The United States government is divided by the Constitution into three branches: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The legislative branch of the US government is called the Congress.
The role of Congress is to make Federal (national) laws and to keep the US government running. Congress consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives; members of both are elected to office. A proposed law, which is called a bill, has to be voted for by both the House and the Senate.
There are 100 Senators. Each of the 50 states has two Senators, no matter what the population of the state is. Senators are elected by their state’s voters for a six-year term.
There are many more members of the House of Representatives–currently 435. Each one represents a Congressional district, which is just part, usually a small part, of a state. Districts are chosen to have, at least very roughly, similar populations, so populous states have more representatives than less populated states. Representatives have only a two-year term.
Almost all members of Congress these days belong to either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, although occasionally some belong to third parties or are independent (where independent means they do not belong to any political party).
The Congress was founded on March 4, 1789, and today is located in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The US Constitution mandated the formation of Congress, which has existed ever since as one of the three branches of the US government. In addition to making laws and policies for the US, the Congress helps keep an important dialogue going between the individual states and the national government. It also keeps the different political parties talking to each other, even though they don’t always work well together.
The US Constitution outlined the basic structure of the Congress consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Americans now regard the Constitution as the foundation of their government, but it was incredibly controversial when it was being debated!
After the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers were set the task of creating the United States–and each of them had a different vision of what the nation would be. Central to this was the question of how the government would be organized. All of the 13 colonies became states, and each state wanted to have an equal say in their new country. It was generally agreed that a democratic republic would work; a democratic republic is a form of government in which the citizens vote for politicians to represent them, rather than voting on proposed laws directly. But the balance of power was tricky to get right.
The states with small populations wanted each state to get the same voice in government, as they viewed the United States as a federation of states. On the other hand, the states with larger populations wanted to get more representatives, as they had more people. The debate on this culminated in the Great Compromise. On July 16, 1787, the people writing the Constitution decided to give both sides what they wanted. To do this, they basically split the Congress into two parts. They decided that the number of Representatives in the House of Representatives from each state would be determined by the population of that state (what the larger states wanted), while the number of Senators in the Senate would be the same –exactly two–for each state (what the smaller states wanted). And then the House and the Senate were given equal power. Potential laws have to be passed by both.
The House was intended to be directly responsible to the people, and it could be changed quickly–every two years. The Senate was designed to change more slowly, providing stability and moderation even when the political winds shifted.
Originally, in fact, the Senators from each state were chosen by that state’s legislature. But in 1913, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It changed the system to the way it works now: the Senators from each state would be elected directly by the people of that state.
House of Representatives
Each US state is represented in the House of Representatives according the state’s population. So a less populated state has fewer representatives than a larger state (however, each state has at least one representative). There are 435 representatives total, each of which gets an equal vote in the House. The number assigned to each state changes based on the most recent US Census. In addition, there are six non-voting members (for American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands).
There are some requirements to being a representative in the House: You must be an inhabitant of the state you hope to represent, you have to have been a US citizen for seven years or more, and you have to be at least 25 years old. Then you’re good to try to get on the ballot, though you still have to be elected! Just make sure that you’re willing to represent your constituents in the House for the next two years (which is how long your term will last, though you can be reelected if you run again and the voters choose to send you back). Because of the two-year terms, every two years (an election cycle) each district elects its Representative for the next two years–either the incumbent (the current officeholder) or a new Representative .
The leader of the House of Representatives is called the Speaker of the House.
The Senate is a bit different from the House, though similar principles apply. The biggest difference is that there are 100 Senators in the Senate (compared to 435 Representatives in the House). The smaller number is because each of the 50 US states gets exactly two senators each. Each Senator from a state is elected by the voters in the entire state, and represents the entire state rather than a particular district.
Let’s say you’re interested in being a Senator. There are a few requirements: you have to be an inhabitant of the state you hope to represent, you have to have been a US citizen for nine years or more, and you must be at least 30 years old. Then you have to be elected by your fellow citizens. If you win, congratulations! You’ll be representing your state in the Senate for the next 6 years (just as in the House, you can be reelected if the voters choose to). In every two-year cycle, roughly a third of the Senate is elected.
Federalism is a very important aspect of government in the United States. This is the principle that the US government is a federation of individual states which have come together to form a larger unit. In each addition to the national government, each state has its own government with its own legislature, organized in similar ways to the Federal government although the details are different. Each state passes its own laws, in addition to the Federal government passing laws for the country as a whole So it is possible for a state or two to be a testing ground for a new idea, and the rest of the country can watch to see how it works out. It also means that different states can have different policies if the people in the various states feel differently about some political question. Moreover, there is a dynamic tension between Federal power and state power which has had ebbs and flows throughout US history.
How a Bill Becomes Law
The House of Representatives and the Senate can organize themselves as they see fit, beyond what the Constitution requires. Government has grown so large, and there is so much work for them to do, that each one has a large number of committees, each one devoted to a specific subject (for example, each one has a committee on defense, a committee on foreign affairs, a committee on science and related topics, etc.). Generally a bill has to be passed by the appropriate committee first, before being sent to the full House or Senate for a debate, possible changes, and a vote.
The Constitution requires the House and the Senate to approve identical bills for that bill to be passed by Congress. Often the House and the Senate will pass similar but different bills. A joint committee will try to combine them into a single compromise bill which then has to be voted on by both the House and the Senate.
After the House and the Senate pass identical bills, that bill is sent to the President. It’s not a law yet! The President has three choices:
- Sign the bill. It then becomes law.
- Veto the bill, which means the President doesn’t want it to become a law. The Congress can then try to override the veto with a 2/3 vote in both the House and the Senate. If Congress overrides the veto, the bill becomes law. If Congress doesn’t override the veto, it doesn’t become law.
- Do nothing. After 10 days, if Congress is still in session, the bill becomes law even though the President hasn’t signed it. But if, during those 10 days, Congress has adjourned, then the bill doesn’t become law (this is called a pocket veto, because it’s like the President has just kept the bill in a pocket).
One practical drawback of the system is that many bills are so long, and often cover so many different topics due to giant compromises, that the Congressional staff writes them and then summarizes them for the politicians, who then vote on them, often without enough time to read them fully even when they want to. And then the politicians have to vote up or down on each bill in its entirety, even though they may agree with some parts and disagree with others.
At the end of the day, this page is fairly idealistic. We’ve been talking about what is written in the US Constitution, while glossing over how this can play out in real life. This isn’t incorrect, but it’s just one part of the story.
One major issue is that no matter how many checks, balances, and compromises a government might have, adding political parties into the equation changes everything. George Washington warned the country against political parties, since he was afraid that each party would try to increase its own power and, whenever one party was elected to run the government, it would get even with members of the other party, to the detriment of both liberty and good government.
Nevertheless, for most of its history, the US has had a two-party system; the current major parties are the Democrats and the Republicans. Third parties make up a small minority and very rarely get elected to any office. The government tends to switch back and forth between the two main parties, and people often take an entire set of positions along party lines (instead of separately considering, on their own merits, issues that have nothing to do with one another).
The Constitutional system set up by the Founding Fathers has proven very durable over time, and is one of the reasons for the great success of the United States. The way Congress is organized is one facet that is essential in keeping a stable balance between big states and small states, and between the states and the Federal government. It is remarkable that the United States has lasted for more than 200 years under the same Constitution and is still going strong!