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Representing the first branch of government, Congress carries out national legislative responsibilities, as determined by the Constitution. It is divided into two chambers with equal power, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both chambers propose, deliberate, and vote on pieces of legislation, aimed to be signed into law by the President of the United States. This process is accomplished through coordination between both chambers and subgroups in the Senate and the House, called Committees. The content of such legislation generally comes from interest groups and constituents in contact with Senators and Representatives.

While passing legislation is codified and outlined in set rules, it rarely occurs in an orderly fashion and is, more often than not, a multi-layered, non-transparent, and overall complex process. Thus below is a continuation of this very brief introduction to Congress and how it works, followed by other resources you may find useful.

Contents

How Congress Works

About the Structure of Congress

The current structure of Congress dates back to 1787, at which point the bicameral structure of the Senate and the House of Representatives replaced the previous unicameral body. The purpose behind establishing a bicameral body was that each chamber could act as a check against the other to ensure a balanced distribution of power. As the U.S.’ congress is part of a presidential system, rather than a parliamentary system, the two chambers are in fact equal in power.

Nevertheless, the Senate and the House of Representatives are not mirror images of each other; they have some different responsibilities and are different in structure. The House of Representatives, for example, provides proportional representation by population and the Senate provides equal representation by states. Representatives, of which there are 435, represent and are directly elected by their respective districts, while Senators, of which there are 100, represent and are directly elected by state. The larger and more frequently elected House of Representatives is seen to more directly reflect changing public opinion, while the smaller Senate, whose members serve longer terms, is seen to serve as a more level-headed and deliberative body. As a result, the Senate is often considered the more collegial and tradition-bound chamber of Congress.

About the Scope of Congress

At large, Congress has influence and control over financial and budgetary legislation, although it also plays a role in national defense, namely by having the exclusive power to declare war and to raise and maintain the Armed forces. Furthermore, Congress can act as a check to other branches of government through its ability to investigate and oversee the executive branch and to remove federal officials from both the executive and judicial branches. More specifically, the Senate has influence over the President by granting its approval for some high-level positions and ratifying treaties. In turn, the House can impeach officials and elect the President in the event of a tie in the electoral college. Additionally, all appropriation bills must originate in the House.

You can see how the House and the Senate differ in their rules and functions in more detail via the OpenCongress Wiki.

About the Legislative Process and Committees

Pieces of legislation go through Congress in the form of Bills and Resolutions. Generally, a resolution differs from a bill in that it is not binding by law, but merely expresses the opinion of Congress.

Members of Congress introduce legislation usually upon the request of lobbyists and interest groups. Once introduced, the bill goes through several stages in both houses, the first of which is being assigned to a committee for consideration.

As Congress members cannot possibly be experts on all matters that come before them, committees serve to gather and examine information relating to legislation, which they report back to the full House and Senate. Congress divides its legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks among approximately 200 committees and subcommittees, which are each led by a Chairperson from the current majority party. You can use the OpenCongress Wiki to find more information on the Senate committees and House committees.

After a committee deliberates on and possibly alters a bill, it votes on whether it will report the measure to the House or Senate for a full vote. Many times, a committee will vote not to pass along a bill, at which point it is unlikely to become law in its current form. If it does get passed along, however, the full house can further debate and alter the legislation before approving or rejecting it. An approved bill then bounces between both houses of Congress and then the President, who can sign the bill into law or veto it, sending it back to Congress. In the event of such a veto, the Senate and the can pass the bill into law by a two-thirds majority vote.

Check out the OpenCongress Wiki page for a more comprehensive explanation of how a bill becomes law. Furthermore, you can read up on specific bills from the 111th Congress here

This Congressional Session

Currently, the U.S. Congress is in its 111th session. As each session has a duration of two years, this Congressional session began on January 3, 2009 and will end on January 3, 2011.

The character of each Congressional session is largely determined by what political party has the majority seats in each chamber as well as what party is represented in the Executive. The Democratic Party currently holds a majority in both the House of Representative and the Senate as it did in the 110th Congress. This is relevant for who holds positions of leadership in the House and the Senate, and who acts as the Chairpersons of the Congressional committees.

Other Resources

  • OpenCongress’ Own Wiki: a publicly-editable, wiki-based website on Congress with biographical information and background on every Member of Congress

How Bills Become Law

Official Resources

Data and Tools To Be an Informed and Active Citizen

Sites similar to OpenCongress, which encourage participation at the citizen level:

  • 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.
  • The publicly editable 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

  • The Washington Post's database project on congressional voting history. *On the Issues is a website with the slogan, "Every Political Leader on Every Issue." *Congresswomen's Biographies contains a brief biography of all women who have served or are currently serving in the House of Representatives. *Race Tracker: OpenCongress’ own project allowing you to track the election of every Senator, Representative, and State governor. *Contacting the Congress allows you to find and contact Congressional committees

Money and Politics in Congress

Information on money in politics

  • The Center for Responsive Politics: a non-partisan, non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy.
  • MAPLight: a public database making the connection between Money and Politics, or more specifically, campaign donations and legislative votes more transparent .
  • Congressional Budget Office: providing projections on the approximate cost of bills. *The Federal Election Commission (FEC): administers and enforces federal campaign finance laws. *OpenCongress’ Money Trail: data gathered in coordination with OpenSecrets and MAPLight regarding the role money plays in politics, however, with a focus on the industries and interest groups Congress members represent.

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.
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