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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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