views updated May 29 2018


A representative assembly of persons that makes statutory laws for a municipality, state, or nation.

A legislature is the embodiment of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which recognizes that the people are the source of all political power. Citizens choose by popular vote the legislators, or representatives, whom they want to serve them. The representatives are expected to be sensitive to the needs of their constituents and to represent their constituents' interests in the legislature.


The federal legislature, the U.S. Congress, is bicameral in structure, meaning that it consists of two chambers, in this case the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each state has a legislature, and all state legislatures have two houses, except the Nebraska Legislature, which has only one. State legislative bodies have various official designations, including state legislature, general assembly, general court, and legislative assembly. Local legislatures are generally structured differently from the state and national model. They may be called city councils or boards of aldermen and alderwomen.

The traditional bicameral structure of state and national legislatures developed out of early U.S. societal distinctions between the public in general and the propertied, wealthy class. This structure provided for a lower house and an upper house. The lower-house legislators were elected by the general voting public, and it was believed that their votes were likely to be radical. The upper-house legislators were elected by voters who owned more property, and it was believed that they would be more mindful of concerns to property owners.

Traditional bicameralism is still supported for various reasons. It is believed that because both houses must separately pass a bill in order for the bill to become law, bicameral legislatures are less likely to pass hasty, ill-considered laws or to be subject to public passions. Proponents of unicameralism (a one-chamber system) cite lower costs, simpler procedures, better executive-legislative relationships, and legislative developments that are easier for the public to follow.

Federal and state legislatures range in size from the U.S. Congress, consisting of 535 members, to the Delaware Legislature, with fewer than 100 members. Legislatures organize themselves into a number of committees and subcommittees, which undertake in-depth study of issues within their area of expertise and focus. Each committee addresses the issues presented to it, recommends action, and changes bills before they are passed on for consideration by the full house. After members of one house pass a bill, it must go to the other house for approval. After both houses have approved a bill, it is presented to the president or governor to be signed into law or vetoed.

U.S. state legislatures and the U.S. Congress organize their members according to political party affiliations. The political party that represents the majority of a particular house of the legislature is able to organize and control the actions of that house. The lower house of the legislature chooses a member of the dominant political party to serve as Speaker. The upper house chooses a member of the dominant political party to serve as president. Generally, the members of the different political parties meet separately to determine what actions their party

will take in the upcoming session of the legislature. Though there are exceptions, legislators tend to vote along party lines. Political parties are less able to command party loyalty from individual legislators in state legislatures than in the U.S. Congress.

The Speaker of the lower house is the presiding officer of that house and is generally the most powerful member of the house. The full membership of the house chooses the Speaker. The duties of the Speaker include appointing members of the standing committees in the lower house. The speaker typically considers party membership, seniority, and the opinions of other party members in making these appointments. Unless there are house rules to the contrary, the Speaker may also refer bills to committee. It is the role of the Speaker to interpret and apply the rules of procedure that govern the actions of the house.

In accordance with the U.S. Constitution, the vice president of the United States officially presides over the U.S. Senate. Most state constitutions have similar rules, charging the lieutenant governor with the duty of presiding over the state's upper legislative house. In states that do not have a lieutenant governor or do not give that individual power to preside over the upper house of the state legislature, a member of the upper house is selected by other members to serve as president of the house. The duties of the president of the upper house are similar to those of the Speaker of the lower house, although they generally do not include appointing members to committees. Some states that do permit the president of the upper house to appoint committee members diminish that power by making the appointments subject to approval by the whole membership of the house. In a state in which the lieutenant governor serves as president of the upper house, if there is a tie on a vote in the upper house, the president of the house must cast the deciding vote. In the U.S. Senate and in states in which the lieutenant governor presides over the upper house, the house selects one member to serve as president pro tem (for the time being) when the president of the house is absent.

Legislative sessions are the periods of time in which a legislature conducts its business. Each legislative session of the U.S. Congress is called a "Congress," lasts for two years, and is numbered consecutively. For example, the 107th Congress began in January of 2001 and ended in December of 2002. The 108th Congress began in January of 2003. Each Congress begins in the year following a biennial election of members and is divided into two one-year "sessions." Most states have annual sessions, each lasting perhaps only a few months. The governor of a state may call a special session of the state legislature, outside its normal meeting times, to address issues that require immediate attention.

Qualifications, Terms, and Compensation of Legislators

Members of the U.S. Congress are chosen to represent a particular state. Each state may elect two U.S. senators. The number of U.S. representatives a state may elect is determined by the population of the state, with a minimum of one.

Every state uses a district system to choose its state legislators. Under this system the state is divided into districts, often along county lines, with one or more legislators representing each district.

The applicable national or state constitution sets the qualifications for individuals who are eligible to serve as legislators. These rules are generally not restrictive, including only age, citizenship, and residency requirements. U.S. citizenship is a universal requirement, as is a certain period of state residency. A legislator must live in the state or district from which he or she is elected. Every state requires that members of the lower house of the state legislature be at least 21 years old. The U.S. Constitution requires members of the House of Representatives to be at least 25 years old, and members of the Senate to be at least 30 years old.

Congressional terms are six years for senators and two years for representatives. Terms for state legislators vary, but generally are either two or four years. Over the years there has been a push toward setting term limits in the U.S. Congress—that is, restricting the number of terms a U.S. legislator may serve. State legislatures have a higher rate of turnover and therefore do not generally face this issue.

Legislators are compensated for their services at various rates, and many state legislators are considered underpaid. Legislators also receive reimbursement for their expenses, including mileage to and from their home district and the location of the legislature. Legislators usually have the authority, by virtue of powers given to the legislature, to raise their own salaries. But they are often reluctant to do so for fear of a negative public reaction.

Relationship with Executive and Judicial Branches

The purpose of a legislature is to make, alter, amend, and repeal laws. Legislatures are empowered to enact laws by virtue of legislative jurisdiction, which is the authority vested in them by the national or state constitution. The enumerated powers of Congress are provided for in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. In addition to their lawmaking duties, members of Congress also have the power to appropriate funds for government functions, institute taxes, regulate commerce, declare war, raise and support a military, approve presidential appointments, and impeach executive officers. Following the national model, each state legislature derives its powers from the state constitution.

In addition to the legislative branch, national and state governments include executive and judicial branches. The head of the executive branch at the national level is the president of the United States and at the state level is the governor. The executive branch enforces the laws enacted by the legislature. It can do so in a number of ways, including policing the streets and prosecuting those who violate laws.

The judicial branch interprets the laws passed by the legislature. The courts first look to the exact language of a particular law. Sometimes the meaning of the statutory language is not clear to the court, or the application of the language to the particular case before the court is doubtful. In such a circumstance, the court tries to determine what the legislature intended when it enacted the statute. Legislative intent can often be determined by looking at the history of the particular law and reading committee notes or congressional debates regarding the law. The judicial branch has developed many maxims of statutory interpretation over many years to help the courts carry out legislative intent when interpreting laws.

further readings

Bernstein, Richard B. and James Agel. 1993. Of the People, By the People, For the People: Three Books in One—The Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. New York: Wings.

Brady, David W., and Craig Volden. 1997. Revolving Gridlock; Politics and Policy from Carter to Clinton. Boulder, Colo: Westview.

Felten, Eric. 1993. The Ruling Class: Inside the Imperial Congress. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway.

Hirsch, E.D., Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil. 1988. The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Loomis, Burdett A. 1997. The Contemporary Congress. New York: St. Martin's.

Maddox, Russell W., and Robert F. Fuquay. 1975. State and Local Government. 3d ed. New York: Van Nostrand.


Congress of the United States; Judicial Review; Legislative History.


views updated May 18 2018

legislature Representative assembly whose primary function is the enactment of laws. Legislatures can be either unicameral or bicameral (composed of one or two chambers). In most democracies, including Britain, the ‘Lower’ or more directly elected chamber is more powerful than the ‘Upper’ chamber filled by government appointees or hereditary members. In the USA, the Senate is constitutionally more powerful than the House of Representatives, and both Houses are elected. See also House of Commons; House of Lords; Parliament


views updated May 21 2018

leg·is·la·ture / ˈlejəˌslāchər/ • n. the legislative body of a country or state.


views updated May 17 2018


a body of persons elected or invested with the power to make laws, 1676.

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