The Nature and Function of Congress

The House of Representatives

The United States House of Representatives is one of the two houses of the United States Congress.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the organizational structure of the House of Representatives and the qualifications for its members

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The major power of the House is to pass federal legislation that affects the entire country although its bills must also be passed by the Senate and further agreed to by the U.S. President before becoming law.
  • Each U.S. state is represented in the House in proportion to its population but is entitled to at least one representative. The most populous state, California, currently has 53 representatives.
  • In some states, the Republican and Democratic parties choose their candidates for each district in their political conventions in spring or early summer, which often use unanimous voice votes to reflect either confidence in the incumbent or because of bargaining in earlier private discussions.
  • The House uses committees and their subcommittees for a variety of purposes, including the review of bills and the oversight of the executive branch. The entire House formally makes the appointment of committee members, but the choice of members is actually made by the political parties.
  • The Constitution empowers the House of Representatives to impeach federal officials for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors and empowers the Senate to try such impeachment.

Key Terms

  • impeachment: the act of impeaching a public official, either elected or appointed, before a tribunal charged with determining the facts of the matter.

The House of Representatives

Background

The United States House of Representatives is one of the two houses of the United States Congress (bicameral legislature). It is frequently referred to as the House. The other house is the Senate.

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US Congress in Present Times: Using Weber’s theory of stratification, members of the U.S. Congress are at the top of the social hierarchy because they have high power and status, despite having relatively little wealth on average.

The composition and powers of the House are established in Article 1 of the United States Constitution. The major power of the House is to pass federal legislation that affects the entire country although its bills must also be passed by the Senate and further agreed to by the United States President before becoming law (unless both the House and Senate re-pass the legislation with a two-thirds majority in each chamber). The House has several exclusive powers: the power to initiate revenue bills, to impeach officials, and to elect the President in case there is no majority in the Electoral College.

Each U.S. state is represented in the House in proportion to its population but is entitled to at least one representative. The most populous state, California, currently has 53 representatives. Law fixes the total number of voting representatives at 435. Each representative serves for a two-year term. The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who presides over the chamber, is elected by the members of the House, and is therefore traditionally the leader of the House Democratic Caucus or the House Republican Conference, whichever of the two Congressional Membership Organizations has more (voting) members.

Apportionment

The population of U.S. Representatives is allocated to each of the 50 states and DC, ranked by population. DC (ranked 50) receives no seats in the House. Under Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, population, as determined by the census conducted every ten years, apportions seats in the House of Representatives among the states. Each state, however, is entitled to at least one Representative.

Qualifications

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for representatives. Each representative must: (1) be at least twenty-five years old; (2) have been a citizen of the United States for the past seven years; and (3) be (at the time of the election ) an inhabitant of the state they represent. Members are not required to live in the district they represent, but they traditionally do. The age and citizenship qualifications for representatives are less than those for senators. The constitutional requirements of Article I, Section 2 for election to Congress is the maximum requirements that can be imposed on a candidate. Therefore, Article I, Section 5, which permits each House to be the judge of the qualifications of its own members does not permit either House to establish additional qualifications. Likewise, a state could not establish additional qualifications.

Demographics

Congress is constantly changing, constantly in flux. In recent times, the American south and west have gained House seats according to demographic changes recorded by the census and includes more minorities and women although both groups are still underrepresented, according to one view. While power balances among the different parts of government continue to change, the internal structure of Congress is important to understand along with its interactions with so-called intermediary institutions such as political parties, civic associations, interest groups, and the mass media.

Elections

Elections for representatives are held in every even-numbered year, on Election Day the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Representatives must be elected from single-member districts by plurality voting.

In most states, major party candidates for each district are nominated in partisan primary elections, typically held in spring to late summer. In some states, the Republican and Democratic parties choose their respective candidates for each district in their political conventions in spring or early summer. They often use unanimous voice votes to reflect either confidence in the incumbent or as the result of bargaining in earlier private discussions.

Representatives and Delegates serve two-year terms, while the Resident Commissioner serves for four years. The Constitution permits the House to expel a member with a two-thirds vote. In the history of the United States, only five members have been expelled from the House.

The Senate

The Senate is composed of two senators from each state who are granted exclusive powers to confirm appointments and place holds on laws.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the powers accorded the Senate and the qualifications set for Senators

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Two senators, regardless of population, represent each U.S. state. Senators serve staggered six-year terms.
  • It has the power to consent to treaties as a precondition to their ratification and consenting or confirming appointments of Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, other federal executive officials, military officers, regulatory officials, ambassadors, and other federal uniformed officers.
  • The Constitution stipulates that no constitutional amendment may be created to deprive a state of its equal suffrage in the Senate without that state’s consent.
  • Senators serve terms of six years each; the terms are staggered so that approximately one-third of the seats are up for election every two years.
  • Senate procedure depends not only on the rules, but also on a variety of customs and traditions. The Senate commonly waives some of its stricter rules by unanimous consent. Party leaders typically negotiate unanimous consent agreements beforehand.

Key Terms

  • cloture: In legislative assemblies that permit unlimited debate (filibuster); a motion, procedure or rule, by which debate is ended so that a vote may be taken on the matter. For example, in the United States Senate, a three-fifths majority vote of the body is required to invoke cloture and terminate debate.
  • bicameral: Having, or pertaining to, two separate legislative chambers or houses.

Background

The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Two senators, regardless of population, represent each U.S. state. Senators serve staggered six-year terms. The chamber of the United States Senate is located in the north wing of the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., the national capital.

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Capitol-Senate: The Senate’s side of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.

The Senate has several exclusive powers not granted to the House. These include the power to consent to treaties as a precondition to their ratification. The senate may also consent to or confirm the appointment of Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, other federal executive officials, military officers, regulatory officials, ambassadors, and other federal uniformed officers. The Senate is also responsible for trying federal officials impeached by the House.

The Constitution stipulates that no constitutional amendment may be created to deprive a state of its equal suffrage in the Senate without that state’s consent. The District of Columbia and all other territories (including territories, protectorates, etc. ) are not entitled to representation in either House of the Congress. The District of Columbia elects two shadow senators, but they are officials of the D.C. city government and not members of the U.S. Senate. The United States has had 50 states since 1959, thus the Senate has had 100 senators since 1959.

Qualifications

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for senators: 1) they must be at least 30 years old, 2) they must have been citizens of the United States for at least the past nine years, and 3) they must be inhabitants of the states they seek to represent at the time of their election. The age and citizenship qualifications for senators are more stringent than those for representatives. In Federalist No. 62, James Madison justified this arrangement by arguing that the “senatorial trust” called for a “greater extent of information and stability of character. ”

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution disqualifies from the Senate any federal or state officers who had taken the requisite oath to support the Constitution, but later engaged in rebellion or aided the enemies of the United States. This provision, which came into force soon after the end of the Civil War, was intended to prevent those who had sided with the Confederacy from serving.

Term and Elections

Senators serve terms of six years each. The terms are staggered so that approximately one-third of the seats are up for election every two years. This was achieved by dividing the senators of the 1st Congress into thirds (called classes), where the terms of one-third expired after two years, the terms of another third expired after four, and the terms of the last third expired after six years. This arrangement was also followed after the admission of new states into the union. The staggering of terms has been arranged such that both seats from a given state are not contested in the same general election, except when a mid-term vacancy is being filled. Current senators whose six-year terms expire on January 3, 2013, belong to Class I.

Daily Procedures

Senate procedure depends not only on the rules, but also on a variety of customs and traditions. The Senate commonly waives some of its stricter rules by unanimous consent. Party leaders typically negotiate unanimous consent agreements beforehand. A senator may block such an agreement, but in practice, objections are rare. The presiding officer enforces the rules of the Senate, and may warn members who deviate from them. The presiding officer sometimes uses the gavel of the Senate to maintain order.

A “hold” is placed when the leader’s office is notified that a senator intends to object to a request for unanimous consent from the Senate to consider or pass a measure. A hold may be placed for any reason and can be lifted by a senator at any time. A senator may place a hold simply to review a bill, to negotiate changes to the bill, or to kill the bill. A bill can be held for as long as the senator who objects to the bill wishes to block its consideration.

Holds can be overcome, but require time-consuming procedures such as filing cloture. Holds are considered private communications between a senator and the Leader, and are sometimes referred to as “secret holds”. A senator may disclose that he or she has placed a hold.

The House and the Senate: Differences in Responsibilities and Representation

The US Congress is composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which differ in representation, term length, power, and prestige.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the structure and composition of the House and Senate

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Congress is split into two chambers—the House of Representatives and Senate. Congress writes national legislation by dividing work into separate committees which specialize in different areas. Some members of Congress are elected by their peers to be officers of these committees.
  • The disparity between the most and least populous states has grown since the Connecticut Compromise, which granted each state two members of the Senate and at least one member of the House of Representatives, for a total minimum of three presidential Electors, regardless of population.
  • The Senate has several distinct powers. The “advice and consent ” powers, such as the power to approve treaties, are a sole Senate privilege. The House, however, can initiate spending bills and has exclusive authority to impeach officials and choose the President in an Electoral College deadlock.
  • The Senate and House are further differentiated by term lengths and the number of districts represented. With longer terms, fewer members and (in all but seven delegations) larger constituencies, senators may receive greater prestige.

Key Terms

  • gerrymandering: The practice of redrawing electoral districts to gain an electoral advantage for a political party.
  • apportionment: It is the process of allocating the political power of a set of constituent voters among their representatives in a governing body.

Background

Congress is split into two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Congress writes national legislation by dividing work into separate committees which specialize in different areas. Some members of Congress are elected by their peers to be officers of these committees. Ancillary organizations such as the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress provide Congress with information, and members of Congress have staff and offices to assist them. Additionally, a vast industry of lobbyists helps members write legislation on behalf of diverse corporate and labor interests.

Senate Apportionment and Representation

The Constitution stipulates that no constitutional amendment may be created to deprive a state of its equal suffrage in the Senate without that state’s consent. The District of Columbia and all other territories (including territories, protectorates, etc.) are not entitled to representation in either House of the Congress. The District of Columbia elects two shadow senators, but they are officials of the D.C. city government and not members of the U.S. Senate. The United States has had 50 states since 1959, so the Senate has had 100 senators since 1959.

The disparity between the most and least populous states has grown since the Connecticut Compromise, which granted each state two members of the Senate and at least one member of the House of Representatives, for a total minimum of three presidential Electors, regardless of population. This means some citizens are effectively an order of magnitude better represented in the Senate than those in other states. For example, in 1787, Virginia had roughly ten times the population of Rhode Island. Today, California has roughly seventy times the population of Wyoming, based on the 1790 and 2000 censuses. Seats in the House of Representatives are approximately proportionate to the population of each state, reducing the disparity of representation.

House of Representatives Apportionment and Representation

Under Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned among the states by population, as determined by the census conducted every ten years. Each state, however, is entitled to at least one Representative.

The only constitutional rule relating to the size of the House reads, “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand. Congress regularly increased the size of the House to account for population growth until it fixed the number of voting House members at 435 in 1911. The number was temporarily increased to 437 in 1959 upon the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, seating one representative from each of those states without changing existing apportionment, and returned to 435 four years later, after the reapportionment consequent to the 1960 census.

The Constitution does not provide for the representation of the District of Columbia or territories. The District of Columbia and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are represented by one non-voting delegate each. Puerto Rico elects a Resident Commissioner, but other than having a four-year term, the Resident Commissioner’s role is identical to the delegates from the other territories. The five Delegates and Resident Commissioner may participate in debates. Prior to 2011, they were also allowed to vote in committees and the Committee of the Whole when their votes would not be decisive.

States that are entitled to more than one Representative are divided into single-member districts. This has been a federal statutory requirement since 1967. Prior to that law, general ticket representation was used by some states. Typically, states redraw these district lines after each census, though they may do so at other times. Each state determines its own district boundaries, either through legislation or through non- partisan panels. Disproportion in representatives is unconstitutional and districts must be approximately equal in. The Voting Rights Act prohibits states from gerrymandering districts.

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Gerrymandering Comparison: In this example, the more even distribution is on the left and the gerrymandered distribution is on the right.

Comparison to the Senate

As a check on the popularly elected House, the Senate has several distinct powers. For example, the “advice and consent” powers are a sole Senate privilege. The House, however, can initiate spending bills and has exclusive authority to impeach officials and choose the President in an Electoral College deadlock. The Senate and House are further differentiated by term lengths and the number of districts represented. Unlike the Senate, the House is more hierarchically organized, with leadership roles such as the Whips and the Minority and Majority leaders playing a bigger part. Moreover, the procedure of the House depends not only on the rules, but also on a variety of customs, precedents, and traditions. In many cases, the House waives some of its stricter rules (including time limits on debates) by unanimous consent. With longer terms, fewer members and (in all but seven delegations) larger constituencies, senators may receive greater prestige. The Senate has traditionally been considered a less partisan chamber because it’s relatively small membership might have a better chance to broker compromises.

The Legislative Function

The House and Senate are equal partners in the legislative process; legislation cannot be enacted without the consent of both chambers.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the powers granted by the Constitution to the House and Senate

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Article I of the Constitution states all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Both are equal partners in the legislative process; legislation can’t be enacted without both their consent.
  • Congress has implied powers deriving from the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause which permit Congress to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution…”.
  • Legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks are divided among about two hundred committees and subcommittees which gather information, evaluate alternatives, and identify problems.

Key Terms

  • Necessary and Proper Clause: the provision in Article One of the United States Constitution, section 8, clause 18, which states that Congress has the power “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” for executing its duties
  • bypass: It is to avoid an obstacle etc, by constructing or using a bypass.
  • legislative: That branch of government which is responsible for making, or having the power to make, a law or laws.

Background

Article I of the Constitution states all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The House and Senate are equal partners in the legislative process—legislation cannot be enacted without the consent of both chambers. However, the Constitution grants each chamber some unique powers. The Senate ratifies treaties and approves presidential appointments while the House initiates revenue-raising bills. The House initiates impeachment cases, while the Senate decides impeachment cases. A two-thirds vote of the Senate is required before an impeached person can be forcibly removed from office.

Congress has implied powers deriving from the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause which permit Congress to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof. ” Broad interpretations of this clause and of the Commerce Clause, the enumerated power to regulate commerce, in rulings such as McCulloch v Maryland have effectively widened the scope of Congress’s legislative authority far beyond that prescribed in Section 8.

Congress Overseeing the Executive Branch

One of Congress’s foremost non-legislative functions is the power to investigate and oversee the executive branch. Congressional oversight is usually delegated to committees and is facilitated by Congress’s subpoena power. Some critics have charged that Congress has, in some instances, failed to do an adequate job of overseeing the other branches of government. In the Plame affair, critics, including Representative Henry A. Waxman, charged that Congress was not doing an adequate job of oversight in this case. There have been concerns about congressional oversight of executive actions such as warrantless wiretapping, although others respond that Congress did investigate the legality of presidential decisions.

Congress also has the exclusive power of removal, allowing impeachment and removal of the president, federal judges and other federal officers. There have been charges that presidents acting under the doctrine of the unitary executive have assumed important legislative and budgetary powers that should belong to Congress. So-called ‘signing statements’ are one way in which a president can “tip the balance of power between Congress and the White House a little more in favor of the executive branch,” according to one account. Past presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have made public statements when signing congressional legislation about how they understand a bill or plan to execute it, and commentators including the American Bar Association have described this practice as against the spirit of the Constitution. There have been concerns that presidential authority to cope with financial crises is eclipsing the power of Congress

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The impeachment trial of President Clinton: Floor proceedings of the U.S. Senate, in session during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton.

Power in Committees

Committees write legislation. While procedures such as the House discharge petition process can introduce bills to the House floor and effectively bypass committee input, they are exceedingly difficult to implement without committee action. Committees have power and have been called ‘ independent fiefdoms’. Legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks are divided among about two hundred committees and subcommittees which gather information, evaluate alternatives, and identify problems. They propose solutions for consideration by the full chamber. They also perform the function of oversight by monitoring the executive branch and investigating wrongdoing.

Bills and resolutions

In order to form a bill or resolution, first the House Financial Services committee meets. Committee members sit in the tiers of raised chairs, while those testifying and audience members sit below. Ideas for legislation can come from members, lobbyists, state legislatures, constituents, legislative counsel, or executive agencies. Usually, the next step is for the proposal to be passed to a committee for review. A submitted proposal usually takes one of the following forms:

  • A bill, which is a law in the making.
  • A joint resolution, which differs little from a bill since both are treated similarly. However, a joint resolution originates from the House.
  • A Concurrent Resolutions, which affects both House and Senate and thus are not presented to the president for approval later.
  • Simple resolutions, which concern only the House or only the Senate.

The Representation Function

A compromise plan was adopted where representatives were chosen by the population and two senators were chosen by state governments.

Learning Objectives

Describe the outcome of the Connecticut Compromise

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Since 1787, the population disparity between large and small states has grown. For example, in 2006 California had 70 times the population of Wyoming.
  • Critics, such as constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson, have suggested that the population disparity works against residents of large states and causes a steady redistribution of resources from large states to small states.
  • The Connecticut Compromise gave every state, large and small, an equal vote in the Senate. Since each state has two senators, residents of smaller states have more clout in the Senate than residents of larger states.
  • Providing services helps members of Congress win votes because elections can make a difference in close races. Congressional staff can help citizens navigate government bureaucracies.

Key Terms

  • framers: The authors of the American Constitution.
  • cloakroom: A room, in a public building such as a theatre, where coats and other belongings may be left temporarily.

Background

The two-chamber structure had functioned well in state governments. A compromise plan was adopted and representatives were chosen by the population which benefited larger states. Two senators were chosen by state governments which benefited smaller states.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, the ratio of the populations of large states to small states was roughly 12 to one. The Connecticut Compromise gave every state, large and small, an equal vote in the Senate. Since each state has two senators, residents of smaller states have more clout in the Senate than residents of larger states. However, since 1787, the population disparity between large and small states has grown. For example, in 2006 California had 70 times the population of Wyoming.

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Congress Hall Committee Room in Philadelphia: The second committee room upstairs in Congress Hall, Philadelphia, PA.

Critics, such as constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson, have suggested that the population disparity works against residents of large states and causes a steady redistribution of resources from large states to small states. However, others argue that the framers intended for the Connecticut Compromise to construct the Senate so that each state had equal footing that was not based on population. Critics contend that the result is successful for maintaining balance.

Members and Constituents

A major role for members of Congress is providing services to constituents. Constituents request assistance with problems. Providing services helps members of Congress win votes because elections can make a difference in close races. Congressional staff can help citizens navigate government bureaucracies. One academic described the complex intertwined relation between lawmakers and constituents as “home style. ”

Congressional Style

According to political scientist Richard Fenno, there are specific ways to categorize lawmakers. First, is if they are generally motivated by reelection: these are lawmakers who never met a voter they did not like and provide excellent constituent services. Second, is if they have good public policy: these are legislators who burnish a reputation for policy expertise and leadership. Third, is if they have power in the chamber: these are lawmakers who spend serious time along the rail of the House floor or in the Senate cloakroom ministering to the needs of their colleagues.

Service to Constituents

A major role for members of Congress is providing services to constituents.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the services Congresspersons and their staff provide constituents

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A major role for members of Congress is providing services to constituents. Constituents request assistance with problems. Providing services helps members of Congress win votes and elections and can make a difference in close races.
  • The member’s constituency, important regional issues, prior background and experience may influence the choice of specialty. Senators often choose a different specialty from that of the other senator from their state to prevent overlap.
  • Senators often choose a different specialty from that of the other senator from their state to prevent overlap. Some committees specialize in running the business of other committees and exert a powerful influence over all legislation.

Key Terms

  • constituency: An interest group or fan base.

Background

A major role for members of Congress is providing services to constituents. Constituents request assistance with problems. Providing services helps members of Congress win votes and elections and can make a difference in close races. Congressional staff can help citizens navigate government bureaucracies. One academic described the complex intertwined relationship between lawmakers and constituents as “home style. ”

Committees investigate specialized subjects and advise the entire Congress about choices and trade-offs. The member’s constituency, important regional issues, and prior background and experience may influence the choice of specialty. Senators often choose a different specialty from that of the other senator from their state to prevent overlap. Some committees specialize in running the business of other committees and exert a powerful influence over all legislation; for example, the House Ways and Means Committee have considerable influence over House affairs.

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2004 Presidential Election by County: This map shows the vote in the 2004 presidential election by county. All major Republican geographic constituencies are visible: red dominates the map, showing Republican strength in the rural areas, while the denser areas (i.e., cities) are blue. Notable exceptions include the Pacific coast; New England; the Black Belt, areas with high Native American populations; and the heavily Hispanic parts of the Southwest.

Congressional Style

One way to categorize lawmakers, according to political scientist Richard Fenno, is by their general motivation:

  • re-election, these are lawmakers who “never met a voter they did not like” and provide excellent constituent services
  • good public policy, legislators who burnish a reputation for policy expertise and leadership
  • power in the chamber, lawmakers who spend serious time along the rail of the House floor or in the Senate cloakroom ministering to the needs of their colleagues – famous legislator Henry Clay in the mid-nineteenth century was described as an “issue entrepreneur” who looked for issues to serve his ambitions
  • gridlock, unless Congress can begin to work together through compromise, each member will be removed, by one means or another (i.e., by CPA).

The Oversight Function

The United States Congress has oversight of the Executive Branch and other U.S. federal agencies.

Learning Objectives

Describe congressional oversight and the varied bases whence its authority is derived

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Congressional oversight is the review, monitoring, and supervision of federal agencies, programs, activities, and policy implementation.
  • Congress exercises this power largely through its congressional committee system. However, oversight, which dates to the earliest days of the Republic, also occurs in a wide variety of congressional activities and contexts.
  • It is implied in the legislature ‘s authority, among other powers and duties, to appropriate funds, enact laws, raise and support armies, provide for a Navy, declare war, and impeach and remove from office the President, Vice President, and other civil officers.

Key Terms

  • subpoena: A writ requiring someone to appear in court to give testimony.

Background

Congressional oversight refers to oversight by the United States Congress of the Executive Branch, including the numerous U.S. federal agencies. Congressional oversight is the review, monitoring, and supervision of federal agencies, programs, activities, and policy implementation. Congress exercises this power largely through its congressional committee system. However, oversight, which dates to the earliest days of the Republic, also occurs in a wide variety of congressional activities and contexts. These include authorization, appropriations, investigative, and legislative hearings by standing committees; specialized investigations by select committees; and reviews and studies by congressional support agencies and staff.

Congress’s oversight authority derives from its “implied” powers in the Constitution, public laws, and House and Senate rules. It is an integral part of the American system of checks and balances.

Report on the Organization of Congress

Oversight is an implied rather than an enumerated power under the U.S. Constitution. The government ‘s charter does not explicitly grant Congress the authority to conduct inquiries or investigations of the executive, to have access to records or materials held by the executive, or to issue subpoenas for documents or testimony from the executive.

There was little discussion of the power to oversee, review, or investigate executive activity at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 or later in the Federalist Papers, which argued in favor of ratification of the Constitution. The lack of debate was because oversight and its attendant authority were seen as an inherent power of representative assemblies, which enacted public law.

Oversight also derives from the many, varied express powers of the Congress in the Constitution. It is implied in the legislature’s authority, among other powers and duties, to appropriate funds, enact laws, raise and support armies, provide for a Navy, declare war, and impeach and remove from office the President, Vice President, and other civil officers. Congress could not reasonably or responsibly exercise these powers without knowing what the executive was doing; how programs were being administered, by whom, and at what cost; and whether officials were obeying the law and complying with legislative intent.

The Supreme Court of the United States made the oversight powers of Congress legitimate, subject to constitutional safeguards for civil liberties, on several occasions. For instance, in 1927 the High Court found that in investigating the administration of the Justice Department, Congress was considering a subject “on which legislation could be had or would be materially aided by the information which the investigation was calculated to elicit. ”

Activities and Avenues

Oversight occurs through a wide variety of congressional activities and avenues. Some of the most publicized are the comparatively rare investigations by select committees into major scandals or executive branch operations gone awry. Examples are temporary select committee inquiries into: China’s acquisition of U.S. nuclear weapons information, in 1999; the Iran-Contra affair, in 1987; intelligence agency abuses, in 1975-1976, and “Watergate,” in 1973-1974. The precedent for this kind of oversight goes back two centuries: in 1792, a special House committee investigated the defeat of an Army force by confederated Indian tribes.

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Jim Greenwood Committee Chair: Congressman Jim Greenwood, Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, gavels to start the hearing on human cloning.

The Public-Education Function of Congress

The Library of Congress provides public information and educates the public about legislation among other general information.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of the various roles the Library Congress plays in public education

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Putnam focused his efforts on making the Library more accessible and useful for the public and for other libraries. He instituted the interlibrary loan service, transforming the Library of Congress into what he referred to as a “library of last resort”.
  • Based in the Progressive era ‘s philosophy of science as a problem-solver, and modeled after successful research branches of state legislatures, the LRS would provide informed answers to Congressional research inquiries on almost any topic.
  • The library is open to the general public for academic research and tourists. Only those who are issued a Reader Identification Card may enter the reading rooms and access the collection.

Key Terms

  • endowment: The invested funds of a not-for-profit institution.

Background

The Library of Congress, spurred by the 1897 reorganization, began to grow and develop more rapidly. Herbert Putnam held the office for forty years from 1899 to 1939, entering into the position two years before the Library became the first in the United States to hold one million volumes. Putnam focused his efforts on making the Library more accessible and useful for the public and for other libraries. He instituted the interlibrary loan service, transforming the Library of Congress into what he referred to as a library of last resort. Putnam also expanded Library access to “scientific investigators and duly qualified individuals” and began publishing primary sources for the benefit of scholars.

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Library of Congress: The collections of the Library of Congress include more than 32 million cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 61 million manuscripts.

Putnam’s tenure also saw increasing diversity in the Library’s acquisitions. In 1903, he persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to transfer by executive order the papers of the Founding Fathers from the State Department to the Library of Congress. Putnam expanded foreign acquisitions as well.

In 1914, Putnam established the Legislative Reference Service as a separative administrative unit of the Library. Based in the Progressive era’s philosophy of science as a problem-solver, and modeled after successful research branches of state legislatures, the LRS would provide informed answers to Congressional research inquiries on almost any topic. In 1965, Congress passed an act allowing the Library of Congress to establish a trust fund board to accept donations and endowments, giving the Library a role as a patron of the arts.

The Library received the donations and endowments of prominent individuals such as John D. Rockefeller, James B. Wilbur and Archer M. Huntington. Gertrude Clarke Whittall donated five Stradivarius violins to the Library and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s donations paid for a concert hall within the Library of Congress building and the establishment of an honorarium for the Music Division. A number of chairs and consultantships were established from the donations, the best known of which is the Poet Laureate Consultant.

Library of Congress Expansion

The Library’s expansion eventually filled the Library’s Main Building, despite shelving expansions in 1910 and 1927, forcing the Library to expand into a new structure. Congress acquired nearby land in 1928 and approved construction of the Annex Building (later the John Adams Building) in 1930. Although delayed during the Depression years, it was completed in 1938 and opened to the public in 1939.

When Putnam retired in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Archibald MacLeish as his successor. Occupying the post from 1939 to 1944 during the height of World War II, MacLeish became the most visible Librarian of Congress in the Library’s history. MacLeish encouraged librarians to oppose totalitarianism on behalf of democracy; dedicated the South Reading Room of the Adams Building to Thomas Jefferson, commissioning artist Ezra Winter to paint four themed murals for the room; and established a “democracy alcove” in the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building for important documents such as the Declaration, Constitution and Federalist Papers.

Even the Library of Congress assisted during the war effort. These efforts ranged from the storage of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution in Fort Knox for safekeeping to researching weather data on the Himalayas for Air Force pilots. MacLeish resigned in 1944 to become Assistant Secretary of State, and President Harry Truman appointed Luther H. Evans as Librarian of Congress. Evans, who served until 1953, expanded the Library’s acquisitions, cataloging and bibliographic services as much as the fiscal-minded Congress would allow, but his primary achievement was the creation of Library of Congress Missions around the world. Missions played a variety of roles in the postwar world: the mission in San Francisco assisted participants in the meeting that established the United Nations, the mission in Europe acquired European publications for the Library of Congress and other American libraries, and the mission in Japan aided in the creation of the National Diet Library.

In 2016, Dr. Carla Hayden was appointed as the 14th Librarian of Congress, the first woman, and the first African-American to serve in the position.The library is open to the general public for academic research and tourists. Only those who are issued a Reader Identification Card may enter the reading rooms and access the collection. The Reader Identification Card is available in the Madison building to persons who are at least 16 years of age upon presentation of a government issued picture identification (e.g. driver’s license, state ID card or passport). However, only members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, their staff, Library of Congress staff and certain other government officials may actually remove items from the library buildings. Members of the general public with Reader Identification Cards must use items from the library collection inside the reading rooms only. Since 1902, libraries in the United States have been able to request books and other items through interlibrary loan from the Library of Congress if these items are not readily available elsewhere.

The Conflict-Resolution Function

Both the Senate and the House have a conflict-resolution procedure before a bill is passed as a piece of legislation.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the steps by which a bill becomes law

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Representatives introduce a bill while the House is in session by placing it in the hopper on the Clerk’s desk. It is assigned a number and referred to a committee. The committee studies each bill intensely at this stage.
  • Each bill goes through several stages in each house including consideration by a committee and advice from the Government Accountability Office. Most legislation is considered by standing committees, which have jurisdiction over a particular subject such as Agriculture or Appropriations.
  • Once a bill is approved by one house, it is sent to the other house which may pass, reject, or amend it. For the bill to become law, both houses must agree to identical versions of the bill.
  • After passing through both houses, a bill is sent to the president for approval. The president may sign it making it law or veto it and return it to Congress with his objections. A vetoed bill can still become law if each house of Congress votes to override the veto with a two-thirds majority.
  • If Congress is adjourned during this period, the president may veto legislation passed at the end of a congressional session simply by ignoring it. This maneuver is known as a pocket veto. It cannot be overridden by the adjourned Congress.

Key Terms

  • appropriation: Public funds set aside for a specific purpose.
  • amend: To make a formal alteration in legislation by adding, deleting, or rephrasing.

Background

Representatives introduce a bill while the House is in session by placing it in the hopper on the Clerk’s desk. It is assigned a number and referred to a committee. At this stage, the committee studies each bill intensely. Drafting statutes requires “great skill, knowledge, and experience” and can sometimes take a year or more. On occasion, lobbyists write legislation and submit it to a member for introduction. Joint resolutions are the normal way to propose a constitutional amendment or declare war. On the other hand, concurrent resolutions (passed by both houses) and simple resolutions (passed by only one house) do not have the force of law, but they express the opinion of Congress or regulate procedure. Any member of either house may introduce bills. However, the Constitution provides states that: All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives. While the Senate cannot originate revenue and appropriation bills, it has the power to amend or reject them. Congress has sought ways to establish appropriate spending levels.

Bill and Resolutions

Each bill goes through several stages in each house including consideration by a committee and advice from the Government Accountability Office. Most legislation is taken into consideration by standing committees, which have jurisdiction over a particular subject such as Agriculture or Appropriations. The House has 20 standing committees; the Senate has 16. Standing committees meet at least once each month. Almost all standing committee meetings for transacting business must be open to the public unless the committee publicly votes to close the meeting. A committee might call for public hearings on important bills. A chair who belongs to the majority party and a ranking member of the minority party lead each committee. Witnesses and experts can present their case for or against a bill. Then, a bill may go to what is called a mark-up session where committee members debate the bill’s merits. The committee members may offer amendments or revisions. Committees may also amend the bill, but the full house holds the power to accept or reject committee amendments. After debate, the committee votes whether it wishes to report the measure to the full house. If a bill is tabled, then it is rejected. If amendments are extensive, sometimes a new bill with amendments built in will be submitted as a so-called “clean bill” with a new number. Generally, members who have been in Congress longer have greater seniority and therefore greater power.

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U.S. House Committee: The House Financial Services Committee meets. Committee members sit in the tiers of raised chairs, while individuals testifying and audience members sit below.

A bill, that reaches the floor of the full house, can be simple or complex. It begins with an enacting formula such as “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. ” Consideration of a bill requires, itself, a rule which is a simple resolution specifying the particulars of debate—time limits, possibility of further amendments, and such. Each side has equal time and members can yield to other members who wish to speak. Sometimes opponents seek to recommit a bill, which means to change part of it. Generally, discussion requires a quorum, usually half of the total number of representatives, before discussion can begin, although there are exceptions. The house may debate and amend the bill. The precise procedure used by the House and Senate differs. A final vote on the bill follows.

Once a bill is approved by one house, it is sent to the other which may pass, reject, or amend it. For the bill to become law, both houses must agree to identical versions of the bill. If the second house amends the bill, then the differences between the two versions must be reconciled in a conference committee. This is an ad hoc committee that includes both senators and representatives and uses a reconciliation process to limit budget bills. Both Houses use a budget enforcement mechanism informally known as “pay-as-you-go” or “pay-go” which discourages members from considering acts which increase budget deficits. If both houses agree to the version reported by the conference committee, the bill passes, otherwise it fails.

The Constitution, however, requires a recorded vote if demanded by one-fifth of the members present. If the voice vote is unclear or if the matter is controversial, a recorded vote usually happens.

After passage by both houses, a bill is enrolled and sent to the president for approval. The president may sign it making it law. If the bill is vetoed, the president returns it to Congress with his objections. A vetoed bill can still become law if each house of Congress votes to override the veto with a two-thirds majority. However, if Congress is adjourned during this period, the president may veto legislation passed at the end of a congressional session simply by ignoring it. This maneuver is known as a pocket veto. It cannot be overridden by the adjourned Congress.