How Our Laws Are Made
II. The Congress
Article I, Section 1, of the United States Constitution, provides that:
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress
of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
The Senate is composed of 100 Members--two from each State, irrespective
of population or area--elected by the people in conformity with the provisions
of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment changed the former
Constitutional method under which Senators were chosen by the respective
State legislatures. A Senator must be at least 30 years of age, have been
a citizen of the United States for nine years, and, when elected, be a
resident of the State for which the Senator is chosen. The term of office
is six years and one-third of the total membership of the Senate is elected
every second year. The terms of both Senators from a particular State are
so arranged that they do not terminate at the same time. Of the two Senators
from a State serving at the same time, the one who was elected first--or
if both were elected at the same time, the one elected for a full term--is
referred to as the "senior" Senator from that State. The other
is referred to as the "junior" Senator. If a Senator dies or
resigns during the term, the governor of the State must call a special
election unless the State legislature has authorized the governor to appoint
a successor until the next election, at which time a successor is elected
for the balance of the term. Most of the State legislatures have granted
their governors the power of appointment.
Each Senator has one vote.
As constituted in 1997--the 105th Congress--the House of Representatives
is composed of 435 Members elected every two years from among the 50 States,
apportioned to their total populations. The permanent number of 435 was
established following the Thirteenth Decennial Census in 1910, as directed
in Article I, Section
2, of the Constitution, and was increased temporarily to 437 for the
87th Congress, to provide for one Representative each for Alaska and Hawaii.
It seems undesirable to make a considerable increase in the number of Members,
because a larger body, similar to the British House of Commons, consisting
of 650 members, would be too unwieldy. The Constitution limits the number
of Representatives to not more than one for every 30,000 of population,
and, under a former apportionment in one State a particular Representative
represented more than 900,000 constituents, while another in the same State
was elected from a district having a population of only 175,000. The Supreme
Court has since held unconstitutional a Missouri statute permitting a maximum
population variance of 3.1 percent from mathematical equality. The Court
said that the variances among the districts were not unavoidable and, therefore,
were invalid. This is an interpretation of the Court's earlier decision
that "as nearly as is practicable one man's vote in a Congressional
election is to be worth as much as another's" [Kirkpatrick v. Preisler,
394 U.S. 526 (1969)].
A law enacted in 1967 abolished all "at-large" elections
(that is, Representatives elected by the voters of the entire State rather
than in a Congressional district within the State) except, of course, in
States entitled to only one Representative.
A Representative must be at least 25 years of age, have been a citizen
of the United States for seven years, and, when elected, be a resident
of the State in which the Representative is chosen. If a Representative
dies or resigns during the term, the governor of the State must call a
special election for the choosing of a successor to serve for the unexpired
portion of the term.
Each Representative has one vote.
In addition to the Representatives from each of the States, there
is a Resident Commissioner from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Delegates
from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.
The Resident Commissioner and the Delegates have most of the prerogatives
of Representatives, with the important exception of the right to vote on
matters before the House.
Under the provisions of Section
2 of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Congress must assemble
at least once every year, at noon on the 3d day of January, unless by law
they appoint a different day.
A Congress lasts for two years, commencing in January of the year
following the biennial election of Members, and is divided into two sessions.
Unlike some other parliamentary bodies, both the Senate and the House
of Representatives have equal legislative functions and powers (except
that only the House of Representatives may initiate revenue bills), and
the designation of one as the "upper" House and the other as
the "lower" House is not appropriate.
The Constitution authorizes each House to determine the rules of
its proceedings. Pursuant to that authority the House of Representatives
adopts its rules on the opening day of each Congress. The Senate, which
considers itself a continuing body, operates under standing rules that
it amends from time to time.
The chief function of Congress is the making of laws. In addition,
the Senate has the function of advising and consenting to treaties and
to certain nominations by the President. In the matter of impeachments,
the House of Representatives presents the charges--a function similar to
that of a grand jury--and the Senate sits as a court to try the impeachment.
Both Houses meet in joint session on the sixth day of January, unless by
law they appoint a different day, following a presidential election, to
count the electoral votes. If no candidate receives a majority of the total
electoral votes, the House of Representatives, each state delegation having
one vote, chooses the President from among the three candidates having
the largest number of votes, and the Senate chooses the Vice President
from the two candidates having the largest number of votes for that office.
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