Article I of the US Constitution establishes the legislature as a bicameral body consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The legislative branch has the power to make laws, approve the budget, and oversee the actions of the executive branch through the power of oversight and impeachment. It also has the power to approve or reject presidential appointments and also has the power to override a presidential veto.
In short, the legislative branch is responsible for creating and passing laws and overseeing the actions of the executive branch.
The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is one of the two legislative bodies, and its membership is based on the population of each state. The more people live in the state, the more representatives the state has in the House. The entire House stands for election every two years, making it the federal office closest to the people’s will because the representatives are elected so often. As a result, all bills that address spending and taxes must begin in the House of Representatives.
Today there are 435 voting members of the House and six non-voting members representing Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands. These members can make speeches and represent the people of their territory, but they are not allowed to participate in any votes.
The Speaker of the House leads the House. Members of the House select the Speaker. It is not a requirement, but the speaker has always been a member of the House.
In the case of an electoral tie or any presidential candidate unable to reach 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives selects the president, with each state delegation receiving one vote.
The House of Representatives, as part of the legislative branch, has several special powers, including:
- Power of Impeachment: The House has the sole power of impeachment, which is the process of bringing formal charges against a public official for misconduct in office. This power is used to hold the president, vice president, and other federal officials accountable for their actions.
- Power of the Purse: The House controls the federal government’s purse strings by being responsible for originating all bills related to revenue, including taxes and government spending.
- Power of Oversight: The House has the power to conduct investigations and oversight of the executive branch, including the power to subpoena witnesses and documents. This power is used to ensure that the executive branch is operating within the limits of the law and to identify any possible abuses of power.
The Senate was established to provide equality between the states because each state, regardless of population, has two senators. Currently, there are 100 Senators, two for each of the 50 states. Senators are elected to six-year terms. Because of its smaller numbers, the Senate allows for more prolonged debates resulting in a slower-moving legislative body.
The Vice President of the United States, called the President of the Senate, is the official leader of the Senate, though the role is much more limited than the Speaker of the House. The majority leader leads the day-to-day operation of the Senate. The majority leader is a member of the political party with the most members and is elected to this post by a Senate vote. The majority leader sets the agenda for the Senate, deciding which bills will be brought to the floor for debate and votes. The U.S. Vice President is allowed to vote in the Senate only if there is a tie.
In the case of an electoral tie or any presidential candidate unable to reach 270 electoral votes, the Senate selects the vice president, with each state delegation receiving one vote.
The Senate, as part of the legislative branch, has several special powers, including:
- Power of Advice and Consent: The Senate has the power to advise and consent on presidential appointments, including federal judges, ambassadors, and executive branch officials. This power also includes the authority to approve or reject presidential nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Power of Treaty Ratification: The Senate has the power to approve or reject treaties negotiated by the President. This power is used to ensure that international agreements are in the best interest of the United States and its citizens.
- Power of Impeachment Trial: The Senate holds the trial in the event of impeachment of the President, Vice President, and other civil officers, this is done after the impeachment process has been initiated by the House of Representatives.
These are some of the special powers of the Senate, but it’s worth noting that the Constitution also establishes some limitations to the powers of the Senate, such as the bicameralism and the Presentment Clause.
The main job of the U.S. legislature is to write and pass bills that will run the government and improve the lives of its citizenry. For a bill to be approved, it must endure rigorous reviews and votes in both the House and the Senate. Each chamber will often pass a different version of the bill that needs to be negotiated and revised to create a new unified version. This new version will need to pass both chambers again. Once this process is complete, it goes to the president, who can sign the bill and make it a law, veto the bill, sending it back to Congress for a potential Veto Override Vote.