Congress has a major input into politics in America. Congress is the legislative arm of American politics whereas the president is the executive arm. The Supreme Court provides a judicial input. Congress is dominated by both the Republican and Democrat parties and pressure groups try their best to gain support in the Capitol via lobbying.

Though the workings of Congress would appear to be the same as any legislature around the world, “it has established itself as probably the most powerful of all democratic assemblies” (Williams) It has guarded the powers bestowed on it by the Constitution very jealously, and it does have the power to bring down the president. Though America has experienced what have been referred to as “Imperial Presidents”, Congress has ensured that its full powers have never been usurped or weakened by the Executive.

Congress and the Constitution:

Article 1 of the Constitution clearly states that all legislative power within the US governmental set-up, is to be vested in a Congress of the United State:


“All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”


Articles 1 to 8, go on to state the actual powers that Congress does have. There can be little doubt that the Founding Fathers expected Congress to be the dominant institution of the US political system. However, regardless of this apparent desire, Congress is also subject to checks and balances just as the president is. The Constitution states the checks that the president has over Congress while the Supreme Court’s power to overview the actions of Congress was established in 1803 in Marbury v Madison.

The power that Congress has is also constrained by the fact that federal and state powers are separated. Because the states jealously guard their independence, the impact that Congress could have on state legislatures was limited until 1937 when the Supreme Court ruled that the National Labour Relations Board – a federal agency – had the power to regulate worker-management relations in Pennsylvania – a state. This was interpreted as a federal agency being allowed to intervene in state affairs.

The Founding Fathers had feared the power that one man could develop as president. Hence, Congress was founded as a counter-balance to the president. However, they were also fearful that democracy at a mass level could lead to chaos if everybody was listened to and nothing got done. As a result of this, they founded a two-tier (bicameral) legislature. The House of Representatives would represent the people while the Senate would remain more distant – and be more exclusive – and would represent the states. Though, in theory, both have equal powers on most matters, the Senate is considered more prestigious. Those in the Senate are considered more wise in politics and more senators gain greater political fame than Representatives. It is still considered a great honour to be elected a state’s senator while the current evidence shows that many Representatives are completing their 2 year term in office but are not wanting to campaign for re-election. It appears that Representatives are preferring to return to their former profession where the pay and prospects are better and that a 2 year term is simply not long enough to achieve anything sustainable as they have to start campaigning for re-election almost as soon as they have gained office.






100 Senators

435 Congressmen


2 per state

Dependent on population in state


6 years

2 years

Minimum age






Ratification of Federal judges

Financial legislation begins

Ratification of ambassadors

Begins impeachment process

Ratification of Executive appointees

Ratification of Treaties

Tries impeachment cases


The Constitution has also allocated to the Senate more powers than to the Representatives which also makes it a more attractive proposition politically. However, in an effort to appear even-handed, the Founding Fathers stated, via the Constitution, that all bills have to be passed by both Houses.

The functions of Congress:

Congress has four main functions :

representation legislation investigation and scrutiny financial control

Democracy in its purest form is generally considered impossible in major nations. It would be impossible for all people to have the opportunity to participate in decision making. Therefore, most nations have what is termed representative democracy. This is where the people choose representatives to act on their behalf and, in America, these people sit in Congress. In the House of Representatives, the number of delegates from a state is dependent on that state’s population. Each member of Congress represents a particular region. Elections for the whole chamber are held every two years. The logic behind such a short time in office dates back to the Founding Fathers who wanted to remind all Representative members of the fact that they owed their time in office to the people. If the people liked what they had done in their 2 years in office, logic dictated that they would re-elect them. Such a philosophy extends today. To be elected to the House of Representatives, a candidate must have been a citizen of America for no less than 6 years and must be aged at least 25.

The composition of the Senate is different. Each state, regardless of size, elects 2 Senators. A prospective Senator must have been a US citizen for at least 9 years and he/she must be at least 30 years of age. Each Senator sits in office for 6 years but elections are held on a two-year cycle with a third of all Senators having to stand for re-election.

Members of Congress are in a difficult position. They must be seen to be supporting their party and the president – if he is a member of that party. Anything less would be seen as being disruptive. However, they must also be very aware that they must listen to the views of those who elected them within their constituencies, especially if they wish to seek re-election. Who do they support if those they represent are against a national agenda being pushed through by a president in the same party as them? By having to listen to their constituents, the system is pushing to the full the idea of Congressmen representing the views of the people – not dictating policy to them. Whereas British MP’s tend to follow the party line, American Congressmen have to listen and heed the wishes of the people, especially Representatives as they are re-elected every 2 years. In fact, in recent elections, 90% of incumbents have been re-elected which tends to indicate that constituents have been pleased (or more) with the work that their office holders have done. However, it is also known that many elections are not seriously contested as the cost is simply too high for challengers and the returns for that cost not particularly high within the House of Representatives.

Regardless of the high return of incumbents, recent research has indicated that the public is less than happy with the work of Congress. Dissatisfaction centres on three issues :

an inability of House members to agree on clear and responsible policies; i.e. policy gridlock. the infighting between both parties who are seen to be putting themselves first and America and her people second. the scandals that have rocked Congress in recent years – people are questioning the ethics of Congressional members. Some states have responded by passing legislation limiting the number of terms their representatives are allowed to serve. By 1995, 23 states had approved maximum terms of 3 for Representatives (6 years) and 2 terms (12 years) for Senators.

Ethics in the House of Representatives:

One of the functions of Congress is to investigate and scrutinise issues that might push legality to the limit. However, within Congress there is a desire that Americans should see that the institution is clean. A House Ethics Committee exists for the Representatives and its sole purpose is to investigate members of it. In the early 1990’s, the House of Representatives operated a bank that allowed members of Congress to knowingly run up an overdraft without any form of penalty. All other Americans would have had to pay interest to their banks. In 1992, the HEC found that 300 Representatives – past and present – had bounced cheques (almost certainly knowingly). Though the bank deducted money owed to it directly from the members next pay cheque and failed to even inform the Representative that a cheque had bounced unless his overdraft exceeded his monthly pay cheque, it appeared to the American public that this was an example of politicians getting favoured treatment not doled out to the general public. However, the HEC found that 17 members had run up an overdraft of over $100,000 including Stephen Solarz of New York, who had an overdraft (without financial penalties) of $594,646.

The HEC has also investigated those within it, who appear to abuse privileges handed out to them when people or persons hold a specific post. Dan Rostenowski, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee was found to have spent $55,000 on stamps over a six year period. All House members have the privilege of free postage for all mail sent from their office……….

As Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, was reprimanded and fined $300,000 for giving inaccurate and unreliable information to the HEC. The HEC had also strongly criticised him when he took a $4.5 million advance for his autobiography. He later cut this advance to only $1.

The HEC is there to oversee that all those within the House of Representatives behave in an ethical manner as befits their position within American politics. The evidence is there that those who abuse their position and are detected can expect to be punished – usually in public so that the public can see the HEC is doing its work and to deter others from following that example and suffering a humiliating public punishment. Gingrich, as an example, was considered by the Republicans as their next potential leader especially after the publication of his “Contract with America” in 1992. That he has fallen from grace politically is not solely due to the work of the HEC, but his humiliation in public did severe damage to him.

Congress and Legislation:

In America, both the Senate and the House are responsible for law-making.

The theory behind this is that if the people put their representatives in power, the laws passed by these peoples’ representatives will be upheld by the people as it was they who put their representatives in power. As all House members and two-thirds of all Senators have to face their respective electors every two years, the electorate have the opportunity to remove these representatives if they fail to fulfil their expectations.

How is a bill passed in America?

1. A bill can be initiated by a member of Congress, the Executive or by an interest group. However, they can only be introduced by a member of Congress. They can begin their life in either the Senate or the House. If a bill is solely concerned with revenue, then it must start its life in the House.

2. Once introduced, the bill is in the hands of the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader in the Senate. The bill is then referred to the respective standing committee in either house. If it is clear that a number of standing committees could be involved with the bill, both leaders have the right to decide where it should be allocated.

3. The chair of that standing committee can decide if the bill needs the attention of the whole committee or a sub-committee or whether it should be pigeon-holed, in which case it will never be considered and dies.

4. Bills concerning revenue, automatically go to the House Ways and Means Committee. This body deals with all proposals concerning taxation. Bill concerning spending go to the House Appropriation Committee – though this is not a constitutional requirement.

5. The bill is most thoroughly examined at the committee stage. Hearings are usually in public (to give an air of democracy) unless the contents of the bill are sensitive. After the hearing, the committee vote on the bill. If the response is positive, the bill is returned to the full chamber. A committee can also amend a bill.

6. In the House, the amended bill goes to the Rules Committee which has the right to grant a bill a rule; this means time for a full debate. The House Rules Committee can also disallow it. Within the Senate, the decision of whether to proceed with the bill or not, is taken by the Majority Party Policy Committee. Bills concerning revenue and which have received a favourable report from the House Ways and Means Committee bypass the Rules Committee and go straight to the full House.

7. If it has been given the time, a bill is debated on the floors of both the Senate and the House. Most of the detailed work on the bill will have been completed by this time and the floor is likely to support the recommendation of the committee. In the house, members are usually only given five minutes each to debate the bill, whereas, in the Senate there is a tradition of unlimited debating time per senator. In this branch of Congress, such an approach allows filibustering to occur – when a bill is talked out of the time allocated to it.

8. If a bill is passed by both houses but with different amendments, the differences have to be reconciled before the bill is sent to the president for his signature. This process is carried out by a conference committee made up by members of the original committees.

9. The finished version of the bill is returned to the Senate and the House for a full vote. If approved it will go to the president for his signature. At this point the president can either sign the bill making it an act, or he can veto it. If he vetoes a bill, it is returned to Congress with an explanation as to why he has vetoed that bill. The president can also use a pocket-veto if Congress is near the end of a working session. This is where a bill that has not been signed by the president dies after a specified number of days. Under the Constitution, a bill automatically becomes law if the president holds on to a bill for ten days and has not signed it nor vetoed it if Congress is in session. It can be pocket-vetoed by the president if Congress adjourns during that ten day time span. “The pocket veto provides the chief executive with a major legislative power.” (Plano and Greenburg) The pocket veto is absolute and it kills off a bill. Whereas, a presidential veto does allow for the vetoed bill to be re-introduced into the next legislative session under another guise. The president does not have to give an explanation to Congress why he has used the pocket veto although they usually defend their actions (to stave off claims of dictatorial power) by a Memorandum of Disapproval. The end of a legislative session also sees many bills being forwarded to the president in the rush to beat the deadline for bills. It would also be usual for bills to come in greater numbers at the end of a session, as the process usually takes time. The plethora of bills does give the president great power over what becomes law and what does not.

Congress and investigation:

Many aspects of government are now initiated by the Executive branch. Therefore, the Legislative branch checks and scrutinises the work done by the Executive branch. Though both Senate and the House have responsibilities to do this, it is the Senate that has particular responsibilities in this area as it is the Senate that has the power to ratify presidential appointments and treaties. Most of the investigative work of Congress is done through its committee system.

Congress and financial control:

The Legislative branch of government controls America’s purse-strings. To an extent this is linked with its investigative capacity as Congress controls spending and taxation through law and monitors the way the Executive uses that money. During the Watergate scandal, Congress used the period when the president’s status was at an all-time low, to pass acts (the War Powers Act, the Case Act and the Budget and Impoundment Act) to further extend its investigative powers.