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Define Congress… Defining Can be Difficult

Politics can be very confusing to follow, especially if one is unaware of the basics, but a quick description of the functions and structure of Congress can help advocates of poverty reduction get a brief overview of the complex size and scope of the United States Congress.

Let’s define Congress. The U.S. Congress makes up the legislative branch of the U.S. government, meaning it has the power to write and make laws. Additionally, it has the ability to approve all government spending, collect taxes, declare war, regulate commerce and provide for the general welfare. Under the American democratic system of checks and balances, it shares governing authority with the executive and judicial branches of the government.


Congress is made up of two parts, or chambers. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, has 435 members. The amount of members per state varies by the state’s population, but currently each representative typically represents approximately 700,000 constituents. Each state must have at least one representative who serves two-year terms.

The upper chamber, the Senate, has 100 total members. Each state has two senators, regardless of its population. Senators face re-election every six years; however, elections are rotated so that no more than one senator per state is up for re-election in a single election cycle.

Making Laws

A “Congress” lasts two years and begins on January 3 of odd-numbered years. Each year is considered a “session” of Congress. As of 2014, the 113th Congress is serving its second session. At the end of this year, elections will be held to decide the 114th Congress, which will meet from 2015 to 2017. Unapproved bills remain alive between sessions of Congress but do not carry over into the next two-year congressional term.

After a bill’s introduction in either house, it goes for review to the legislative committee that covers the subject of the bill. The committee may refer the bill to a subcommittee, which may hold hearings on the bill and amend it before recommending it for approval in a new form to the greater committee. Once the bill clears the committee process, it goes to the House or Senate floor for debate.

The House and Senate must each approve the bill in identical form before the President has an opportunity to sign it into law. Therefore, should differences exist between the House and Senate versions, the two chambers of Congress will form a conference committee to hash out any discrepancies. The president then has ten days to sign or veto the bill.

Shared Authority

The Senate and the House of Representatives share identical legislative authority with a couple of exceptions. First, the House of Representatives originates all revenue-raising bills, initiates impeachment proceedings against federal officials and has the final authority to choose the president if no candidate wins in the electoral college.

The Senate has the authority to confirm federal and judicial branch appointments and also the authority to ratify treaties. The senate also conducts impeachment trials after the House of Representatives has initiated them.

Martin Levy

Sources: About, Congress Link, Census Data
Photo: OSG’s AP Gov. and Politics


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