With the 116th Congress fresh into their term, Civics for Citizens returns to talk about the third and final branch of government—the Legislative Branch. The United States Congress, the Legislative Branch’s formal name, is charged with making the federal laws that govern our country, though members of Congress have responsibilities beyond voting “yea” or “nay.” Read on to learn about the major responsibilities of Congress and how you can interact with your federally elected officials!
Congress is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state elects two Senators, totaling 100 members, while the 435 voting members of the House of Representatives are allocated proportionally according to state population size, with each state having no fewer than one. The House of Representatives also has non-voting members who can vote in committees. Senators serve six-year terms and Congresspersons, or members of the House of Representatives, serve two-year terms. Both the Senate and House of Representatives have internal leaders that are elected from within the majority and minority parties. Each chamber of Congress has an individual presider, with the House of Representatives led by the Speaker of the House and the Senate led by the President of the Senate, also known as the Vice President of the United States. The Speaker of the House is elected from within the majority party and is the second person in line to succeed the President of the United State in an emergency situation. Both the House and the Senate have majority and minority leaders, who are the spokespeople for legislation, and the majority and minority whips, who assist the leader and track the votes needed in order to pass legislation.
Most people know that Congress votes on the bills that become laws, but let’s recap the process. A member of either the House or Senate sponsors a bill. Both the House of Representatives and Senate have committees that specialize in various topics such as agriculture, education and labor, ethics, and much more, and these committees review the bills first. After committees analyze and hear arguments on a bill, they revise it and send it to a vote in their chamber of Congress. If the bill passes the vote, the process then repeats in the other chamber. If both the House and the Senate vote in favor of the bill with 51% support, it is sent to the President of the United States to be signed into law or vetoed. If the bill is vetoed, it can either go back to Congress for another vote and be passed into law with a two-thirds favorable vote or the process repeats after revisions.
Beyond laws, the Senate and House also have specific responsibilities. Both chambers of Congress vote on federal budget resolutions and declarations of war. The Senate hears and confirms presidential nominees for the Cabinet, Supreme Court, and federal judiciary. Committees conduct investigative hearings with public officials and private citizens, often concerning potential wrongdoing requiring a legislative response. Congress also facilitates the impeachment process, whereby the House of Representatives votes to move forward with a trial of the impeached individual in the Senate, who then votes on whether or not the individual should be removed from office for the alleged reasons.
While members of Congress may seem distant from everyday life in their districts, they all have responsibilities to serve their constituents. District offices for members of Congress support their constituents in federal agency interactions such as veteran’s affairs, citizenship applications, passport services, military academy recommendations, visits to the White House, viewing a Congressional session, and more. You can call your Congressperson’s or Senator’s office to ask questions, request action on legislation, and voice your opinion. To get more involved with members of Congress, attend their town hall meetings, view a Congressional session, attend a committee hearing, or schedule a meeting to discuss legislative issues that matter to you! As the elected representatives for your district, your Senators and Congresspersons bring your community needs to the national stage so you should feel confident engaging with and advocating for a representative Legislative Branch.
About the Author
Nicole Costa is a Program and Campus Recruitment Manager at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She graduated from the College of the Holy Cross where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a Peace and Conflict Studies interdisciplinary concentration. Nicole previously worked in Student Services at Seton Hall University where she advised student leaders on campus community development.