The main task of Congress is to legislate. It is the dominant policymaking authority out of the three branches of government and represents the states. Congress is a bicameral legislature comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bicameral design of Congress exemplifies the Founders’ method of splitting power between different entities in order to share power and create a check against tyranny. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are both elected by voters as a form of representative democracy. The Senate is composed of two Senators from each state who serve terms of six years while in the House representatives represent approximately 600,000 people each and serve terms of two years. The Founding Fathers decided that while every state would be represented equally in the Senate, representation in the House of Representatives would be according to a state’s population. The number of the Representatives was capped by legislation in the early 1900’s. At-large elections, which is where the entire state population votes for Representatives instead of voters in the specific congressional district, are only permitted in states with one Representative.
The most important power Congress has is to make laws, and a bill only becomes a law after it has passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate. A bill first needs to be introduced, which can only be done by a member of Congress. Next, it is referred to a committee for review, which can approve, amend, or reject it. If it is not rejected then it continues to move through different committees and subcommittees where the bill is debated. After a bill has been approved by a full committee, it is voted on. After one chamber has approved it, it is sent to the other for debate and approval. Once it has passed both chambers, it goes to the President who then vetoes it or signs it into law. If the chambers approve different versions of the bill then they need to be resolved in a joint congressional committee. Even if the President vetoes a bill, Congress can still turn it into law although it requires two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress. In addition to passing laws, the legislative branch also has the power to amend the Constitution. An amendment needs to be passed by two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress then it needs to go to the states and be passed by three-quarters of the state legislatures.
Section 1 Article 8 of the Constitution grants Congress a number of powers, including the power to coin money, declare war, regulate commerce, raise an army and a navy, establish federal courts, and establish rules regarding immigration and naturalization. In addition to these enumerated powers, the Constitution also grants Congress the power to pass legislation that it is “necessary and proper” in order to implement its enumerated powers.
Furthermore, each of the houses has been granted special powers. Powers given to the House of Representatives include the impeachment power, the power to elect the President in the case of an electoral college tie, and revenue bills need to originate in the House. The Senate has the power to confirm the President’s appointments for executive and judicial branch posts and ratify treaties. Each one of the chambers also vote to confirm the President’s choice for Vice President when there is a vacancy.
The Constitution also specifically forbids Congress from taking certain acts. Congress is not allowed to pass legislation that retroactively makes a specific act a crime or laws that condemn persons for crimes or unlawful acts without providing a trial. There are also certain rules hampering Congress’s ability to level taxes on the population.
Congress also serves an important role in checking and balancing the power of the other branches. The legislative branch provides a check through the use of hearings where it provides oversight. Another one of Congress’s most important functions is its investigative power. This is often done through committees that gather information to form future laws, determine how effective current laws are, and to check on the performance of other officials.