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The Legislative Branch: Making Laws to Protect Us

The History of Congress

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The Legislative Branch: Making Laws to Protect Us
The Legislative Branch
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The legislative branch of our government is represented by Congress, which includes two parts: the House of Representatives, whose 435 members are elected according to the population of each state, and the Senate, which consists of two members from each state. Congress meets in Washington, DC, and both branches study bills which will become future laws, and problems which affect our nation. The House of Representatives includes the Speaker of the House (the head of the majority party) who becomes president if both the president and vice-president die or become incapacitated. Representatives are elected for two year terms.

In the senate, members are elected for terms of six years. The senators help create and pass laws, and also interview candidates that the president elects for certain offices (such as Supreme Court justices). It can also ratify treaties the president makes (with a 2/3 majority).

Introducing and passing legislation is an important function of both the House and the senate. New proposals for laws (called bills before they become law) are assigned numbers, are studied and reported on by committees, and eventually based on the committee recommendations, are voted on. Finally, if passed, the president signs them into law.

The History of Congress

One of the challenges facing the young United States in its first years was the fact that while the colonies had become independent states, they each had a thirteen governments. The original Articles of Confederation did not provide for a strong enough central government to bring cohesion or resolve disputes between states. war.

In 1787, 55 representatives from every state except Georgia met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and created the Constitution of the United States. After months of debate, Article I of the new Constitution was written and established the legislative, or law-making branch of the central government. It created a Congress that was bicameral (had two houses): the House of Representatives and the Senate.

This division of the legislature served to provide checks and balances in this branch of the government. It was also a compromise on how representation in the legislation would be determined, since larger, more populous states wanted representation to be determined by the state's population, while smaller states wanted equal representation since they feared that the larger states would dominate. With the two houses of Congress, one house (the House of Representatives) has representation that is based on a state's population, while the other house (the Senate) has all states equally represented with two senators.

Members of the House of Representatives were always elected by popular vote, but until 1913, Senators were chosen by state legislatures. This changed when the 17th amendment passed which determined that senators would be chosen by popular vote.

Each year, the entire Congress holds an annual meeting on January 3 (which was mandated when the 20th amendment was passed in 1933. The President can also call an extra session of Congress, or of either house.

The House of Representatives: Its Role in Government

The House of Representatives is one of two houses in Congress, the legislative body of our nation. The 435 members of the House have important duties, including writing, debating, studying, and passing bills by standing committees which eventually become laws guiding our nation. These bills must be signed by the President within ten days of being passed by Congress to become law. If the president chooses to veto a law, then it can only become law if 2/3 of the majority in both houses of Congress approve its passage.

In addition to creating laws, the House of Representatives has special committees which study issues that affect our nation. Some of its members belong to joint committees (with members from the Senate as well) to work on important issues. Many of these committees have leaders known as chairs who are elected based on experience and seniority.

Both the House and the Senate have an equal voice in our legislature. But only the House can create revenue bills (laws which create federal taxes). And only the House of Representatives can impeach federal officials, including the President (although the Senate must be the one to conduct the trials). This allows a balance between Congress and the other branches of government, including the executive and judicial branches, since Congress can order audits of agencies and hold hearing to hear the grievances of citizens as part of its role known as oversight.

The political party with the greatest number of representatives in the House is known as the majority party, while the other party is known as the minority party. The head of the majority party in the House is known as the speaker of the House, and is elected by other members. If both the president and the vice president die or become incapacitated (or resign), then the speaker of the House become president. He also appoints the members of all temporary committees in the House of Representatives.

Each house of Congress meets separately in Washington, DC: the Senate meets in one place, and the House of Representatives in another. But if there is an important message from the president or a visiting foreign leader, the two houses come together for a special joint session.

Almost all of the sessions of Congress, including the House of Representatives, are a matter of public record and are published in the Congressional Record.

The Senate: Its Role in Government

Two senators from each state are elected to the fifty seats in the Senate. The Senate is one of the two houses of Congress, and one of its most important functions is creating and passing legislation for our nation.

The Senate meets in a separate place from the House of Representatives, but on important occasions may meet with the House in a joint session.

While the president can negotiate a treaty with another nation, it does not take effect until the Senate approves the treaty by a two thirds majority vote. And while the President is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, only Congress can declare war.

This allows for a system of checks and balances between the power of the executive branch and the legislative branch, and prevents one or the other from becoming too powerful. The Supreme Court is also a check on the legislative power of Congress, since it can declare a law unconstitutional if it violates the Constitution. But the Senate must approve official appointees that the President makes to important government positions (such as to his Cabinet, the Supreme Court, or high ranking military positions). Special Senate committees investigate the candidate. The committees then make recommendations on whether the candidate should be approved, and the Senate votes.

The Senate has special committees set up to study whether laws should be passed, to propose new laws, and to hear grievances and concerns. The political party with the most representatives in the Senate is known as the majority party; the other party is known as the minority party. Members of the majority party are chosen to head committees in the Senate, and members of the Senate elect a majority leader and a minority leader. These leaders help to schedule when bills (proposed legislation) will be discussed or studied. While the Constitution states that the vice president has formal control of the Senate, and is known as the president of the Senate, in reality it is only a formal title, and he only comes on important occasions or to cast a tie-breaking vote. In his absence, a president pro tempore is elected by the Senate who fulfills this role.

The Senate meets yearly in a joint Congressional meeting with the House of Representatives on January 3rd of each year.

A record of most meetings of the Senate is open to public view, and is published in the Congressional Record.

How Representatives and Senators are Elected

The House of Representatives and the Senate represent a compromise among the early leaders of our nation. States with larger populations wanted representation in the central government according to population, while states with smaller populations, fearing being dominated by the larger states, wanted equal representation.

Both options were adopted in the two different houses of Congress. It was decided that members of the House of Representatives would be elected every two years according to a state's population. This election is held during odd-numbered years. This population is determined by a census held every ten years. Each state is entitled to at least one representative, as is the case with Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. If a state has only one representative, he or she is known as a Representative at large and is elected by the whole state.

States with larger populations are divided into congressional districts. Larger states such as California may have many representatives (it has 52, the larges number for one state). And although they cannot vote, there is a resident commissioner from Puerto Rico and a delegate from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. At this time, the number of members of the House of Representatives is limited by law to 435, to keep it from becoming too large.

Senators are elected to the Senate once every six years. Only 1/3 of the Senators may run for re-election in any year, to prevent a complete change in its members atone time. Until 1913, they were chosen by the state legislature as a representative of the state government, but when the 17th amendment passed, they were required to be voted by popular vote. Each state can have two senators to represent the wishes of their electorate (the people voting for the senate) in the Senate, which ensures equal representation for all states in this part of Congress.

Terms of Service for Representatives and Senators

Each state in the United States has at least one representative in the House of Representatives; many have more, and the number is determined by the population of the state they are elected in. This population is measured every ten years in a national census. A representative is elected to office for two years, and all representatives must choose whether to run for re-election every two years.

To be eligible for election, a representative must be at least 25 years old by the time the representative takes up his or her seat in the House. He or she must be a citizen of the United States for at least seven years in a row, and must be a resident of the state in which he or she is running for election. And while the Constitution does not require that a representative live in the district that he or she represents, in practice this is always the case.

Each state in the nation is represented by two senators who are elected for a term of six years. Every two years, on a rotating basis, the terms of one third of the Senators expires, and they must run for re-election (the rotation prevents a complete change in the Senate body).

To be elected, a Senator must be at least 30 years old by the time he or she takes up a seat in the Senate. He or she must have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years in a row, and must be a resident of the state in which he or she is elected.

How a Law is Passed: From Conception to the Floor

Preparing and passing legislation (laws) is one of the more important duties of Congress. Here is a step-by-step discussion of how a bill is passed into law.

(1) Legislation in introduced: Anyone can propose a bill, but only a member of Congress can sponsor a bill. In the House of Representatives, the proposed legislation is handed to the clerk of the House, or placed in the hopper (a special box on the clerk's desk). In the Senate, the member proposing the legislation must gain recognition by the presiding officer or announce the proposed bill during the morning hour.

(2) The new bill (proposed legislation) is assigned a number that identifies it. It is labeled with the name of the sponsor or cosponsors (person or persons who proposed it), and copies are made and sent to committees.

(3) The committee in the House or Senate reviews the bill when it comes up on their calendar. The bill may be divided up into different parts that are sent to different committees or subcommittees, where hearing may be held, studies made, and findings re finally reported on to the committee. After this, a vote is made (order to be reported) by the committee. If the committee does not review the bill, it is effectively killed at this point.

(4) After the vote, the committee may make revisions or amendments to the bill. If the bill is changed quite a bit by the amendments, the committee can ask that the bill be reintroduced again, including the changes.

(5) After the committee votes on the bill, they then prepare a document that explains why they favor passage of the bill. If a committee member in the minority opposes the bill, he or she can write a dissenting opinion.

(6) The bill is the placed on a calendar, where it will go before the floor. In the House of Representatives, the bill first goes to the Rules committee (unless they are bypassed by a special vote or procedure) who decides which rules will govern how the bill will be considered (time limits on the debate over the bill, for example, or forbidding the introduction of amendments).

(7) The bill then goes onto the House calendar (House of Representatives) or the Legislative calendar (Senate) to be discussed. The Speaker of the House and the majority leader decide when the bill will go to the floor in the House; a majority vote in the Senate can bring any bill to the floor. At this point, the bill is debated by the house of Congress it was introduced in. Supporters of the bill and detractors are both given equal time to discuss the bill. In the House of Representatives, the amount of time the bill can be debated is limited by the rules committee, but in the Senate, the debate is unlimited unless cloture is invoked by a vote of 60 members. And in the Senate, some bills are defeated by "filibuster" or using up hours of debate time which effectively "kill" the bill unless cloture is voted.

(8) Finally, the bill is voted on by the House (which needs at least 218 members, or a quorum to vote) or the Senate. If the bill is passed, it is then sent to the other house of Congress. If either the House or the Senate do not pass the bill, then it dies. If both pass the bill, then it is sent to the President for signing. If the bill is changed a lot before passage in either the House or the Senate, then it is given to a Conference Committee. The conference committee is composed of members from both houses of Congress who work together to resolve differences. Once a compromise is reached, the bill is reintroduced to both houses and voted on.

(9) The President must sign the bill within ten days for it to become law. If the President vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress with the reasons why it wasn't signed. Both houses of congress can override the veto by a 2/3 majority vote.

(10) Once it is signed by the President, or the veto is overridden, then the bill becomes a law.
The Legislative Branch
Becoming Involved in Your Community
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