I. The Basics about Congress

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Congress is the legislative, or lawmaking, branch of the federal government. It is a bicameral (made up of two chambers) legislature that consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Constitution gives the two houses similar powers. There are two main reasons why Congress has two houses, rather than a single-house, unicameral system. They are:

(A). To keep a historical tradition because the framers of the Constitution were familiar with the British Parliament, which consists of two houses.

(B). A bicameral legislature offers a way of resolving a major conflict in the writing of the Constitution concerning population representation.


1). What branch is the lawmaking branch of government?

2). What is a bicameral legislature?

3). What are the two houses of our legislature?

4). What is a reason why we have a bicameral legislation?

5). What helps build a stronger system of checks and balances into government?


II. Senate

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The Senate, the Upper House in Congress, consists of 100 Senators. In this house of Congress, 2 members from each state represent that state (regardless of population size there are always 2 members).Each senator serves for a 6 year term.(there are elections for senators every 6 years)The members of Senate each represent their state, BUT they make laws for the country as a whole.


1). How long is a Senator’s term?

2). What does a Senator represent?

3). What number of Senators are there per state?


III. House of Representatives

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The House of Representatives, the Lower House of Congress, is not a continuing body. This means that every 2 years its entire membership is renewed. The House of Reps consists of 435 members (called Representatives, Congresspersons, Congressmen, and/or Congresswomen).The amount of Representatives of each state is determined by that states population (unlike Senators).The way it works is, according to a states population it has so many Congressional Districts (CDs).Then from each CD one member is elected for a 2 year term, But every state is guaranteed 1 Representative. (so if a state had such a low population that technically it would have no Representatives, it would still be aloud to have one Representative)In the House of Reps, each member represents his/her district (like Senators represent their state), but they make laws for the entire U.S.


1). How long is the term of a Representative?

2). How is the number of Representatives per state determined (what does a Representative represent)?

3). What are 3 other names for Representative?


IV. The Powers of Congress


Congress only has the powers that are specifically stated (or implied) in the Constitution. Most of these powers are stated in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.


Powers of both the House and Senate:

1.  Pass bills and send them to the President.

2.  Declare War

3.  Propose Constitutional amendments, send them to states

4.Provide individuals’ requested services who have problems with their government (casework-solving individual problems with government benefits, i.e. Social Security) (Ross, 164)

5.Determine the appellate jurisdiction- power to review the actions taken by the United States Supreme Court (thereby ensuring a balance of power, checks and balances) (Ross, 243)

6.Establish courts in addition to the U.S. Supreme Court

7.Determine the salary of the federal judges to be appointed in the future

8.Establish and maintain armed forces

9.Raise taxes

10.Spend money

11.Control interstate commerce

12.Authority to make laws necessary to carry out its explicit grant of authority


Powers of the House of Representatives:

1.Begin tax bills

2.Begin spending bills

3.Impeach (to formally accuse a President of high positioned person in front of a judge) (Ross, 258, 208)


Powers of the Senate:

1.Confirm Presidential Appointments 

2.Ratify treaties

3.Try impeached President, federal judges, or justices (Senate sits in judgment while House just votes for whether the president should be tried or not) (Ross, 208)



1). In what Article and Section is Congress given most of its powers?

2). What are two powers held solely by the US House of Representatives?

3). How does Congress attempt to get rid of a president?


V. Committees

Parties assign congressional representatives to committees. When a bill is introduced, it is sent to a bipartisan (two party) committee for consideration. Committees then break down their work-load into subcommittees, smaller groups to begin and focus on more specific issues. Committees decide whether a bill will move forward or not, and see that congress properly uses the new legislation. Jane Harman served on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, a standing committee (Ross, 128-129). Standing committees are permanent and are responsible for legislation within a certain subject area. Special and select committees are established to investigate specific problems, and are broken up after they give their reports. Joint committees (Ross, 130) are made of senators and representatives to attack important national problems. Conference (Ross, 130) committees are made up from both houses, and they settle disputes and make compromises between themselves. The majority party mathematically ends up with the majority of seat positions in each committee. The leader or chair of a committee is decided by party and seniority rule, based on the length of service previously committed. The most important committees are the Ways and Means (taxation), Appropriations (government fund distributor), Budget, Foreign Relations, and the Rules (Ross, 134), which controls calendar and floor action committees.


1). Where do bills go for consideration?

2). Who assigns representatives to committees?

3). Are standing committees permanent?

4). What are the other types of committees?

5). What decides who becomes committee chair?

6). What committee controls the floor?


VI. A Bill to a Law

For a bill to become a law it must go through many steps. These steps ensure that both houses of Congress and the President approve the bill. :

1.   A bill is introduced by a member of the Senate or the House of Representatives (often at the request of the President).

2.   Different committees in that house study it and then decide what revisions they need to make. After they make the bill the way they want it, they approve it.

3.   Then it is sent to the floor for debate (between the committees) and amendments (changes) are made.

4.   Once the bill is approved by that chamber (chamber of congress, either the House or the Senate), it is sent to the other where it will undergo study in committees and floor vote.

5.   When both houses have passed the bill, a conference committee (see III. A.) consisting of members from both House and Senate come together to work out differences between the Senate version and

       House or Reps’ version.

6.   Bill is sent back to the Senate and the House of Representatives  for final approval.

7.   When bill is approved by both chambers, it is sent to the president who can let the bill become the law without his signature, allow it to become law by signing it, or veto it by returning it to Congress.

      (meaning he doesn’t want it to pass because he doesn’t like it)

8.   Congress may override the veto by 2/3 majority vote in both the Senate and H.O.R., but this cannot happen if the President has pocket-vetoed the bill by refusing to sign it during the 10 last days

      Congress is in session.


1). In what type of committee do Reps and Senators come together to compromise on the bill?

2). Who sees the bill first, the House, Senate, or either depending to whom it is introduced?

3). Congress can ______ a veto made by a president with a 2/3 majority vote, which means the bill still becomes law though the president is against that happening.


VII. Leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate

Within House and Senate there are leaders also. In the House of Representatives there is the Speaker of House of Representatives. If something happened to the vice president and president so that they both could not serve office, the Speaker of House of Representatives is the next one in line to be president.(So, if both the president and vice president are assassinated, impeached, etc, the Speaker will become president)In the Senate the majority leader (Ross, 148) is the most senior member of the majority party and the most influential person in Senate. He has access to information, control over communications and agendas, and knowledge of institutions. The majority whip assists the leader.(Ross, 148)The minority leader and whip in Senate also choose its leader and assistant leader.


1). Who is next in line to become President if something happens to the current President and VP?

2). Who is the most senior and most influential member of the Senate?

3). What does a whip do?


VIII. Composition of Congress

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In Congress there are 54 women in all: 48 in House and 6 in Senate. Most people in Congress are either lawyers or business people though there are other multiple occupations as well. The different religions of the people in Congress and the people they represent include:

1.Judaism –started in the Middle East. (

2.Christianity – started in the middle east (

a. Eastern Orthodox

b. Protestant (most Christians in America. All but one of our presidents)

c. Catholic (Our only non-Protestant president, John F. Kennedy, was Catholic)

3.Islam – the newest and fastest growing religion. Started in the Middle East as well. (

4.Hinduism – the oldest religion. Started in India some people interpret it as being polytheistic though many Hindu priests (Swamis) say it is actually monotheistic. 

5.Buddhism – Started in India by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha. Spread through East Asia. (


1). How many religions started in the Middle East?

2). Which religion is the oldest?

3). What branch of Christianity are most American politicians?

4). What occupations do many congress members hold?


IX. Definitions

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Some definitions related to the legislative branch include:

1.Filibustera process that happens when a minority will talk about a bill for so long that the bill is not voted for or desired changes are not made. (Ross, 140)

2.Pork barrel legislation- projects that benefit only one or a few districts or states. (166, Ross) (Example- if a president makes a bill to benefit his home town)

3.Logrolling- trading of votes among lawmakers (members of congress) (Ross, 135)

4.Rider- amendment to a bill that has nothing to do with the actual legislation. These are against the rules of the House, but occur a lot in the Senate.(Ross, 143)

5.Veto- Disapproval by the president of a bill or joint resolution. (Ross, 196)

6.Veto Override- A two thirds majority of both the US senate and the House of Representatives are needed to by-pass a vote. (See IV. B. 8.) (Ross, 198)

7.Pocket Veto- The decision of the president to not take action on the signing of a bill near the end of a session of congress. If congress adjourns within a ten-day period, The bill is killed without the president’s formal veto. (Ross, 198)

8.Item Veto-power given to president to nullify certain parts or items of a bill passed by congress. This was declared unconstitutional because it gives the president more power than the constitution allows, thereby unbalancing the power between congress and the pres. (Shank, 148)

9.Wesberry vs. Sanders-said that Congressional House Districts (CDs) had to be mathematically precise. Variations beyond 1% were invalidated, but districts of state officials with a deviation as high as 15% can be accepted. This is so because they are different types of elections (congressional and non-congressional) and are dealt with in different parts of the constitution. (Ross, 297)

10.Gerrymander-attempts to take partisan advantage by drawing districts of unusual shape or design. (Elbridge Gerry) (Ross, 298)