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Core Documents of Our Democracy: Legislative Branch

The resources found in this guide are vital sources of information that support the public's right to know about the workings and essential activities of the Federal Government.

Congress

 

The legislative Branch enacts legislation, confirms or rejects Presidential appointments, and has the authority to declare war.

This branch includes Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) and several agencies that provide support services to Congress. American citizens have the right to vote for Senators and Representatives through free, confidential ballots.

  • Senate – There are two elected Senators per state, totaling 100 Senators. A Senate term is six years and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve.
  • House of Representatives – There are 435 elected Representatives, which are divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population. There are additional non-voting delegates who represent the District of Columbia and the territories. A Representative serves a two-year term, and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve.

House of Representatives

Each representative is elected to a two-year term serving the people of a specific congressional district. Among other duties, representatives introduce bills and resolutions, offer amendments and serve on committees. The number of representatives with full voting rights is 435, a number set by Public Law 62-5 on August 8, 1911, and in effect since 1913. The number of representatives per state is proportionate to population.

House leadership includes the speaker, majority and minority leaders, assistant leaders, whips and a party caucus or conference. The speaker acts as leader of the House and combines several institutional and administrative roles. Majority and minority leaders represent their respective parties on the House floor. Whips assist leadership in managing their party's legislative program on the House floor. A party caucus or conference is the name given to a meeting of or organization of all party members in the House. During these meetings, party members discuss matters of concern.

The majority party members and the minority party members meet in separate caucuses to select their leader. Third parties rarely have had enough members to elect their own leadership, and independents will generally join one of the larger party organizations to receive committee assignments.

The House’s 20 standing committees have different legislative jurisdictions. Each considers bills and issues and recommends measures for consideration by the House. Committees also have oversight responsibilities to monitor agencies, programs, and activities within their jurisdictions, and in some cases in areas that cut across committee jurisdictions.

Current standing committees of the House: Agriculture; Appropriations; Armed Services; Budget; Commerce; Education and the Workforce; Ethics; Financial Services; Foreign Affairs; Homeland Security; House Administration; Judiciary; Natural Resources; Oversight and Government Reform; Rules; Science, Space, and Technology; Small Business; Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans’ Affairs; and Ways and Means.

The Committee of the Whole House is a committee of the House on which all representatives serve and which meets in the House Chamber for the consideration of measures from the Union calendar.

Before members are assigned to committees, each committee’s size and the proportion of Republicans to Democrats must be decided by the party leaders. The total number of committee slots allotted to each party is approximately the same as the ratio between majority party and minority party members in the full chamber.

Senate

The composition and powers of the Senate are established by Article One of the United States Constitution. The Senate is composed of senators who represent each of the several states, with each state being equally represented by two senators, regardless of their population, serving staggered terms of six years; with fifty states presently in the Union, there are 100 U.S. Senators. From 1789 until 1913, Senators were appointed by the legislatures of the states they represented; following the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, they are now popularly elected. The Senate chamber is located in the north wing of the Capitol, in Washington, D.C.

As the upper house, the Senate has several powers of advice and consent which are unique to it; these include the ratification of treaties, the confirmation of Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, federal judges, other federal executive officials, flag officers, regulatory officials, ambassadors, and other federal uniformed officers. In addition to these, in cases wherein no candidate receives a majority of electors for Vice President, the duty befalls upon the Senate to elect one of the top two recipients of electors for that office. It further has the responsibility of conducting trials of those impeached by the House. The Senate is widely considered both a more deliberative and more prestigious body than the House of Representatives due to its longer terms, smaller size, and statewide constituencies, which historically led to a more collegial and less partisan atmosphere.

The presiding officer of the Senate is the Vice President of the United States, who is President of the Senate; in their absence, the President Pro Tempore, who is customarily the senior member of the controlling party, presides over the Senate. In the early 20th century, the practice of majority and minority parties electing their floor leaders began, although they are not constitutional officers.