill by simple majorities, the bill goes to the president of the United States for consideration. If the Senate and House pass different versions of the same bill, they form a conference committee with members from both chambers to try to work out their differences. If the committee agrees upon one version of the bill, both chambers vote on that version to pass or reject it. If passed, the joint version goes to the president for consideration.

Like representatives, senators spend much time meeting with lobbyists and doing casework for constituents. Because they face reelection just every six years, senators do not have to spend as much time campaigning as representatives do.

Senators have special duties under the Constitution that representatives do not have. Under Article II, Section 2, the president of the United States may make treaties, or formal agreements, with other nations if two-thirds of the senators concur, or agree. When the president proposes a treaty, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds special hearings to consider the issue and then votes on whether to recommend approval by the Senate. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote for a treaty for it to become part of American law.

The same part of the Constitution says the president may appoint ambassadors (diplomats assigned to foreign countries who represent the United States), judges of the Supreme Court, and other officers of the United States "with the advice and consent of the senate." When the president nominates a person to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court or one of the lower federal courts, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings to consider the nomination. The committee then makes a recommendation to the Senate, which votes as a whole on the nomination. A simple majority of senators must vote in favor to approve a president's nomination to the Supreme Court or other federal office.

President of the Senate

The Constitution says, "The Vice-President of the United States shall be President of the senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided." The job sounds like it would be powerful. The Founding Fathers imagined that the president of the Senate would preside over all sessions of the Senate, recognizing members who wanted to speak and interpreting Senate rules. As the first vice president, however, John Adams (1735–1826) set an example of being a neutral participant in Senate affairs except when a tie-breaking vote was required.

From 1789 until 1952, presiding over the Senate was the vice president's main job. During this time, the vice president had an office in the Capitol building and hired staff with funds from Congress. In 1953, Vice President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) moved the office of the vice president from the Capitol to the White House. Nixon attended Senate sessions only at critical times, such as to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Vice presidents since Nixon have followed his example. Normally tie votes that need to be broken concern bills. They also can involve appointments of Senate officers and committees. According to the Web site of the Senate, as of early 2005, vice presidents had cast tie-breaking votes 242 times in the nation's history. The first vice president, John Adams, holds the record with twenty-nine such votes. Twelve vice presidents never had to cast a tie-breaking vote. The president of the Senate does not get to participate in floor debate on bills, even if a tie-breaking vote might be required.

President pro tempore

The Constitution requires the Senate to select a president pro tempore, a Latin term that means "for the time being." The constitutional duty of the president pro tempore, or pro tem, is to preside over the Senate when the president of the Senate cannot be there. Under a law passed in 1947, the president pro tem is in line after the vice president and Speaker of the House to replace the president of the United States if the president dies, leaves office, or is removed by impeachment.

The whole Senate elects the pro tem. Since 1945, the Senate has tended to elect the person from the majority party with the most years of continuous senatorial service. By law, once elected, the pro tem serves until leaving the Senate or until the Senate elects a different pro tem, which it can do at any time.

Like the position of president of the Senate, the position of president pro tem is not very powerful. The pro tem rarely presides over the Senate, even when the president of the Senate is not there, which is most of the time. Instead, other members of the Senate appointed by the pro tem share the job of presiding over sessions. The pro tem often appoints young members who need to learn the rules of the Senate. This makes the position of pro tem largely one of honor and prestige. Unlike the president of the Senate, however, the pro tem, as an elected member, may speak in debate and vote on all bills under consideration.

Senate majority leader

With fewer members than the House of Representatives, the Senate tends to operate with less official leadership than the House. In Congressional Government in 1885, then-future president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) wrote, "No one is the Senator. No one may speak for his party as well as for himself; no one exercises the special trust of acknowledged leadership. The Senate is merely a body of individual critics."

In the 1920s, the Senate began to elect official majority and minority leaders. The majority party elects the Senate majority leader. This is the most powerful position in the Senate, more powerful than the president of the Senate and the president pro tem. It tends, however, to be less important than the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The Senate majority leader has two main duties. The first is to organize the flow of bills from Senate committees onto the Senate floor for debate and consideration. The second is to meet with the Senate minority leader to arrive at unanimous consent concerning debate over bills. Unanimous consent is an agreement on how much time the Senate will spend debating a bill, and how much of that time each of the two major political parties gets.

If many people want to speak about a bill, the president of the Senate (if present) or the pro tem gives the majority leader the first chance to speak. This means the majority leader is the first person who can offer amendments, or proposed changes, to bills being considered. According to the Senate's Web site, U.S. senator Robert C. Byrd (1917–) of West Virginia, who has had stints as both majority leader (1977–80; 1987–88) and minority leader (1981–86), called the right to speak first "the most potent weapon in the majority leader's arsenal."

The Senate majority leader also has other responsibilities. He helps develop the majority party's strategy for getting bills passed and opposing unwanted bills. This involves meeting and cutting deals with other senators, which requires strong people skills. The majority leader is the majority party's official spokesperson on legislative issues in the Senate. He also serves as the official spokesperson for the whole Senate, greeting foreign officials who visit the Senate.

Senate minority leader

The minority party in the Senate elects the Senate minority leader. Like the minority leader in the House, the Senate minority leader's main job is to plan an attack on the majority party's legislative plan. Like the majority leader, the minority leader spends lots of time meeting with other senators, cutting deals to get enough votes to prevent unwanted bills from passing. When many people want to speak about a particular bill, the minority leader gets to speak second, after the majority leader.


The Republican and Democratic senators both elect whips for their parties. The main job of the whips is to count heads to see how a vote on a bill might go and to gather party members when it is time to vote. Because the Senate is smaller than the House, Senate whips tend to be less influential than House whips. History even has instances of strong disagreements between party leaders and whips. Majority leader Mike Mansfield (1903–2001) of Montana, for example, clashed much with majority whip Russell B. Long (1918–2003) of Louisiana from 1966 until 1969, when Edward M. Kennedy (1932–) of Massachusetts replaced Long as whip.

Democratic and Republican Conferences

As they do in the House, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate meet separately in groups called the Republican Conference and the Democratic Conference. The Conferences are where the parties elect their Senate leaders and whips, select senators for serving on Senate committees, and make their legislative plans and strategies. According to the Senate Web site, as of 2005, the party leader for the Democrats also serves as chair of the Democratic Conference. The Republicans elect a senator different from their floor leader to serve as chair of the Republican Conference.

Senatorial staff

Senators, like representatives, hire staffers to help them do their jobs, both as individual senators and as members of Senate committees. Because senators represent entire states instead of just districts, they get to hire more staffers than representatives do. Senators from larger states also get to hire more staffers than do senators from smaller states.

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.

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

MacNeil, Neil. Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives. New York: David MacKay Co., 1963.

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

Ripley, Randall B. Party Leaders in the House of Representatives. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1967.

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.

Wilson, Woodrow. Congressional Government. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1885. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002.

Wolfensberger, Donald R. Congress and the People. Washington, DC, and Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.


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"Unofficial Returns for the Special Election Held on May 15, 2001." Pennsylvania Department of State. (accessed on March 14, 2005).