The United States Congress is the legislature of the federal government of the United States. It is bicameral, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives has 435 voting members, with each member representing a congressional district and serving a two-year term. House seats are apportioned among the states on the basis of population. American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the United States Virgin Islands send non-voting delegates to the House; Puerto Rico sends a non-voting Resident Commissioner who serves a four-year term; and the Northern Mariana Islands are not represented. The Senate has 100 members serving staggered six-year terms. Each state has two senators, regardless of population. Every two years, approximately one-third of the Senate is elected. Both senators and representatives are chosen through direct election.
The U.S. Constitution vests all legislative power to and in the Congress. While the House and Senate are generally equal partners in the legislative process (legislation cannot be enacted without the consent of both chambers), the Constitution grants each chamber unique powers unavailable to the other. Article II of the Constitution gives the President "Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments." Bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives, which also has the sole power of impeachment of federal officers, while the Senate has the sole power to try cases in which the House has voted an impeachment.
The Congress meets in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The term Congress may also refer to a particular meeting of the Congress, reckoned according to the terms of representatives. That is, a "Congress" covers two years with the first year called the First Session and the second year called the Second Session.
Article I of the Constitution sets forth most of the powers of Congress, which include numerous explicit powers enumerated in Section 8. Constitutional amendments have granted Congress additional powers. Congress also has implied powers derived from the necessary-and-proper clause of the Constitution.
Congress has authority over financial and budgetary matters, through the enumerated power to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States." The Sixteenth Amendment extended power of taxation to include income taxes. The Constitution also gives Congress power over appropriating funds, with all government spending required to included in congressional appropriations. This power is an important way for Congress to keep the executive branch in check. Other powers granted to Congress include the authority to borrow money on the credit of the United States, regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states, and coin money.
The Constitution also gives Congress an important role in national defense, including the exclusive power to declare war, to raise and maintain the armed forces, and to make rules for the military. Congress also has the power to establish post offices and post roads, issue patents and copyrights, fix standards of weights and measures, establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court, and "To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof." Congress also has the power to admit new states to the Union (Article IV).
One of the foremost non-legislative functions of the Congress is the power to investigate and to oversee the executive branch. This is called congressional oversight. This power is usually delegated to congressional committees. Congress also has the exclusive power of removal, allowing impeachment and removal of the President.
Among the enumerated powers given Congress in Article I Section 8, are:
- The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises]], to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
- To borrow money on the credit of the United States;
- To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;
- To establish a uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States;
- To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures;
- To provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States;
- To establish post offices and post roads;
- To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;
- To constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;
- To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations;
- To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
- To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
- To provide and maintain a navy;
- To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
- To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
- To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
- To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles (16 km) square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings.
Other congressional powers have been granted, or confirmed, by constitutional amendments.
Congress also has implied powers derived from the necessary-and-proper clause of the Constitution which permits Congress "To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof." The Supreme Court has interpreted the necessary-and-proper clause broadly, to recognize the Congress has all the power and delegates it rather than being burdened with a separation of powers.
Limits of power
Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution places limits of congressional authority. For instance, Congress may not suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus ("unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it"), or grant titles of nobility. Congress is also prohibited from passing bills of attainder or ex post facto laws. Several other restrictions are specified by constitutional amendments, especially the Bill of Rights. The last clause of the Bill of Rights, the Tenth Amendment, provides that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Checks and balances
The Constitution provides checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government. The authors of the Constitution expected the greater power to lie with Congress and it has been theorized that that is one reason they are described in Article I.
The influence of Congress on the presidency has varied from one period to another; the degree of power depending largely on the leadership of the Congress, political influence by the president, or other members of congress and the boldness of the president's initiatives. Under the first half-dozen presidents, power seems to have been evenly divided between the president and Congress, in part because early presidents largely restricted their vetoes to bills that were unconstitutional.
The Constitution concentrates removal powers in the Congress by empowering and obligating the House of Representatives to impeach federal officials (both executive and judicial) for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The Senate is constitutionally empowered and obligated to try all impeachments. A simple majority in the House is required to impeach an official; however, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for conviction. A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office in the future.
The Constitution entrusts certain powers to the Senate alone. The President may only nominate for appointment Cabinet officials, judges, and other high officers with the "by and with the advice and consent" of the Senate. The Senate confirms most presidential nominees, but rejections are not uncommon. Furthermore, treaties negotiated by the President must be ratified by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to take effect. The House of Representatives has no formal role in either the ratification of treaties or the appointment of federal officials, other than filling vacancies in the office of Vice-President.
Investigations are conducted to gather information on the need for future legislation, to test the effectiveness of laws already passed, and to inquire into the qualifications and performance of members and officials of the other branches. Committees may hold hearings, and, if necessary, compel individuals to testify by issuing subpoenas. Witnesses who refuse to testify may be cited for contempt of Congress, and those who testify falsely may be charged with perjury.
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