The Legislative Branch

An overview of leadership roles in the legislative branch and committee procedures

Senate and House of Representatives
The Speaker of the House
Two-thirds vote in each chamber
Strom Thurmond
One each
Congress develops its own budget resolution

U.S. Congress: Composition and Responsibilities

The United States Congress is the legislative body of the American government. It is made up of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives, and bills must be passed by both houses before they can become law.


Each state has two senators, while the number of representatives from each state depends on its population size. Members of congress may stand for re-election an unlimited number of times.

In addition to passing laws, Congress also has other responsibilities such as approving or denying presidential appointments and calling hearings to discuss the flaws or merits of bills in which advice from experts, critics and advocates are called upon to inform legislation.

Furthermore, Congress has oversight authority over federal agencies and departments through its investigative committees which have subpoena power for documents or witnesses related to their investigations. This helps ensure that government officials remain accountable for their actions and decisions.

Differences in Senate and House Representation

Among several distinctions between the roles of the Senate and the House of Representatives lies in whose interests its members are supposed to represent.

The House of Representatives has 435 members, each representing a congressional district. The number of representatives from each state depends on its population size; for example, California has 53 representatives while Wyoming only has one.

This means the house is designed to represent the whole populace of the United States, and tends to be more closely tied to public opinion and the interests of individual citizens.

By contrast, the Senate has only 100 voting members, with each of the 50 states represented equally by two senators who serve six-year terms. The Senate is therefore designed to primarily represent the interests of the respective states as federal entities, ensuring that larger states are not afforded too much power.

The House is more diverse in terms of age, gender, race, and ethnicity, while the Senate is typically more homogeneous.

Leadership Roles in Congress

The legislative processes of congress are overseen by the two chambers’ respective leaders.

The Speaker of the House is both a party leader and constitutional official elected by all members of the House, being presiding officer of the House of Representatives and second in the presidential line of succession, after the vice president.

The Speaker is responsible for leading the House’s proceedings, maintaining order and decorum, and making procedural rulings. They assign legislation to committees, and select members to serve on conference committees, which reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of bills.

Nevertheless, the Majority Leader can often wield considerable influence over proceedings. They usually have priority to speak on the floor and can schedule legislation, determining which bills get voted on, and when.

Proposing and Passing Bills Process


The process for proposing and passing bills in the US Congress involves several initial steps:

Introduction of the bill: A member of Congress proposes and sponsors a bill by introducing it in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Committee action: The bill is referred to a committee in the chamber where it was introduced. The committee reviews and debates the bill, and may make changes to it before voting on whether to send it to the full chamber for consideration.

Floor action: The bill is debated and voted on by the full chamber, with further amendments and debate allowed. If the bill passes in one chamber, it goes to the other chamber for consideration.

Conference Committee and Presidential Veto

If the bill is passed in both chambers but with differences in language, a conference committee made up of members from both chambers is formed to reconcile the differences and produce a final version of the bill.


Both chambers vote on the final version of the bill, and if it passes, it goes to the President, who has 10 days to sign or veto. If the President vetoes the bill, Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

Throughout the process, bills may be amended or even abandoned, and it can take months or even years for a bill to become law. The process is designed to ensure that bills receive thorough consideration and debate before being passed into law.

Filibuster Rules and Senatorial Power

The Senate is bound by procedural rules that affords individual senators greater power to influence legislation than members of the House of Representatives

This is primarily due to the Senate’s “filibuster” rules, which allow any senator to speak for as long as they wish on a bill, blocking it from coming up for a vote in time to be passed. This can be done even if the majority of senators support the bill, since the filibuster can only be ended through a cloture vote requiring 60 votes.

Therefore, even though the Constitution only requires a simple majority vote (50%) for most legislation, in practice a supermajority of 60 votes is required to overcome a filibuster.

In contrast, the House generally has more restrictive debate rules, with limited time for debate and a structured amendment process.

One of the longest filibusters in US history is Strom Thurmond’s against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Thurmond, a Senator from South Carolina, spoke for a total of 24 hours and 18 minutes, in an attempt to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Compromise and Procedural Tactics in Congress

Congressional decision-making relies heavily on compromise between both chambers and across party lines.

If the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, a conference committee, made up of members from both the chambers, is appointed to work out the differences and negotiate a compromise to produce a single, unified bill.


In addition to this type of compromise, congressional leaders often use procedural tactics to move the legislation forward, such as budget reconciliation, which allows Congress to pass legislation direct related to the federal budget (such as changes to tax policy, spending levels, or mandatory spending programs like Medicare) with a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of the usual 60 required to break the filibuster in the Senate.

The process is limited to one reconciliation bill per fiscal year for each of the House and Senate.

Elections: House and Senate Staggered Terms

Congressional elections are held every two years, with all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate up for grabs.

This is due to the Constitutional mandate that senators serve six-year terms, which must be staggered to ensure that not all senators face re-election simultaneously.

The founders’ rationale for this was to uphold the Senate’s continuity and stability, ensuring that, though a smaller body than the House of Representatives, the Senate is less susceptible to abrupt swings in public opinion and changing political winds.

Conversely, the House was designed to be more responsive to the people’s will, which is why all 435 seats are up for election every two years. This allows voters to express their satisfaction or discontent with the current Congress and potentially alter the House’s balance of power.

The Legislative Branch

Given that the president is elected to serve for four years, and congressional elections occur every two years, every other congressional election is commonly referred to as a “midterm” election.

Midterms are particularly significant due to historical trends that have shown that the president’s party tends to lose seats in Congress during these elections. Since the second world war, the President’s party has dropped on average over 7.5 percentage points in the House of Representatives midterm vote.


Various factors contribute to this outcome, such as lower voter turnout and dissatisfaction with the president’s implementation of polities, and can act as a referendum on the president and their party’s performance.

The shift in the balance of power in Congress that often occurs during midterms can impede the president’s ability to pass legislation and implement their policy agenda in the latter half of their term.

Annual Budget Process and Challenges

Congress is responsible for passing the annual budget, which allocates funds to government programs and departments.

The process starts when the President submits a budget proposal to Congress early in the calendar year, outlining their priorities for federal spending.

Congress then develops its own budget resolution (typically initiated in the House of Representatives), which sets overall spending and revenue targets for the upcoming fiscal year, which is then debated and amended in both houses, who subsequently vote on its passage. Once approved by both chambers, the bill is sent to the President for signature or veto. If vetoed, Congress can override it with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

In recent years, passing the budget has often been difficult due to increasing political polarization. For example, in 2013, disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over funding for the Affordable Care Act led to a government shutdown that lasted for 16 days, during which all federal expenditure, including wages of federal employees, was frozen.


Congressional Committees: Types and Functions

Congressional committees provide a forum for members to discuss and debate proposed legislation, and can be divided into two categories: standing committees, which are permanent bodies that consider bills related to their specific area of expertise; and select or special committees, which are temporary bodies created to address specific issues.

Committees can hold hearings on proposed legislation in order to gather information from experts and stakeholders before voting on it. These hearings often involve testimony from expert witnesses, as well as questions posed by committee members. For example, in 2019 the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on gun violence prevention featuring testimony from survivors of mass shootings.

Additionally, congressional oversight hearings allow Congress to monitor executive branch activities such as foreign policy decisions or government spending initiatives. Such hearings often feature high-profile witnesses like former FBI Director James Comey testifying about his interactions with President Trump during the Russia investigation in 2017.

Impeachment: Process and Presidential Examples

Congress has the power to investigate and impeach federal officers, including the President, for “high crimes and misdemeanors” such as bribery or abuse of power. The most famous example of impeachment was that of President Bill Clinton in 1998, when he was accused of lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

In 2019, President Donald Trump became only the third president in US history to be impeached by Congress after being charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress related to his dealings with Ukraine.

The House Judiciary Committee holds hearings on potential articles of impeachment before voting on them; if approved by a majority vote, they are then sent to the full House for consideration. If passed by a simple majority there, it moves onto trial proceedings in the Senate where two-thirds must vote guilty for conviction.

Impeachment does not necessarily mean removal from office; it simply serves as a formal accusation against the president.

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