Below is a brief introduction to Congress and how it works. In addition, here are a few other resources you may find useful:

  • Official Guide on Bills Becoming Law on Thomas.gov: a comprehensive and detailed documentation of the Congressional process on the official website of the Library of Congress.
  • Project Vote Smart's Simple Bill-to-Law Guide: a thorough and more user-friendly examination of the bill-to-law process. Also known as "Government 101."
  • Congresspedia: a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media & Democracy - a publicly-editable, wiki-based website on Congress with biographical information and background on every Member of Congress..

About Senators and Representatives

The intention of the U.S. Constitution in establishing a bicameral Congress was that each chamber would serve as a check on the other. The larger and more frequently elected House of Representatives would more directly reflect changing public opinion, while the smaller Senate, whose members serve longer terms, would serve as a more level-headed and deliberative body. As a result, the Senate is considered the more collegial chamber of Congress, a tradition-bound institution that frequently defers to seniority and whose rules allow for lengthy debate. The Senate has considerable power over the President because the President needs the Senate's approval to make appointments for some high-level positions and to ratify treaties. In the event of a tie in the 100-person Senate, the Vice President, acting as President of the Senate, has the power to cast the deciding vote. Although it is often thought of as the lower chamber of Congress, the House has some powers that the Senate doesn't. For example, all appropriations bills must originate in the House. In addition, the House can impeach officials, and has the power to elect the President in the case of a tie in the electoral college.

About Bills

<p>Bills are the most common form of proposals for laws. In order to become a law, a bill must be approved by a majority vote in both the House and the Senate, and then must be approved by the President.</p> <p>If the President vetoes a bill, the House and Senate can over-ride his veto with a two-thirds vote in favor, and then the bill becomes a law. Another form of proposal for a law is a joint resolution, which is often used for appropriations and to amend the Constitution. Other proposals are called resolutions and concurrent resolutions, which aren't designed to become laws, but rather to make decisions about how Congress manages its work process. After a bill is first introduced to Congress, it is considered in committees, where it may be changed, held indefinitely, or scrapped altogether. About 96% of bills never make it to becoming laws.</p>

About Committees

When a bill is first introduced to Congress, it is referred to its appropriate committee. A committee is composed of a small group of members of Congress that first consider bills in a specific issue area.

Committees have the power to edit bills, add to bills, and hold hearings on bills. After this working process, a committee votes whether or not to send the bill to the House or the Senate for a full vote. Many times, a committee will vote not to pass along a bill -- in such cases, the bill is often called "stuck in committee," and is unlikely to become law in its current form. The House of Representatives, because of its larger size, makes more use of its committees. Each committee is usually made up of about the same proportion of Democrats and Republicans as is the full chamber. Each committee is led by a Chairperson from the current majority party. The Chair frequently exerts a great deal of power in controlling the flow of bills through committees and determining which bills will be approved.

Further Resources

Official Resources

Similar to OpenCongress, Sites That Provide the Data and Tools To Be an Informed and Active Participant in Politics

  • Govtrack by Joshua Tauberer brings together information about the United States Congress, tracking the status of federal legislation and the activities of your senators and representatives.
  • Wikipedia entry on the U.S. Congress
  • Project Vote-Smart, working for effective self-governing through "...access to abundent, accurate, and relevant information."
  • Citizen Joe offers guides to issues and analysis of bills, with the goal "to take the spotlight off politics and politicians and put it back on policy and the people."

About Senators and Representatives

Money and Congress

Information on money in politics

Policy/Issues

Background information on legislation and public opinion

  • NewsBatch is a website that works to provide "...full encyclopedic coverage of all public policy matters."
  • Balanced Politics is a website dedicated to balanced, non-partisan discussion of important societal issues.
  • Public Agenda is a non-partisan opinion research and civic engagement organization helping Americans understand and explore critical issues since 1975.