23 Congress: How is the legislative branch structured?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the role of Congress in the U.S. constitutional system
  • Define bicameralism
  • Explain gerrymandering and the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives
  • Discuss the three kinds of powers granted to Congress
  • Explain the division of labor in the House and in the Senate
  • Describe the way congressional committees develop and advance legislation

The origins of the U.S. Constitution and the convention that brought it into existence are rooted in failure—the failure of the Articles of Confederation. After only a handful of years, the states of the union decided that the Articles were unworkable. To save the young republic, a convention was called, and delegates were sent to assemble and revise the Articles. The Congress we recognize today emerged from the controversies and compromises in this convention.

The Great Compromise: How do we make representation fair and equitable?

Only a few years after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, the republican experiment seemed on the verge of failure. States deep in debt were printing increasingly worthless paper currency, many were mired in interstate trade battles with each other, and in western Massachusetts a small group of Revolutionary War veterans angry over the prospect of losing their farms broke into armed open revolt against the state. This came to be known as Shays’ Rebellion. Many concluded the Articles of Confederation were simply not strong enough to keep the young republic together. A convention was called in the spring of 1787 and delegates from all the states (except Rhode Island, which boycotted the convention) were sent to Philadelphia to work out a solution.

The meeting these delegates convened became known as the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although its prescribed purpose was to revise the Articles of Confederation, a number of delegates charted a path toward replacing the Articles entirely. The national legislature had been made up of a single chamber composed of an equal number of delegates from each of the states. Virginia and other large states felt it would be unfair to continue with this equal distribution of power. Virginia’s delegates proposed a plan for bicameralism, or the division of legislators into two separate assemblies. In this proposed two-chamber Congress, states with larger populations would have more representatives in each chamber. Predictably, smaller states like New Jersey disagreed. They issued their own plan calling for a single-chamber Congress with equal representation by state and more state authority.

Virginia Plan, Legislature Bicameral. Representation Population based (higher population yields more representation). Role of national government Can legislate for states and veto state law. New Jersey Plan: Legislature unicameral. Representation: State based (each state equally represented). Role of national government Provides defense but does not override state authority.

A third proposal eventually calmed this storm of debate over allocation of power between large and small states. The Connecticut Compromise, also called the Great Compromise, proposed a bicameral congress with members apportioned differently in each house. The upper house, the Senate, would have two representatives from each state. In the lower house, the House of Representatives, representation would be proportional to the population in each state.

In the final draft of the U.S. Constitution, the bicameral Congress received a number of powers and limitations. These are outlined in Article I (Appendix B). It describes the minimum age of congresspersons (Section 2), requires that Congress meet at least once a year (Section 4), guarantees members’ pay (Section 6), and gives Congress the power to levy taxes, borrow money, and regulate commerce (Section 8). These powers and limitations were the Constitutional Convention’s compromised response to the failings of the Articles of Confederation.

The bicameral structure requires the two chambers to pass identical bills, or proposed legislation. After all amending and modifying has occurred, the two houses ultimately must agree on the legislation they send to the president for approval. Passing the same bill in both houses is intentionally difficult. The framers designed a complex and difficult process for legislation to become law. This challenge serves several important and related functions. First, the difficulty of passing legislation through both houses makes it less likely, though hardly impossible, that Congress will act on emotion or without the necessary deliberation. Second, the bicameral system ensures that large-scale dramatic reform is exceptionally difficult to pass and that the status quo is more likely to hold. Third, the bicameral system makes it difficult for a single faction or interest group to enact laws and restrictions unfairly favoring it.

link to learningThe website of the U.S. Congress Visitor Center contains a number of interesting online exhibits and informational facts about the U.S. government’s “first branch” (so called because it is described in Article I of the Constitution).


Demographically speaking, Congress as a whole is still imbalanced and remains largely white, male, and wealthy. For example, more than half the U.S. population is female while only 20 percent of Congress is. Congress is also overwhelmingly Christian.

A series of three pie charts titled U.S. 114th Congress by Gender, Race, and Religion
The diversity of the country is not reflected in the U.S. Congress, whose current membership is approximately 80 percent male, 82 percent white, and 92 percent Christian.

Representing Constituents

Congress members’ most important function as lawmakers is writing, supporting, and passing bills. And as representatives of their constituents, they are charged with addressing those constituents’ interests. Historically, this job included what some have affectionately called “bringing home the bacon” but what many (usually those with competing interests) call pork-barrel politics. As a term and a practice, pork-barrel politics—federal spending on projects designed to benefit a particular district or set of constituents—has been around since the nineteenth century, when barrels of salt pork were both a sign of wealth and a system of reward. While pork-barrel politics are often deplored during election campaigns, and earmarks—funds appropriated for specific projects—are no longer permitted in Congress (see feature box below), legislative control of local appropriations nevertheless still exists. In more formal language, allocation, or the influencing of the national budget to help the district or state, can mean securing funds for a specific district’s project like an airport, or getting tax breaks for certain types of agriculture or manufacturing.

In ranching, an earmark is a small cut on the ear of a cow or other animal to denote ownership. In Congress, an earmark is a mark in a bill that directs some of the bill’s funds to be spent on specific projects or for specific tax exemptions. Since the 1980s, the earmark has become a common vehicle for sending money to various projects around the country. Many a road, hospital, and airport can trace its origins back to a few skillfully drafted earmarks.

Relatively few people outside Congress had ever heard of the term before the 2008 presidential election, when Republican nominee Senator John McCain touted his career-long refusal to use earmarks as a testament to his commitment to reform spending habits in Washington.[1]

McCain’s criticism of the earmark as a form of corruption cast a shadow over a common legislative practice. As the country sank into recession and Congress tried to use spending bills to stimulate the economy, the public grew more acutely aware of earmarking. Congresspersons became eager to distance themselves from the practice. In fact, the use of earmarks to encourage Republicans to help pass health care reform actually made the bill less popular with the public.

When Republicans took over control of the House in 2011, they outlawed earmarks. But with deadlocks and stalemates becoming more common, some quiet voices have begun asking for their return. They argue that Congress works because representatives can satisfy their responsibilities to their constituents by making deals. The earmarks are those deals. By taking them away Congress has hampered its own ability to “bring home the bacon.”

Senate Representation and House Apportionment

The Constitution specifies that every state will have two senators who each serve a six-year term. Therefore, with fifty states in the Union, there are currently one hundred seats in the U.S. Senate. Senators were originally appointed by state legislatures, but in 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment allowed senators to be elected by popular vote in each state. Seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among the states based on population and each member is elected by voters in a specific congressional district. Each state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House.

GOVT 2305 Government Basic Congressional Requirements for Office Holding Chart

Redistricting (redrawing boundaries) occurs every ten years, after the U.S. Census has established how many persons live in the United States and where. The boundaries of legislative districts are redrawn as needed to balance the number of voters in each while still maintaining a total of 435 districts. Because local areas can see population growth or decline over time, these boundary adjustments are typically needed every ten years. Based on the 2010 census there are seven states with only one representative (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming), whereas the most populous state, California, has fifty-three congressional districts. Congressional apportionment today is achieved through the equal proportions method, which uses a mathematical formula to allocate seats based on U.S. Census Bureau population data (counting citizens in each state) gathered every ten years as required by the Constitution. At the close of the first U.S. Congress in 1791, there were sixty-five representatives, each representing approximately thirty thousand citizens. As the territory of the United States expanded the population requirement for each new district increased as well. Adjustments (reapportionment) occured, but the House of Representatives roster continued to grow until it reached 435 members after the 1910 census. Ten years later with the 1920 census and urbanization changing populations across the country, Congress failed to reapportion membership. An agreement was reached in 1929 to permanently cap the number of seats in the House at 435.

A map of the United States titled Congressional Apportionment Changes Based on the 2010 Census
Although the total number of seats in the House of Representatives has been capped at 435, the apportionment of seats by state may change each decade following the official census. In this map, we see the changes in seat reapportionment that followed the 2010 Census.

Two remaining problems in the House are the size of each representative’s constituency—the body of voters who elect him or her—and the status of Washington, DC. George Washington advocated for 30,000 people per elected member to retain effective representation in the House.  However, today the average number of citizens in a congressional district now tops 700,000. This is arguably too many for House members to remain in touch with the people. . Further, the approximately 675,000 residents of the federal district of Washington (District of Columbia) do not have voting representation. Like those living in the U.S. territories, they merely have a non-voting delegate.[2]

The stalemate in the 1920s wasn’t the first House reapportionment controversy (or the last). The first incident took place before any apportionment had even occurred, while the process was being discussed at the Constitutional Convention. Representatives from slave-owning states believed their slaves should be counted as part of the total population. States with few or no slaves predictably objected. The eventual compromise (Three-fifths) allowed for each slave (who could not vote) to count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of legislative district boundaries for a particular candidate’s or political party’s advantage. The term combines the word salamander, a reference to the strange shape of these districts, with the name of Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry who signed a redistricting plan in 1812 designed to benefit his party. The practice is legal despite the questionable ethics behind gerrymandering and both major parties have used it to their benefit.

What powers does Congress possess?

Congressional powers can be divided into three types: enumerated, implied, and inherent. An enumerated power is a power explicitly stated (written) in the Constitution. An implied power is one not specifically detailed in the Constitution but inferred as necessary to achieve the objectives of the national government. An inherent power, while not enumerated or implied, must be assumed to exist as a direct result of the country’s existence.

Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution details the enumerated powers of the legislature. These include the power to levy and collect taxes, declare war, raise an army and navy, coin money, borrow money, regulate commerce among the states and with foreign nations, establish federal courts and bankruptcy rules, establish rules for immigration and naturalization, and issue patents and copyrights. The Constitution includes other powers such as the ability of Congress to override a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses (Article II, Section 7, in the case of the veto override). The first enumerated power, to levy taxes, is quite possibly the most important power Congress possesses. Without it, enumerated, implied or inherent powers would be largely theoretical. Along with the appropriations (money) power, taxation gives Congress what is known as “the power of the purse.”

A pie chart titled Federal Tax Revenue in Fiscal Year 2015

Some enumerated powers invested in the Congress specifically serve as checks on the other branches of government. These include Congress’s sole power to introduce legislation, the Senate’s final say on many presidential nominations and treaties signed by the president, and the House’s ability to impeach or formally accuse the president or other federal officials of wrongdoing (the first step in removing the person from office; the second step, trial and removal, takes place in the U.S. Senate). Each of these powers also grants Congress oversight of the actions of the president and his or her administration—that is, the right to review and monitor other bodies such as the executive branch.

Despite the fact that the Constitution outlines specific enumerated powers, most of the actions Congress takes on a day-to-day basis are not actually included in this list. The Constitution not only gives Congress the power to make laws but also gives it some general direction as to what those laws should accomplish. The “necessary and proper clause” directs Congress “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” Laws that regulate banks, establish a minimum wage, and allow for the construction and maintenance of interstate highways are all examples. Today, the overwhelming portion of Congress’s work involves implied powers granted by the necessary and proper clause.

Finally, Congress’s inherent powers are unlike either the enumerated or the implied powers. Inherent powers are not only not mentioned in the Constitution, but they do not even have a convenient clause in the Constitution to provide for them. Instead, they are powers Congress has determined it must assume if the government is going to work at all. These powers are deemed so essential to any functioning government that the framers saw no need to spell them out. Such powers include the power to control borders of the state, the power to expand the territory of the state, and the power to defend itself from internal revolution or coups. These powers are not granted to the Congress, or to any other branch of the government for that matter, but they exist because the country exists.

In the twentieth century, the power struggle between the Congress and the president really began. As the country grew larger and more complex the assumption that government needed to assert regulatory power grew. Further, the president’s powers expanded as commander-in-chief in the realm of foreign policy.

The twin disasters of the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II, which lasted until the mid-1940s, provided President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a powerful platform to expand presidential power. His popularity and resultant ability to be elected four times allowed him to greatly overshadow Congress. Congress attempted to restrain the power of the presidency through the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution which limits a president to only two full terms in office.[3] Although this limitation is significant it has not held back the tendency for the presidency to assume increased power.

How is Congress structured/organized?

Not all the business of Congress involves bickering, political infighting, government shutdowns, and Machiavellian maneuvering. Congress does get real work done. Traditionally, it does this work in a very methodical way.

Party Leadership

The party leadership in Congress controls the actions of Congress. Leaders are elected by the two-party conferences in each chamber–the House Democratic Conference and House Republican Conference. These conferences meet regularly and separately not only to elect their leaders but also to discuss important issues and strategies for moving policy forward.

Image A is of Mitch McConnell. Image B is of Paul Ryan.
Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (a), the majority leader in the Senate, and Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (b), the Speaker of the House, are currently the most powerful congressional leaders in their respective chambers.

The most important leadership position in the House is elected by the entire body of representatives–the Speaker of the House (the only House officer currently mentioned in the Constitution). The Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a member of the House. The Speaker is the presiding officer, the administrative head of the House, the partisan leader of the majority party in the House, and an elected representative of a single congressional district. Since 1947, the holder of this position has been second in line (after the vice president) to succeed the president in an emergency.

The Speaker serves until his or her party loses a majority of seats, or until he or she is voted out of the position or chooses to step down. The Speaker wields significant power, such as the ability to assign bills to committees and decide when a bill will be presented to the floor for a vote. The Speaker also rules on House procedures, often delegating authority for certain duties to other members. He/she appoints members and chairs to committees, creates select committees to fulfill a specific purpose and then disband, and can even select a member to be speaker pro tempore, who acts in the Speaker’s absence. Finally, when the Senate joins the House in a joint session the Speaker presides over these sessions because they are usually held in the House of Representatives.

Below the Speaker, the majority and minority conferences each elect two leadership positions arranged in hierarchical order. At the top of the hierarchy are the floor leaders of each party. These are generally referred to as the majority and minority leaders. The minority leader has a visible if not always a powerful position. As the official leader of the opposition, he or she technically holds the rank closest to that of the Speaker, makes strategy decisions, and attempts to keep order among the minority party’s members. The majority leader also has considerable power and historically is in the best position to assume the speakership when the current Speaker steps down.

Below these leaders are the two party’s respective whips. A whip’s job, as the name suggests, is to whip up votes and otherwise enforce party discipline. Whips make the rounds in Congress, telling members the position of the leadership and the collective voting strategy, and sometimes wave various carrots and sticks in front of recalcitrant members to bring them in line. The remainder of the leadership positions include a handful of chairs and assistantships.

The Senate also has majority and minority leaders and whips, each with duties very similar to their counterparts in the House. However, the Senate does not have a Speaker. The duties and powers held by the Speaker in the House fall to the majority leader in the Senate. The Senate’s president is actually the elected vice president of the United States, although he/she may vote only in case of a tie. Apart from this and very few other exceptions, the president of the Senate does not actually operate in the Senate. Instead, the Constitution allows for the Senate to choose a president pro tempore—usually the most senior senator of the majority party—to preside over the Senate. Despite the title, the job is largely powerless. The real power in the Senate is in the hands of the majority leader and the minority leader. The majority leader is the chief spokesperson for the majority party, but unlike in the House he/she does not run the floor alone. Because of the traditions of unlimited debate and the filibuster, the majority and minority leaders often occupy the floor together in an attempt to keep things moving along. At times, their interactions are intense and partisan, but for the Senate to get things done, they must cooperate to get the sixty votes needed to run this super-majority legislative institution.

The Committee System

With 535 members in Congress and a seemingly infinite number of domestic, international, economic, agricultural, regulatory, criminal, and military issues to deal with at any given moment, the two chambers must divide their work based on specialization. Congress does this through the committee system. Specialized committees (or subcommittees) in both the House and the Senate are where bills originate and most of the work that sets the congressional agenda takes place. Committees are roughly approximate to a bureaucratic department in the executive branch. There are well over two hundred committees, subcommittees, select committees, and joint committees in the Congress. The core committees are called standing committees. There are twenty standing committees in the House and sixteen in the Senate.

Congressional Standing and Permanent Select Committees
House of Representatives Senate
Agriculture Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
Appropriations Appropriations
Armed Services Armed Services
Budget Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Education and the Workforce Budget
Energy and Commerce Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Ethics Energy and Natural Resources
Financial Services Environment and Public Works
Foreign Affairs Ethics (select)
Homeland Security Finance
House Administration Foreign Relations
Intelligence (select) Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Judiciary Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Natural Resources Indian Affairs (select)
Oversight and Government Reform Intelligence (select)
Rules Judiciary
Science, Space, and Technology Rules and Administration
Small Business Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Transportation and Infrastructure Veterans’ Affairs
Veterans’ Affairs
Ways and Means

Members of both parties compete for positions on various committees. They are typically filled by majority and minority members to roughly approximate the ratio of majority to minority members in the respective chambers, although committees are chaired by the majority party. Committees and their chairs have a lot of power in the legislative process, including the ability to stop a bill from going to the floor (the full chamber) for a vote. Indeed, most bills die in committee. But when a committee is eager to develop legislation, it takes a number of methodical steps. It will reach out to relevant agencies for comment on resolutions to the problem at hand and even hold hearings with experts to collect information. In the Senate, committee hearings are also held to confirm presidential appointments. Next the committee meets to discuss amendments and legislative language. Finally the committee will send the bill to the full chamber with a committee report. The report provides the majority opinion supporting the bill, a minority view to the contrary, and estimates of the proposed law’s cost and impact.

Four types of committees exist in the House and the Senate. The first is the standing, or permanent, committee. This committee is the first call for proposed bills, fewer than 10 percent of which are reported out of committee to the floor. The second type is the joint committee. Joint committee members are appointed from both the House and Senate to explore key issues such as the economy and taxation. However, joint committees have no bill-referral authority whatsoever—they are informational only. A conference committee reconciles different bills passed in both the House and Senate. The conference committees are appointed on an ad hoc (temporary) basis when a bill passes the House and Senate in different forms. Ad hoc, special, or select committees are temporary committees set up to address specific topics. These types of committees often conduct special investigations.

Members of Congress bring to their roles different backgrounds, interests, and levels of expertise, and try to match these to committee positions. For example, House members from states with large agricultural interests will seek positions on the Agriculture Committee. Senate members with a background in banking or finance may seek positions on the Senate Finance Committee. Members can request these positions from their chambers’ respective leadership, and the leadership also selects the committee chairs.

Committee chairs are very powerful. They control the committee’s budget and agenda, choosing when the committee will meet, when it will hold hearings, and whether it will consider a bill at all. A chair can convene a meeting when members of the minority are absent or adjourn a meeting when things are not progressing as the majority leadership wishes. Chairs can hear a bill even when the rest of the committee objects. They do not hold these powerful positions indefinitely, however. In the House, rules prevent committee chairs from serving more than six consecutive years and from serving as the chair of a subcommittee at the same time. A senator may serve only six years as chair of a committee but may, in some instances, also serve as a chair or ranking member of another committee.

Because the Senate is much smaller than the House, senators hold more committee assignments than House members. There are sixteen standing committees in the Senate, and each position must be filled. In contrast, in the House, with 435 members and only twenty standing committees, committee members have time to pursue a more in-depth review of a policy. House members historically defer to the decisions of committees, while senators tend to view committee decisions as recommendations, often seeking additional discussion that could lead to changes.

link to learningTake a look at the scores of committees in the House and Senate. The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill once quipped that if you didn’t know a new House member’s name, you could just call him Mr. Chairperson.


Questions to Consider

  1. Briefly explain the benefits and drawbacks of a bicameral system.
  2. What are some examples of the enumerated powers granted to Congress in the Constitution?
  3. Why does a strong presidency necessarily sap power from Congress?
  4. How do committees demonstrate a division of labor in Congress based on specialization?

Terms to Remember

apportionment–the process by which seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among the fifty states

bicameralism–the political process that results from dividing a legislature into two separate assemblies

bill–proposed legislation under consideration by a legislature

conference committee–a special type of joint committee that reconciles different bills passed in the House and Senate so a single bill results

constituency–the body of voters, or constituents, represented by a particular politician

earmark–a mark in a bill that directs some of the bill’s funds to be spent on specific projects or for specific tax exemptions

enumerated powers–the powers given explicitly to the federal government by the Constitution to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, raise and support armies, declare war, coin money, and conduct foreign affairs

implied powers–the powers not specifically detailed in the U.S. Constitution but inferred as necessary to achieve the objectives of the national government

inherent powers–the powers neither enumerated nor implied but assumed to exist as a direct result of the country’s existence

joint committee–a legislative committee consisting of members from both chambers that investigates certain topics but lacks bill referral authority

majority leader–the leader of the majority party in either the House or Senate; in the House, the majority leader serves under the Speaker of the House, in the Senate, the majority leader is the functional leader and chief spokesperson for the majority party

minority leader–the party member who directs the activities of the minority party on the floor of either the House or the Senate

oversight–the right to review and monitor other bodies such as the executive branch

pork-barrel politics–“bringing home the bacon” or bringing tax dollars/contracts/etc. to the home district of a member of Congress

president pro tempore–the senator who acts in the absence of the actual president of the Senate, who is also the vice president of the United States; the president pro tempore is usually the most senior senator of the majority party

select committee–a small legislative committee created to fulfill a specific purpose and then disbanded; also called an ad hoc, or special, committee

Speaker of the House–the presiding officer of the House of Representatives and the leader of the majority party; the Speaker is second in the presidential line of succession, after the vice president

standing committee–a permanent legislative committee that meets regularly

whip–in the House and in the Senate, a high leadership position whose primary duty is to enforce voting discipline in the chambers and conferences

  1. "Statement by John McCain on Banning Earmarks," 13 March 2008, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=90739 (May 15, 2016); "Press Release - John McCain’s Economic Plan," 15 April 2008, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=94082 (May 15, 2016).
  2. There are six non-voting delegations representing American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While these delegates are not able to vote on legislation, they may introduce it and are able to vote in congressional committees and on procedural matters.
  3. David M. Jordan. 2011. FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 290; Paul G. Willis and George L. Willis. 1952. "The Politics of the Twenty-Second Amendment," The Western Political Quarterly 5, No. 3: 469–82; Paul B. Davis. 1979. "The Results and Implications of the Enactment of the Twenty-Second Amendment," Presidential Studies Quarterly 9, No. 3: 289–303.


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