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Article 1 of the Constitution establishes the legislative or law making branch of government with the formation of a bicameral Congress. This system provides checks and balances within the legislative branch.

Only after much debate did the Founding Fathers agree on the creation of the House of Representatives and the Senate. A major issue was how representation in the legislative body would be determined. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from larger and more populated states argued for the Virginia Plan that called for congressional representation that should be based on a state's population. Fearing domination, delegates from smaller states were just as adamant for equal representation and supported the New Jersey Plan. Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut , proposed the bicameral legislature. The Great Compromise, among other provisions, resulted in the creation of two houses, with representation based on population in one and with equal representation in the other.

Members of Congress are now elected by a direct vote of the people of the state they represent. It has not always been this way for the Senate. Prior to 1913 and the 17 th Amendment to the Constitution, Senators were chose by their state legislatures because the Senate was viewed as representative of state governments, not of the people. It was the responsibility of Senators to ensure that their state was treated equally in legislation.

Agencies that provide support services for the Congress are also part of the legislative branch. These include the Government Printing Office (GPO), the Library of Congress (LC), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the General Accounting Office (GAO), and the Architect of the Capitol.


The United States Congress is part of the legislative branch and is made up of two houses - the Houses of Representatives and the Senate. This two house system is known as a bicameral legislature. The primary duty of Congress is to write, debate, and pass bills, which are then passed on to the president for approval. Other congressional duties include investigating pressing national issues and supervising the executive and judicial branches.

Every two years, voters get to choose all 435 representatives and a third of the senators. The entire House membership faces re-election every two years, but the Senate is a continuing body because there is never an entirely new Senate. A new Congress begins in January following Congressional elections. Since the First Congress, which met from 1789 to 1791, all Congresses have been numbered in order. We are currently in the 108 th Congress. Congress meets once every year and usually lasts from January 3 rd to July 31 st , but in special case, a session can last longer.

For the most part, the House and Senate each meet in their respective chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington , D.C. ; however, on rare occasions, they will convene for a joint session of Congress in the House chamber. For example, a joint session will be called to count electoral votes for presidential elections.

The Powers of Congress

The Constitution grants Congress "all legislative powers" in the national government. Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution lists a wide range of congressional powers, including:

  • Coining money
  • Maintaining a military
  • Declaring war on other countries
  • Regulating interstate and foreign commerce

Congress also controls federal taxing and spending policies-one of the most important sources of power in the government. The Constitution also gives Congress the authority to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper", an implied source of power sometimes called the Elastic Clause.

One of the most important implied powers is Congress's authority to investigate and oversee the executive branch and its agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. As part of this responsibility, which is known as oversight, Congress summons senior officials to answer questions from members, orders audits of agencies, and holds hearings to air grievances of citizens.

Congress also hold hearings on matters of general public concern. Sometimes members of Congress conduct these hearings to identify problems that crate a need for new laws. In other cases Congress holds hearings to raise public awareness about an issue.

There are, however, some congressional powers that are rarely used such as the ability to impeach an official and the ability to amend the Constitution.

In addition to the power described above, Congress shares powers with the president in matters such as, framing U.S. foreign policy and control over the military. For example, while the president negotiates treaties, they are only put into effect once the Senate approves them. Also, while Congress can declare war and approve funds for the military, the president is the commander-in-chief of the military.

The U.S. Congress: THE SENATE

There are a total of 100 members in the Senate. The Constitution states that the vice president has formal control over the Senate and is known as the president of the Senate. In actuality, the vice president is only present for important ceremonies and to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Senators, elected for six-year terms, must be 30 years old, a citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state from which they are elected.

As in the House, the Senate also has special jobs that only it can perform. It can:

  • Confirm or disapprove any treaties the President drafts.
  • Confirm or disapprove the Presidential appointments, such as the Cabinet Officers, Supreme Court Justices, and Ambassadors.
  • Holds a trial for a Government official who commits a crime against the country.

Senate Select and Special Committees

Senate Standing Committees

Offices of the U.S. Senate

The U.S. Congress: The House of Representatives

There are a total of 435 members in the House of Representatives. Each member represents an area of a state, known as a congressional district. This is why they are more frequently referred to as Congressmen. The number of representatives is based on the number of districts in a state. Each state is guaranteed one seat. Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the population of the states to determine the number of districts in each state.

Representatives, elected for two-year terms, must be 25 years old, a citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state from which they are elected. Five additional members - from Puerto Rico , Guam , American Samoa , the Virgin Islands , and the District of Columbia - represent their constituencies in the House. While they may participate in the debates, they cannot vote.

The House has special jobs that only it can perform. It can:

  • Start laws that make people pay taxes
  • Decide if a government official should be put on trial before the Senate if he/she commits a crime against the country.

Offices in the U.S. House of Representatives

U.S. House of Representatives Commissions

U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committees

U.S. House of Representatives Standing Committees

Other Legislative Branch Resources and Tools