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United States Congress

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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After the Articles of Confederation failed, the founders wanted to create a federal government with increased power. They split this power between the legislative (Congress), judicial (Supreme Court) and executive (President) branches. Most of this power was placed in Congress -- the legislative branch. Congress was meant to debate and figure out issues, with national policies fashioned from compromise and accommodation within Congress.

The founders split Congress into two separate and powerful chambers. This two-chamber structure is called bicameral. One chamber was the House of Representatives and the second chamber was the Senate. The House of Representatives has representatives from each state based on population, while members of the Senate has two politicians from each state regardless of state populations.

For a bill to become law, it must be passed in identical form by both chambers. This was established as a compromise when the Constitution was written in summer of 1787. Smaller states wanted all states to have equal representation, while larger states wanted representation based on population. The Great Compromise was: small states had equal representation in the Senate; representatives in the House were based on population; only the House could originate revenue-related legislation.

The Constitution further specifies that each state has two senators who serve six-year terms of office. Senators' six-year terms are staggered so that one-third of the Senate is elected every two years. The Constitution originally specified that Senators were elected by state legislature, but the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 and provided for direct election of senators by popular vote.

Due to population, nine states can overpower forty-one states in the House of Representatives if each state's representatives vote unanimously. However, smaller states can exert their power in the Senate. The twenty-six smallest states represent 50m people, while the twenty-four larger states represent 230m people. Regardless, just a handful of those smaller states can outvote the larger states in the Senate. This forces compromise between large and small states.

The Constitution also states that members of the House of Representatives are directly elected by popular vote. Each member serves two-year terms, and all House seats are up for election simultaneously. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. Each state's representation in the House is in proportion to its population, which -- according to the Constitution -- is determined via a census every ten years. Population shifts are handled by reapportionment (redistribution) of seats after each census is taken. Each representative is elected from a congressional district within his or her state, and each district elects only one representative. Each congressional district within a state must be roughly the same population.

In summary, Congress' basic structure grew out of the Great Compromise at the Constitutional Convention. As a result of that compromise, each state is represented in the upper house (or Senate) by two senators, who serve staggered six-year terms; in the lower house (the House of Representatives), states are represented according to their population. Members of the lower house serve two-year terms. In 1929, the total number of representatives was fixed at 435. Whenever the population shifts (as demonstrated by a decennial census), the country’s 435 single-member legislative districts must be reapportioned to reflect the changes and provide equal representation.


ReapportionmentRedistribution of representatives based on population changes recorded at each census.
ImpeachmentFormally charging the president, vice president and other national government civil officers with serious crimes.
IncumbentsWith regards to an office, the politician currently in that seat.
GerrymanderingRedrawing of congressional districts to disadvantage another group or party.
CaseworkAssisting constituents to deal with the federal government.
Descriptive RepresentationThe belief that only representatives sharing a voters' demographics can properly represent that voter.
Racial GerrymanderingRedrawing of congressional districts to impact minority representation.
VetoA president's refusal to sign a bill, thus stopping it from becoming law. This can be overcome by a Congressional override.
Pocket VetoA pocket veto occurs when the President refuses to sign a bill and Congress does not adjourn within the next 10 days. The bill does not become law.
Standing CommitteeA permanent committee.
Joint CommitteeA committee containing Representatives and Senators.
Select CommitteeA committee established to accomplish a particular task.
Conference CommitteeThe committee that works with both Congressional chambers if they disagree on a bill.
SeniorityYears of consecutive service on a specific congressional committee.
OversightCongress has oversight to ensure the executive branch properly administers its policies.
Speaker of the HouseMember of the majority, party, the Representative presiding over the House.
Majority LeaderMember of the majority party, the Senator with right of first recognition who sets committee assignments, allocates office space and schedules legislation
FilibusterAn extended debate abused in a largely symbolic attempt to stop legislation.
ClotureRequiring 60 Senatorial votes, cloture limits debate to 30 additional hours.
ConstituentsThose who elect a politician.
TrusteeA representative who favors the good of the nation over constituents.
DelegateA representative who favors constituents, even at the expense of the nation.
ParliamentA government where the chief executive is determined by the majority party in the legislature.
EarmarksMoney inserted into bills for general use by a congressional district.