In this lesson, we will review what the United States Congress is. We will take a closer look at the makeup of Congress, what its powers are and what it represents.

What Is Congress?

The United States Congress is the national federal legislative body of the United States of America. The main job of Congress is to make the laws for the United States that affect our everyday lives and protect our rights.

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Structure

The House of Representatives and the Senate are the two houses that make up the body of Congress. The House of Representatives has 435 members, and the Senate has 100 members. All members earn their seat by direct vote from the citizens on Election Day. Both of these houses meet in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Each state elects two senators to the Senate and at least one representative to the House of Representatives. A state may elect more than one representative depending on the population of the state.

The brunt of the writing and work that these two houses do is passed on to different committees, or groups of legislators that are divided into specialized areas. The committee will have a project assigned to it, will do the research and work, and then report back to the main body. The two houses also have a library at their disposal and a significant number of various staff members to assist them in their day-to-day activities.

Procedures

A term of Congress is divided into two separate sessions, one for each year that the Congress is serving. Sessions are the time that the Congress meets all together to work. Each house meets with its own members in order to work on bills, which are new potential legislation or resolutions. There are times in which the two bodies meet together and these are called joint sessions. Joint sessions are mainly scheduled for counting electoral votes after an election for a new president of the United States or during the president’s State of the Union Address to the nation.

Powers

Article 1 of the United States Constitution states, ‘All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.’ Each house has different powers but legislation, or laws, cannot be passed without the consent of both houses.

There are three ways in which Congress retains powers. First, there are powers that Congress maintains that were specifically written into the Constitution. Second, there are powers that have been granted to Congress after the Constitution was created by way of amendments to the Constitution. Lastly, there are powers that are implied by different clauses in the Constitution.

The enumerated powers are specifically given to Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. These powers include the ability to lay and collect taxes from the American people. These powers also include the power to borrow money on behalf of the United States, to regulate commerce, to raise and support an army and a military, to establish post offices and to create and print money. These powers are exclusive to the legislative body of Congress.

The implied powers are derived from the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution. The Necessary and Proper Clause has given Congress the ability to make all laws that are necessary and proper for carrying into execution the laws that are enumerated in the Constitution. These powers are usually interpreted when another right is being challenged. One example would be the power of Congress to create a national bank or to draft individuals to serve in the military. These are things that are necessary for Congress to be able to do in order to exercise the powers already specifically enumerated to them in the Constitution.

Lastly, there are powers granted to Congress by way of constitutional amendment, or additions to the United States Constitution after it was enacted. Examples of powers granted to Congress by way of constitutional amendment would be the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. These amendments granted Congress the power to create and enforce laws to protect the rights of African-Americans.

Lesson Summary

The United States Congress is the national federal legislative body of the United States of America. Congress is divided into two bodies: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The citizens of the United States elect the people that make up these bodies.

The majority of the work and research that these bodies do is done by way of committees. These committees are made up of congresspeople that specialize in the particular area in which the committee has been assigned to do work. There are also people assigned to assist Congress as staff members and librarians.

There are three ways in which Congress retains their powers. Congress receives powers assigned to it directly from the Constitution. Congress also receives powers that were created after the Constitution by way of amendment and that are implied within the body of the Constitution.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Identify how the United States Congress is organized
  • Describe the role of committees in Congress and how they function
  • Explain the three ways that Congress retains powers