United States Congress
| A guide to|
|Hail to the Chief?|
|Persons of interest|
“”If 'con' is the opposite of 'pro,' then what is the opposite of progress?
“”I am not in Washington as a statesman. I am there as a very well paid messenger boy doing your errands. My chief occupation is going around with a forked stick picking up little fragments of patronage for my constituents.
|—Attributed to Arizona Senator Henry Fountain Ashurst.|
The United States Congress, often simply referred to as Congress, is the federal legislature of the United States. The body is bicameral, meaning that it is split into two houses which are: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Various powers are divided between them, theoretically to ensure their ability to check the powers of the other. Congress has 535 voting members: 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. It meets in Washington D.C.
Both Senators and Representatives are directly elected by their constituents, which has been true since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1913. Before that, Senators were appointed by state legislatures.
Members of the US House of Representatives are elected to serve two-year terms, although there is currently no limit on the number of terms an individual can serve. Representatives are elected from a single district, the borders of which can be legally subject to partisan gerrymandering. The number of districts in a state, and thus its representation in the House, is determined by its Census population.
The Senate is the upper house of Congress, and its members are elected to serve six-year terms. Every state, no matter its size or population, is entitled to two senators according to the Constitution. That has led some smaller states to be dramatically overrepresented based on their population, which was actually the very point of the body's creation. Senate elections and terms are staggered so that every two years one-third of the body's seats go up for election.
Along with creating legislation, Congress also exercises other powers intended to safeguard democracy. The Senate must approve presidential nominees for various positions, while the House must initiate budget bills. Both chambers also have the right to investigate the executive branch.
- 1 The House of Representatives
- 1.1 Membership and elections
- 1.2 Powers
- 1.3 Officials
- 2 The Senate
- 3 Current partisan makeup
- 4 External links
- 5 References
The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the United States legislature.
Membership and elections
“”In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a law that established an odd-shaped Congressional district. It was redrawn by political cartoonists into a salamander-type creature and thus the term gerrymander was born.
|—Matthew T. Rosenberg, The Handy Geography Answer Book.|
The House has 435 voting members who are elected from districts within all of the states. Since representatives only serve two-year terms, all 435 seats go up for election in every cycle. As a result, the House can often be more dynamic than the Senate due to the possibility of a greater amount of its members being tossed out. In roughly one-third of all elections since 1856, the House has changed party majorities. Almost all of these changes in partisan majority happen during midterm (meaning non-presidential) elections as people end up having buyer's remorse upon finding out that they don't like the current president so much.
Representatives are elected from congressional districts, the exact number of which are decided for every state based upon the results of the most recent US Census. Every time the Census is held, congressional districts are redrawn by state legislatures to compensate for changes in population across the nation.
Since the landmark US Supreme Court decision Wesberry v. Sanders from 1964, all districts must have the same population. However, there are still partistan tricks that state legislatures can and do use to sway elections. Gerrymandering means drawing districts in a way that can unfairly influence elections by dividing up a majority into certain districts in a way that they are always underrepresented each time. Both major US parties do it, and it's why US congressional districts always look so fucked up.
As for requirements to be a representative, these are spelled out in the US Constitution. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for representatives. Each representative must: (1) be at least twenty-five years old; (2) have been a citizen of the United States for the past seven years; and (3) be (at the time of the election) an inhabitant of the state they represent.
There are also currently six non-voting members of the House of Representatives. Non-voting members are permitted to introduce legislation and speak on the floor, but they are not permitted to participate in actual votes. All six non-voting seats currently belong to the US colonies plus Washington DC, although proposals exist for adding some Native American nations as well.
As a chamber of the US legislature, the House has the right to introduce and vote on bills. However, this inherent power is limited by the fact that the House must get the Senate's agreement to actually send any bills to the president's desk. Political parties were not anticipated by the US Constitution, and instances in which Congress gets clogged because opposing parties control the two chambers were and are common.
Another design feature to ensure equality between the two chambers of Congress was the Constitution's investment of certain exclusive powers into the House of Representatives.
Power of the purse
“”This power over the purse, may in fact be regarded as the most compleat and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.
|—James Madison, Federalist No. 58.|
The House has what is colloquially referred to as the "power of the purse", which means the House alone has the power to introduce legislation on taxation and government spending. The Senate may not introduce bills; they must instead negotiate over the House version.
This was directly inspired by the UK's parliament, where the House of Commons had the power of the purse in order to check royal authority. The reasons for the system in the US are basically the same: if the president does not get money from Congress for the policies he wants then he's basically shit out of luck. Theoretically. In one infamous scandal, Ronald Reagan tried to sidestep the power of the purse by raising his own money through illegal and secretive arms sales to Iran in what is now called the Iran-Contra scandal.
Investigations and oversight
Although not explicitly stated in the Constitution, longstanding judicial tradition holds that the House has broad powers to investigate the conduct of executive and judicial officials. This is considered a key part of the checks and balances the House has on the other parts of the federal government. It's based on both precedent and the fact that it's pretty much assumed that Congress has the right to seek information when creating legislation.
Congress flexed its investigative muscles pretty early on when Robert Morris of Pennsylvania asked them to look into the state's finances to clear his name from corruption allegations. During that investigation, George Washington and James Madison explicitly confirmed that the House had the power to do this. During the Northwest Indian War, the House also investigated the Washington administration's crushing military defeat during the St. Clair's campaign. Since then, the House has investigated numerous instances of executive misconduct including Teapot Dome, Watergate, and Iran-Contra.
In accordance with its investigative authority, the House also wields some coercive tools in ensuring compliance. Congress has wielded subpoena power since its 1795 investigation into bribery, when it had real estate speculator Robert Randall arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms and remanded to a nearby jail for a week. Subpoena and contempt powers were finally formalized in 1857 when Congress successfully passed a law stating that the failure of a witness to answer "any question pertinent" to a congressional investigation would prompt an investigation by the Department of Justice, as well as potential fines and jail time.
“”Conditions may, and are not unlikely to arise, some day, when the exercise of the power to impeach and remove the President may be quite as essential to the preservation of our political system as it threatened to become in this instance destructive of that system. Should that day ever come, it is to be hoped that the remedy of impeachment, as established by the Constitution, may be as patriotically, as fearlessly, and as unselfishly applied as it was on this occasion rejected.
|—Edmund Ross, History of the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson.|
The House also has the sole power to impeach executive and judicial officials based upon Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution. The Impeachment Clause is quite broadly written with the inclusion of "other high crimes and misdemeanors". The House has never had much of a problem using a broader interpretation, either. For instance, Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson for violating a targeted and dubiously constitutional (later found unconstitutional) law, while Bill Clinton was impeached for getting his dick sucked by not-his-wife and then lying about it. Probably the most valid impeachment proceeding was against Donald Trump, when the House impeached him after uncovering substantive evidence that he tried to coerce Ukraine into giving Joe Biden bad press and thus swaying the 2020 U.S. presidential election. That's slightly worse than violating a "fuck you" law or lying about cumming on a dress.
Ultimately, though, impeachment is a political process. As US president Gerald Ford said,
“”The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers [it] to be at a given moment in history.
Although the House's impeachment powers are largely unchecked and often arbitrary, their ability to actually remove an official is very harshly limited. This is because removal requires a trial before the Senate in which two-thirds of the body votes to convict. That last part has never happened to a sitting US president.
Speaker of the House
Established by the Constitution, the holder of the office of Speaker essentially serves as more-or-less the leader of the House. The Speaker is second-in-line for the presidency in the event that both the president and vice president are somehow incapacitated, and the Speaker also presides over House assemblies and directs most of the body's administrative functions. Since the Speaker is elected by the members of the House, the majority party typically controls the office. Party members who vote for the other party's Speaker candidate typically face harsh punishment, such as when Democrat James A. Traficant Jr. had his seniority and committee assignments stripped in retaliation for his decision to vote for the Republican candidate.
Newt Gingrich dramatically expanded the powers and partisan nature of the Speaker's office during his tenure, reforming the House to expand his own power and harshly using his prominence to turn politics into a name-calling blood sport.
The Speaker now wields many powers in their quest to ensure that their majority party can get their agenda passed. These include appointing committees, setting the calendar to determine when bills are debated and voted on, and leveraging those previous authorities into coercing members of their party into voting in the desired way. Generally speaking, if the House is doing or not doing something, it’s because that’s what the Speaker wants.
The current Speaker of the House is Nancy Pelosi.
The Majority Leader is, under the Speaker, the ranking member of the majority party in the House. It is their job to arm-twist legislators of their party into voting the desired way, and they also help the Speaker in administrative tasks. The post began informally but gradually evolved into its current form as the House's increasing size and power made partisanship more important. The position is today elected, but it was originally appointed by the Speaker.
The current Majority Leader is Steny Hoyer.
The Minority Leader fills basically the same role as the Majority Leader but in service to the opposition party. This role is probably more difficult than being in the majority, though, because the Minority Leader must also focus on defending the opposition's rights and ensuring that they have as much influence as possible over the House proceedings.
On top of that, the Minority Leader's main objective is to become the Majority Leader. Of course! That involves getting publicity for the opposition, helping party members with their campaigns, and ensuring party unity.
The current House Minority Leader is Kevin McCarthy.
Party Whips are the attack dogs of the leaders. They keep track of House legislation and ensure that the party's members are all on the same page in voting, and they also ensure that every party member is actually in the House when votes go down (this can be more of a problem than you might think). The term comes from the UK tradition of foxhunting, as the "whipper" was in charge of keeping the pack of hounds together.
Sergeant at Arms
The Sergeant at Arms is the House's chief cop, in charge of providing security for the House, keeping order in the House, and arresting those people the House decides to hold in contempt. His duties are mostly ceremonial, such as escorting the president and foreign dignitaries for their speeches, conveying Articles of Impeachment from the House to the Senate, and supervising funeral arrangements.
The Sergeant also wields the so-called Mace of the Republic, because even non-monarchies need ceremonial heraldry junk. The Mace serves a disciplinary role, as when House members become unruly or violent, the Sergeant waves the Mace around; anyone who fails to calm the fuck down is then arrested. The Mace has been used a few times, once to prevent a knife fight and book throwing incident in the 1890s, and once during World War I when a fistfight almost broke out amid allegations that anti-war representatives were unpatriotic.
The Sergeant can also be ordered by the Speaker to compel absent members to attend floor votes in the House and to keep representatives from leaving the chamber during this process.
“”O Lord our Heavenly Father... look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee. To Thee have they appealed for the righteousness of their cause; to Thee do they now look up for that countenance and support, which Thou alone canst give.
|—Reverend Jacob Duché, first prayer of the Continental Congress, September 7, 1774.|
Despite the officially secular nature of the House of Representatives, one of its oldest institutions is the House Chaplain. The Chaplain begins every House proceeding with a prayer, a tradition which dates back to the American Revolution and the Continental Congress in 1774. The House cites the first half of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 ("The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers") in the United States Constitution as giving it the authority to elect a Chaplain. Technically, the post isn't decided according to religion, but it's obvious that every one so far has been a Christian. Every now and then, though, the House Chaplain will invite guest chaplains, a few of which have represented a number of different religions including Islam and Judaism.
Even this office hasn't escaped partisan squabbling. Current Chaplain Patrick Conroy was almost forced out by the old Republican Speaker Paul Ryan, as the Republicans didn't like that one of his prayers acknowledged wealth gaps in the US during a tax bill debate. The resulting uproar convinced Conroy to stick around, and he remains in service to this date.
“”I, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
|—The Senate Oath of Office, as defined by federal statute. Many Senators have failed to fulfill the spirit of this oath.|
The United States Senate is the upper house of Congress, meaning that it has a much smaller number of members and those members serve much longer terms. It tends to be viewed as more prestigious. Many senators are high-profile, to the point where 16 US presidents were previously senators and three of them (Harding, JFK, Obama) were elected while actually serving in the Senate. They also tend to get more money and attention from lobbyists.
Membership and elections
Senators are elected by eligible voters of their home state for a term of six years. There are two Senators elected from each state, regardless of population, which means that one voter in Wyoming has as much Senate representation as 68 voters in California. Poor Washington DC and the territories, meanwhile, are shit out of luck. They don't get senators, and they also don't get non-voting representation in the Senate either. No taxation without representation? Like House elections, Senate elections are first-past-the-post. There is no limit on the number of terms a Senator may service.
According to Governor Blagojevich of Illinois, a former mob bookmaker, a Senate seat is worth about a million dollars. Blagojevich considered it a personal insult that he was expected to appoint a replacement for a former Senator turned President-elect without considerable financial remuneration.
Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution, sets three qualifications for senators: (1) they must be at least 30 years old; (2) they must have been citizens of the United States for the past nine years or longer; and (3) they must be inhabitants of the states they seek to represent at the time of their election.
Powers and procedures
Like the House, the Senate has the power and obligation to introduce, debate, and pass legislation. The Senate, does not, however, have the power to introduce any bills on taxation or spending, as the Constitution's Origination Clause reserves that for the House alone. However, the Senate does have the power to amend and reject the House's spending bills. That serves as a check on the House's power, as it can do whatever it wants to a revenue bill but can't ensure that it actually gets passed. This, of course, naturally means that Congress can and often does grind to a halt during periods when the two chambers are controlled by different parties. With partisan polarization increasing, failure of the two chambers of Congress to agree on spending bills has become more common. With increasing frequency, this results in government shutdowns as the 1982 Antideficiency Act requires that a failure to secure spending legislation means that non-essential government functions cease. The longest shutdown in history occurred when Donald Trump used his Senate cronies to attempt to arm-twist the House into agreeing to fund the president's idiotic "Great Wall of America".
Discipline of Senators
Since partisan bickering can get so heated and Senators frequently misuse the powers of their offices, it's obvious that the Senate should have broad authority to punish its own members for stepping over the line. Although seemingly not too severe, the Senate can "censure" someone, by which we mean that the Senate as a whole basically tells that person to shut the fuck up. Probably the most infamous instance of a Senate censure was levied against Joseph McCarthy in 1954 after his paranoid garbage trials resulted in him going after the Army and then devolving into a mess of insults and unsubstantiated allegations. The affair ended up being supremely humiliating, as you can expect from the fact that McCarthy was basically told by most of his colleagues in a national forum to put a sock in it. McCarthy turned to drugs and alcohol after this downfall, and he died a few years later.
By a two-thirds vote, the Senate can actually expel members. This happened for the first time in 1797, when Senator William Blount conspired with the British Empire in an attempt to attack Spain to seize Florida and Louisiana on behalf of the British. He did this in exchange for shitloads of cash, since his land speculation had landed him into debt. Since that would have cut off US westward expansion, the Senate considered this treasonous and voted 25 to 1 to expel his ass. Also, in 1861 and 1862, the Senate mass-expelled 14 of its members for supporting the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
Filibuster and cloture
Unique in the government, the Senate has a rule called the "filibuster", allowing members to extend debate and delay a final vote on bills for as long as they want. It's typically used by the minority party, as it's their most effective tool to block the passage of bills they don't like. It was used frequently in the decades preceding the Civil War as debates over slavery got more furious. The House does not have a filibuster rule, as it has a much larger membership, and the filibuster there would be unmanagable. One of the Senate's most infamous filibusters came from Strom Thurmond, who in 1957 spoke on the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes to block Eisenhower-supported civil rights legislation. He luckily failed to prevent the passage of the law.
Under Woodrow Wilson's advice, the Senate introduced the "cloture" rule, which allows the Senate to end filibusters with a two-thirds vote. It was used just a few years later when the Senate filibustered against the Treaty of Versailles. The cloture rule has been key to halting filibusters ever since, and it also played a pivotal role in in the Senate's passage of Obamacare during the brief period in which Barack Obama's party enjoyed a 60-vote majority. Senator Ted Cruz in 2013 tried to shut down the government over Obamacare funding by filibustering for 21 hours 19 minutes, a speech in which he even opened a children's book to read to his daughters on the TV. This speech helped cause the 2013 government shutdown.
If Democrats retake the Senate in 2020, it's quite possible that the filibuster will go away at least temporarily, as angry Democrats don't want to be "held hostage" by Trump-enablers who will try to stall progressive legislation.
Approval of nominations
One of the most important Constitutional powers granted to the Senate is the requirement that they approve of all presidential nominations to executive and judicial offices. The president usually nominates candidates after confiding in Senators of their party, and these nominees are sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee to be interviewed during a public hearing.
In one dramatic incident in 2016, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to fulfill its obligation to consider a presidential nominee. Citing the justification that Barack Obama was in his final year of his final term and primary elections had already starting, Mitch McConnell refused to even consider the president's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. The seat was later filled by President Donald Trump.
Approval of treaties
The Senate must also, by a two-thirds vote, approve of any treaties signed by the president for those documents to take any legal effect under federal law. This is a Constitutional requirement. Trade agreements typically don't go through that process, since the trade pact members typically have the right to unilaterally withdraw.
Over its long history, the Senate has rejected very few treaties, instead choosing to trust the judgement of the president. Many treaties, do, however, die in committee without having the chance to be rejected without the body. The most famous rejection of a treaty came in 1919, when the Senate refused to consent to the Treaty of Versailles due to the document containing membership to the League of Nations.
The most recent rejected treaty was in 2012, when 38 Republicans bizarrely refused to vote for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities despite overwhelming bipartisan support.
“”I solemnly swear (or affirm,) that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [name], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: so help me God.
|—Impartiality Oath taken by Senators during impeachment trials. It was brazenly violated by Mitch McConnell and many other Republicans during the Trump proceedings.|
Although the House can impeach anyone it wants by a simple majority vote, the impeached official is not actually removed until and unless the Senate holds a trial and convicts the official with a two-thirds majority vote. During impeachment trials, especially during those involving sitting US presidents, debates are carefully controlled and proceedings are overseen by the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
Despite the Senate's firm rules and traditions, the impeachment trial of Donald Trump saw some major irregularities inflicted upon the proceedings by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who had even outright stated that he would coordinate with the president to ensure his acquittal. Most disgustingly, McConnell pushed ahead in the trial without allowing witnesses or the admission of any new evidence, turning the trial and the Senate as a whole into a hollow farce.
The Senate has held multiple trials against sitting presidents. The first, against Andrew Johnson in 1868, saw the president acquitted by a single vote. Bill Clinton also had to undergo an impeachment trial, where several Republicans joined the Democrats in voting to acquit him.
Apart from waiting in the wings for the president to kick it, the vice president has the Constitutional power to preside over the Senate. Although the VP is nominally the leader of the body, the so-called "President of the Senate", the VP doesn't get a vote unless there is a rare tie. Originally, the VP had more powers related to Senate leadership, but the Senate gradually stripped these powers as it sought to be more independent of the executive branch. Today, the VP doesn't even get to speak unless Senate leadership permits it.
President pro tempore
As the VP evolved into a more important position to the executive branch, they've typically had better things to do than sit around in the Senate doing basically nothing. In his absence, the Senate has come to rely on a constitutional provision allowing them to elect a temporary president of the body from their own membership. The president pro tempore's term is unrelated to the VP's term; they serve until the Senate feels fit to appoint a new one. As an actual member of the Senate, the president pro tempore basically does most of the stuff the VP used to do, like making committee and commission assignments and appointing people to preside over the Senate. The president tends to make political decisions based on the advice of the Majority Leader. The office has, in fact, become almost entirely ceremonial with most actual power in the hands of the Majority Leader.
The current President pro tempore is Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.
Elected by the Senate's majority party, the Majority Leader is the true power in the Senate leadership. The Majority Leader controls the Senate agenda, sets debate rules, and has the first opportunity to introduce amendments and procedural motions. This great power over the affairs of the Senate allows the Majority Leader to marshal party members' support for the party's legislative agenda.
Perhaps the most abusive Majority Leader in recent history was and is Mitch McConnell. One of his worst moments came during the Obama nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, as McConnell used his powers as Majority Leader to refuse to even hold a hearing on the nominee. He successfully stalled the process until the inauguration of President Trump. Then McConnell made a sham of the impeachment trial by using his powers to gut the proceedings, prevent the admission of witnesses and evidence,, and publicly deride the House's constitutional power of impeachment while proclaiming his loyalty to the president. Then, during the COVID crisis, McConnell chose not to consider aid for those impacted by the pandemic, instead ramming through a bunch of wingnut judicial nominees and sending the Senate for long weekends whenever there was a debate he didn't like. McConnell also refused to have anything to do with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's funeral, meaning that her body had to lie in state in the Statuary Hall rather than the Capitol Rotunda. At every turn, McConnell did everything he could to turn the Majority Leadership into a unrestrained and unprincipled sham used to override and corrupt the other two federal government branches.
McConnell is, sadly, the current Majority Leader.
Current partisan makeup
- Library of Congress
- Official Website of the House of Representatives
- Official Website of the Senate
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