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The Legislative Branch: Part I
Transcript of The Legislative Branch: Part I
House: 435 members. Senate: 100 members
House representatives serve two-year terms. Senators serve six-year terms
The House has more formal rules; the Senate has fewer rules, but those rules are fairly quirky
Differences Between House and Senate
The Senate is more prestigious than the House
The filibuster is something that’s unique to the U.S. Senate
A filibuster is a period of unlimited debate to block a bill. It’s an old-school way to stall until the other senators give in and change their minds about a bill
Here’s some background. A bill gets introduced. Senators then debate the bill, but eventually need to vote on it. They can stop debate at any time if they have 60 votes (3/5th of the Senate).
If they get 60 votes, they can invoke
by ending debate and calling for a vote
If less than 60 senators vote for cloture, a senator can delay a vote by just threatening a filibuster. Many times, they don’t actually do the filibuster
We the People
Congress is the place where national laws are made
Before 1787, the Articles of Confederation had established a Continental Congress with just one legislative body
The Constitution changed Congress to have two bodies. The House was supposed to be directly elected by the people, while the Senate would be elected by state representatives
Congress makes laws that apply to the entire country.
is the most common thing that Congress does.
How do laws get made? Representatives and senators introduce a
which is basically a proposal for a law. Sometimes a bill is referred to as “legislation.” The president cannot introduce bills/legislation; a congressperson must volunteer to do it in the president’s name even if the executive branch writes the bill.
How Congress Works
Members of Congress try to get support for their bill by
which means they propose to support someone else’s bill in exchange for a vote
In the past, logrolling involved
An earmark was essentially a special clause that was added to a bill that usually didn’t have anything to do with the bill’s original purpose. Earmarks, also known as pork, usually benefit a specific district. They’ve been used as bargaining chips in exchange for votes
Bills go through a long process before Congress votes on them. We’ll discuss that process later.
What Congress Does
There are two philosophies about what a member of Congress should do.
Congresspersons can act as
which means they try to act for the benefit of everyone in the country
Or, they can act as instructed delegates, meaning they only act in the best interest of
(residents of their home district or state)
Members do other things besides vote. They hold hearings and run special committees that oversee the executive branch
of the national bureaucracy
For example, Congress created a special 9/11 commission to review why the United States was unprepared for a major terrorism attack
What Powers Does Congress Have?
Article I of the Constitution gives Congress
powers, meaning powers specifically given to the legislature
Remember the Articles of Confederation? That document didn’t provide very strong enumerated powers to Congress, so the Founders decided to write the Constitution instead
Enumerated powers for Congress include the power to tax, regulate interstate commerce, establish immigration policy, mint currency, declare war and raise a military
Congress also certifies presidential elections
The Senate has some exclusive powers, including the authority to ratify treaties and confirm presidential nominees to the executive branch and the Supreme Court
If Congress needs more power, it can try to use the Necessary and Proper Clause in the Constitution. This clause allows Congress to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” to execute the rest of its powers
Oversight committees have also investigated responses to Hurricane Katrina
Congress can also hold hearing on certain topics to raise awareness and set the national agenda for certain issues. Topics have included immigration, aging, health care and climate change
Members of Congress also do
which means they help constituents who have problems with the national government
Casework can include helping a veteran track down a lost benefit check or helping a senior citizen who has complaints with Medicare
This type of activity helps members of Congress look good when it’s time for re-election
The House can impeach a federal official, but the Senate has to convict that person to finalize the impeachment
If a senator actually filibusters, he or she can’t leave the floor or can’t yield his/her right to speak (unless it’s for a question or for a point of order). The longest filibuster in history was 24 hours
Filibusters only happen in the Senate. Some political analysts and commentators in the media love the filibuster because it’s a true act of democracy
The Democrats currently control the Senate. They have proposed eliminating the filibuster in certain cases. They would also force anyone who threatens a filibuster to actually do so; right now, senators sometimes threaten to filibuster for political reasons but don't follow through
Democrats want to stop gridlock. The Republicans have used the filibuster to prevent votes on many bills.
The Senate Democrats technically need a two-thirds vote to change filibuster rules, but they can use a few tricks to only need a majority.
Many senators opposed these changes because they believe in protecting the opposition's right to force a compromise. At the same time, other senators pointed out that the Republicans (and the Democrats to some extent, because of amendment rules) are not fostering cooperation.
Senate leaders in both parties adjusted the rules of the filibuster recently. The changes essentially reduced the number of hours of debate that can happen after cloture (60 votes seeking an end to debate), shorten the time it takes to officially confirm judicial nominees who has been voted on and guarantee the minority party will be able to offer two amendments to any bill.
The changes, however, did not affect presidential appointees to circuit-level courts or cabinet positions, according to CQ Roll Call. The changes also did not prevent individual senators from stalling votes by threatening to filibuster or actually do it by talking indefinitely on the Senate floor.
The majority party's leadership usually consists of three people in the House (
Speaker, Majority Leader, and the Majority Whip
), and two people in the Senate (
Majority Leader and Minority Whip
The Whip is responsible for counting and rounding up votes from his/her party before a vote on a specific bill. Sometimes they have to be very persuasive. The term, "arm-twisting," often makes a very good metaphor for this process.
Lawmakers can't pass bills on their own
. They usually need support from members of their own party, and sometimes they need bipartisan support, which means help from lawmakers in both parties.
Lawmakers (Representatives in the House, Senators in the Senate) can write bills and introduce them into Congress. Usually, they might write the bill with a
to make the bill stronger.
add their name to the bill but often don't contribute much of the work; they simply add support to help the bill pass.
Bills also need support from the leadership of the majority party in the House of Representatives or the Senate.
controls which bills get votes on the floor of Congress.
Without leadership's help, a bill usually dies without a vote.
Both bodies of Congress operate with
unseen and unspoken rules
. Lawmakers often plot against each other like chessmasters moving pieces on a board
It’s the national legislature of the United States
Congress is a
legislature, meaning it has two lawmaking bodies: the House of Representatives and the Senate