The Structure of Congress

The Structure of Congress

( – The US Government isn’t unique in the way it separates powers between different branches, but it is unique in how carefully those separations were balanced and written into the Constitution. The care that went into this shows up everywhere, but it’s probably most obvious in the structure of the United States Congress.

Congress is the US legislature, the source of our laws. It has exclusive power to make law, and can override or invalidate rules or directives issued by other branches of government – even a presidential executive order. Because of the vast power it holds, Congress itself was structured to have its own checks and balances.

Two Heads Are Better Than One

Congress is a bicameral legislature – it has two chambers. The framers of the Constitution based Congress loosely on the British parliament but made both chambers elected. Each chamber takes a different approach to representation, and both have to approve any piece of legislation before it can become law.

The House

The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of Congress. Each state elects a proportion of the 435 representatives based on its population, with each one representing a district. There are also six non-voting delegates representing the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the other US territories. Representatives and delegates are elected every two years.

While both chambers can initiate bills, only the House can initiate ones that raise revenue. The House also has the exclusive power to impeach officials, and if no presidential candidate wins a majority in the electoral college, it chooses the president.

The Senate

The Senate is the upper house, and one of its functions is to balance the power more populous states get from the House’s proportional allocation of seats. Each state elects two senators for six-year terms, with a third of seats – usually not both seats in the same state – elected every two years together with the House seats. Like the House, the Senate has some exclusive powers. These include confirming the appointment of cabinet members and approving treaties.


Both chambers run a number of committees that specialize in one area of government. For example, they each have Armed Services, Intelligence and Judiciary committees. There are currently 20 House and 21 Senate committees, plus four joint ones.

Congressional committees are highly influential. They monitor the government’s activities, make recommendations to Congress and can push for review of legislation. According to Woodrow Wilson, formal sessions of Congress were mostly for public display, while “Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”

Support Services

Congress also has several support services, including its budget office, a federal agency that supplies Congress with economic data. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and acts as a reference for Congress as well as the national collection of books, movies and other media.

The United States Congress probably has more influence on our lives than any other organization. It’s vital that every citizen knows how it works and votes for the right people to represent us there.

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