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U.S. Politics

Senate and House

The two chambers of the U.S. Congress are The Senate and The House of Representatives.

This two house system is known as a bicameral legislature. The primary duty of Congress is to write, debate, and pass bills, which are then passed on to the president for approval. Other congressional duties include investigating pressing national issues and supervising the executive and judicial branches.
Every two years, voters get to choose all 435 representatives and a third of the senators. The entire House membership faces re-election every two years, but the Senate is a continuing body because there is never an entirely new Senate. A new Congress begins in January following Congressional elections. Since the First Congress, which met from 1789 to 1791, all Congresses have been numbered in order. We are currently in the 110th Congress. Congress meets once every year and usually lasts from January 3rd to July 31st, but in special cases, a session can last longer.
For the most part, the House and Senate each meet in their respective chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.; however, on rare occasions, they will convene for a joint session of Congress in the House chamber. For example, a joint session will be called to count electoral votes for presidential elections.

The Powers of Congress

The Constitution grants Congress "all legislative powers" in the national government. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution lists a wide range of congressional powers, including:
  • Coining money
  • Maintaining a military
  • Declaring war on other countries
  • Regulating interstate and foreign commerce

Congress also controls federal taxing and spending policies—one of the most important sources of power in the government. The Constitution also gives Congress the authority to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper," an implied source of power sometimes called the Elastic Clause.

One of the most important implied powers is Congress’s authority to investigate and oversee the executive branch and its agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. As part of this responsibility, which is known as oversight, Congress summons senior officials to answer questions from members, orders audits of agencies, and holds hearings to air grievances of citizens.

Congress also holds hearings on matters of general public concern. Sometimes members of Congress conduct these hearings to identify problems that create a need for new laws. In other cases Congress holds hearings to raise public awareness about an issue.

There are, however, some congressional powers that are rarely used such as the ability to impeach an official and the ability to amend the Constitution.

In addition to the power described above, Congress shares powers with the president in matters such as, framing U.S. foreign policy and control over the military. For example, while the president negotiates treaties, they are only put into effect once the Senate approves them. Also, while Congress can declare war and approve funds for the military, the president is the commander-in-chief of the military.

How is it determined how many members in the House of Representatives represent each state?

Information on the apportionment population and number of representatives for each state can be found on the Census 2000 Congressional Apportionment page. The fundamental reason for conducting the decennial census of the United States is to apportion the members of the House of Representatives among the 50 states. A state's resident population consists of those persons "usually resident" in that state (where they live and sleep most of the time). A state's apportionment population is the sum of its resident population and a count of overseas U.S. military and federal civilian employees (and their dependents living with them) allocated to the state, as reported by the employing federal agencies.
"Apportionment" is the process of dividing the 435 memberships, or seats, in the House of Representatives among the 50 states. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the census at 10-year intervals and, at the conclusion of each census, it uses the results for calculating the number of House memberships each state is entitled to have. The latter process is the initial use of the basic results of each census.

U.S. Congress Graphic



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Source: Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office; magazineUSA.com
Last modified: 20070820
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