The Congress of the United States is the legislative branch of the government based on a bicameral legislature. Established in 1789 under the American constitution, it is based on two houses.
The House of Representatives is the lower house, and the Senate is the upper house. Congress shares power with the executive branch while the judiciary oversees its functions.
It is the only branch of the federal government where citizens of America directly elect their representatives.
The Senate has 100 members; two senators represent each state of the United States regardless of the population. On the contrary, the House of Representatives has 435 members representing their state based on population ratio.
Some functions of Congress are commonly shared among both houses, while others are specific to each house.
Article 1 of the American Constitution outlines the powers granted to Congress.
According to this article, Congress has the authority to make and amend laws, declare war, collect taxes, maintain armed forces, regulate the economy, and give consent to presidential appointments and treaties negotiated by the President and the executive branch.
In addition, it can also coin money and take loans, oversee budgeting, impeach President, Vice President, and civil officials, and put them on trial.
The powers to impeach the President, Vice President, and civil officials and put them under trial are divided between the two houses. The U.S. House of Representatives impeaches them and the senate puts their cases under trial.
The investigative powers also lie with Congress when it finds any interference in its matters. Congressional investigating committees call witnesses and ask them to produce the required information.
These committees can charge the persons with contempt of Congress and issue warrants for their arrest who intentionally interfere and block legislative procedures.
Government Printing, congressional budget, and general accounting are matters of importance for both houses of Congress. To meet such needs, it has separate agencies that overlook these functions.
Furthermore, the Copyright Royalty Tribunal, the Library of Congress, and the Botanic Garden are some agencies that are directly answerable to Congress.
The Joint Session of Congress
Congress holds a joint session to elect the president and vice president based on electoral votes.
In addition, though not legally bound, it also organizes joint sessions when the president or any foreign dignitary intends to address the House of Representatives and the Senate.
According to law, Congress must arrange a joint session at least once a year after deciding the date for convening and adjourning.
The date for the convening has been set up for 3rd January every year after the Twentieth Amendment. However, both houses decide the date for adjournment through voting.
A congress session starts with a State of the Union address by the president, followed by the message for the annual budget and the economic report.
A State of the Union address is the legislative agenda that the president likes Congress to follow.
The Role of the President
The President of the United States of America leads the Congress and presides over the joint session of both houses.
In terms of legislation, the president acts as a functional head of the Congress, whose actions are overseen by the United States Supreme Court.
Government departments and other agencies are under a legal obligation to send periodic reports of their activities to the Senate.
In addition, the president keeps both houses well-informed of the need for new laws and submits treaties and official federal nominations for approval from the Senate.
One of the powerful functions that the US president enjoys is vetoing proposed laws. The president can sign or veto any legislation by exercising the authority granted by the Constitution and influencing the legislature.
However, the veto can be overturned with a two-thirds majority vote from both the houses of Congress.
As Congress is responsible for imposing and collecting taxes and other funds, the president holds power to determine initial financial appropriations.
Once the estimates are submitted to Congress for the next fiscal year, several appropriation bills make their way to the chamber during the initial period of six or seven months of a session.
Furthermore, the president exercises authority as the political party leader and frames party policy both in Congress and among the electorate.
The Committee System
Each term of Congress starts from an odd-numbered year and ends in the next odd-numbered year. Under the Constitution, it developed the committee system to address the specific issues and recommend and draft laws for annual sessions.
There are three types of committees working in Congress such as standing committees (they are permanent), select committees (they are special and temporary), and joint committees (they work for the subjects of common interest).
The approval of both houses of Congress is needed to make a law. So, conference committees are also formed to resolve and adjust conflicted versions of the laws to achieve unanimous approval for an identical document.
Due to the burden and complex nature of work, Congress has approximately 250 committees and subcommittees. The Senate has a total of 24 committees, whereas the House of Representatives has several committees based on the representation of the population.
Congress starts with slow legislative output as congressional committees need time to deliberate and prepare drafts of laws before presenting them to the house floor.
At the end of a session, laws that fail to get approval from Congress to retain their status in the next session.
Congress has no direct relations with the U.S. Supreme Court. Though, being a judicial head of the state can extend power to invalidate laws that are contradictory or violations of the American Constitution.
Even the supreme legal authority can put stronger restrictions on the functioning of Congress than the presidential veto.
The Supreme Court and federal court verdicts over the legality of the powers and legislation outline and guide the constitutional framework for Congress.
Congress is one of the main organs of the state where several important decisions are made.
Its primary goals are to protect the country and the rights of the citizens of the United States of America by making new laws, collecting taxes, regulating the economy, maintaining the armed forces, etc.
Hope this article provided you with a brief overview of how US congress works. Happy Reading.