The United States Congress consists of two houses: the House of Representatives, which is also called the Lower House, and the Senate which is the upper house. The US federal system is referred to as bicameral legislature. Bicameral legislature is a form of governance where there must be a concurrent majority required to pass legislation. Congress meets in Capitol Washington D.C.
House of Representatives
Article one of the US Constitution establishes the composition and powers of the House of Representatives. The House is responsible for passing legislations that affect the entire country. Once the Houses passes the bills, they still must be passed by the Senate, and then approved by the president before it becomes law. If the president does not agree with the bill, the House of Representatives can pass the pending bill with a majority of two thirds. If the Senate passes the same with a two thirds majority, it automatically becomes a law.
The composition of the lower house is based on the US population as per the national census bureau, but the total number of voting representatives is set at 435 by law. Apart from the passed bills, the House has the power to impeach officials, initiate revenue (tax) bills, and in case there is no majority in Electoral College in the presidential elections, elect the president. The party with the highest number of seats is known as the Majority party, the head of the House of Representatives is called the Speaker.
Article one of the US Constitution establishes the composition and powers of the Senate, which is the Upper House of the US congress. The US Senate consists of 100 representatives, two from each state without considerations of the population. The representatives serve a term of six years.
The Senate has a number of powers not granted to the lower house. They include: consent of treaties, confirmation of appointments, and trial of impeached appointees. It is considered to be more prestigious than the lower house. The senators and representatives are elected by the electorate.
The constitution grants Congress explicit powers enumerated in section 8 of the constitution. Additionally, constitutional amendments and implied powers derived from the constitution have given Congress more power. Sometimes, the Senate sessions can be held in secret or closed session. It means that the presses or anyone who does not swear to secrecy are not allowed to attend.
Role of Congress as a Whole
The Congress has the power to legislate collection of taxes, duties and exercises. It also has the power to pay debts, provide defense and welfare of the country. In matters of national defense, Congress has the power to raise an army, declare war, maintain an army, and make rules for the military.
Though they have the power to declare war, historically it is the Presidents who usually initiate the process of declaring war by showing justification for the need for declaration then the Congress ratifies the request and declares war. There were instances where the President has not asked for approval from Congress like during President Theodore Roosevelt's military move into Panama in 1903. According to Time magazine in 1970, the US presidents ordered troops to position an action without a declaration made in formal congressional totaling 149 times.
Congress issues patents and copyrights establish courts below the Supreme Court, admit new states, fix standard weights and measures, oversee and investigate the executive branch as in the case of the Watergate scandal. The Congress has the power to impeach and remove the president and other federal officers.
The Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause permits Congress to make all laws properly and necessary for carrying the execution of the foregoing powers. The constitution also outlines all other powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or office thereof. It is an implied power that widens the role of the congress. There is the commerce clause which gives Congress the power to control commerce.
Power to Obstruct
It has been argued that the US Congress power is in its ability to obstruct a lot of processes as is allowed by the constitution. In 2012, a poll showed that the citizens give the Congress an approval rating of 10% among the Americans. Lee Hamilton states that Congress is the driving not diving force in America. There have been instances in the past where Congress was deemed more powerful than the presidency as per its influence.
A case in point is during the impeachment of Andre Johnson. Even so, as per the current period, the presidency is deemed to be more powerful than during the 19th Century. There is distrust between the executive branch of government and congress. It has led to Congress being slow and divided on issues which at times are needed to be decided on at a fast pace.
Another issue with the Congress lies in the fact that the power to impeach federal appointees. For this to happen, only the absolute majority is needed. Whereas only an absolute majority is required, a conviction requires a two thirds majority. It has often led to impeachments without convictions. Up to date sixteen officials have been impeach with seven being convicted.
Congress critics argue that the power of Congress to confirm or reject federal officers nominated by the president gives them the ability to obstruct appointments. There have been instanced where the Senate rejects a nominee leading to a prolonged appointment. It, in turn, has affected the duties the nominee is supposed to undertake in his office by the delay.
Congress through the Senate is mandated to ratify treaties negotiated by the president. The ratification must be passed by a two thirds majority of the Senate. Therefore, their sensitive nature, convincing the Senate to ratify is often a hard task.
Congress powers to enact tax laws have often been viewed negatively. The feeling is that some taxes are oppressive while others are unnecessary. President Obama’s Desire to pass the relevant bill to ensure that the rich pay more tax faces an uphill task. Both houses have to pass the bill with a two thirds majority.
Also, there is the argument of the Congress mandate to raise and maintain the army. The huge spending on the army to most Americans is quite unnecessary especially in the current times of peace. Foreign interventions by the US army, for example, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been undertaken with the approval of Congress. The issue is whether these invasions have been justified enough.
The US debt ceiling is extremely high at the moment at 15 trillion. It happened with the approval of Congress as they are mandated to borrow money on credit for the US. Their unwillingness to pas bills to ensure cuts in federal budgets has led to the high debt.
Strength of Congress
The US Congress has evolved to meet the changes of the modern times. In the early 1900s, Congress was supremely powerful with committee chairmen being highly influential until the 1970s when there were reforms that balanced out the Congress powers. From then, Congress has become more stable and reliable.
It acts as a measure of balance between itself, the president, and the Supreme Court. The US constitution implies that the most power should lie with Congress as is clear in Article One. The structure of the Congress with its two houses seeks to provide a balanced representation of the states and electorates.
Congress undertakes the daunting task of drafting and passing legislations of the United States. The Congress manages this responsibility by forming congressional committees. It is a sub-organization of Congress which allows members to handle duties, thus, enabling specialization. The sub-committees are mandated to monitor government operations, gather and evaluate information regarding the on-going operations and recommend courses of action. There are approximately 200 committees and subcommittees.
Congressional committees are in both lower houses and the Senate, but they also include joint committees that oversee independent government bodies. Joint committees are considered to be lower than standing committees because bills and nominees are not referred to them.
The Senate committee’s reviews bills and acts as an oversight to the executive. The Senates appoints the Senate committees. It has 16 standing committees and a number of non standing committees. Each committee can make a set of recommendations for bills that fall under its area of expertise and the standing sub-committees which have the power of holding the hearing and summon witnesses.
The power of Congress to have influence over the President often varies depending on the leadership of the Congress and the influence and boldness of the president. There have been instanced where there is intense pressure and lobby on the Congress to approve bills and appointees of the president. There were only two presidents who have been impeached by Congress: Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1999. Though, both impeachments ended in their acquittal. Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 after impeachment proceeding indicated that he would be removed from office. These three instances show the power of Congress to bring accountability to presidents. It has ensured that the presidents remain accountable in their actions.
Congress power to appoint or reject the presidential nominees to high officers is also an essential role the Congress plays. Though some critic’s views this as a waste of time and regard Congress as open to manipulation by lobbyists, this is not the case. The vetting of appointees ensures that only the fit appointees with flawless records get to make it. Public hearings ensure the congress being unbiased. The Congress mandate to vote for a president, in case there is unclear majority in the college votes, ensures that there is no dilemma if the situation arises.
The separation of the powers of the lower house and the Senate ensures a balanced check in the congress. The Senate is considered to be more professional and prestigious than the lower house, and its lengthy term of six years makes it more appealing.
The US bicameral legislation Congress is one of the most effective though not hugely efficient world systems. The argument that its real powers lie in their ability to obstruct is not true. Article one which enumerates the functions of the Congress states clearly the roles and functions of the congress.
Passing legislations does not obstruct any function of the government. Whereas vetting nominees can be taken as an obstruction, it is essential in ensuring that the best are appointed to the positions. Its representative nature and mode of composition seeks to be a basis for covering the whole country fairly. The lower House of Representatives are elected according to the population whereas the Senate is elected at a fixed number of two representatives from each state. The US Congress has been able to ensure a balance in the three arms of the government and has played its role in ensuring stability of the government system.
The Congress representatives are held accountable for their actions by the electorate. For the House of Representatives, elections happen every two years while the elections of the Senate occur after every six years. It ensures that even if a representative has his own agendas, he will always keep in mind the interests of the population he represents. Some of the powers, which the Congress has, act as a way of confirming a consensus by the majority of the country thus making informed decisions. Treaties ratifications will not happen without extensive debate by the Senate. Declaration of war, raising and maintaining an army, and many other issues cannot be entrusted to one person like the president.
The fact that the US has never desired to change or materially modify its government structure is evidence of the efficiency of the system. The Congress, in particular, is as representative of the country as possible. It is dynamic as its structure and composition encompass a number of intricate systems and balances to ensure optimum provision of service to the people.
The Congress does not obstruct, but instead, it ensures transparency and accountability in its roles and duties. Though its rating is usually low among the Americans, it is not due to its structure, but rather the inefficiency of the sitting representatives.