May 20, 2019

Fixing Congress: Nine Things You Need to Know About How Congress is Structured

With the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress working to fix Congress, it’s time to get back to the basics: how does Congress work, anyway? And what needs to be repaired? Congress That Works is launching a “Fixing Congress” series to highlight the aspects of Congress that need reform.  

For the first in this series, we’re starting at the foundation of the issue: the institution’s structure. Here are nine things you need to know about the structure of Congress, specifically the House of Representatives: 

  1. How is Congress set up? The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature that constitutes the Legislative Branch of our nation’s government. The role of Congress is laid out in Article I of the Constitution with the House of Representatives and the Senate defined as the two chambers of the U.S. Congress.    
  2. What is Congress’ role? The Constitution gives Congress all legislative powers, which includes taxing, spending, maintaining a military, declaring war, and regulating interstate and foreign commerce. Through the checks and balance approach, Congress also oversees and investigates the executive branch and its agencies and confirms judicial nominees. The Legislative Branch is also the only branch with the ability to impeach a government official and amend the Constitution.  
  3. How do the roles of the House and Senate differ? The House’s unique privileges include initiating bills that impose taxes or raise revenue and deciding if a government official should be tried before the Senate if he or she has committed a crime. Meanwhile, the Senate’s exclusive privileges include providing advice and consent to treaties and confirming executive and judicial branch officials. 
  4. How many members are there? There are 435 representatives in the House who are elected every two years. The Senate is made up of 100 members, two from each state who are elected every six years.  There are also six non-voting, elected representatives in the House for American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.   
  5. Who is represented? The House is composed of representatives from all 50 states as well as the six territories or special districts. The number of congressional districts in each state is determined by population, and each district is allotted one representative for that district (and each House member represents approximately 747,000 people).  The decadal census is thus key to determining how many districts are allotted for each state.  For more heavily -populated states, like California and Texas, that means dozens of representatives, whereas less populated states, like Alaska or Vermont, have only one representative.  Do you know how many states have only one atlarge representative?  Seven.    
  6. Who leads? Members of the House leadership are the designated leaders of the Majority and Minority parties. House leadership is made up of the Speaker of the House (chosen by a vote of the members of the House)Majority Leader (second in line to Speaker, chosen by that party) who decides what legislation members of the party support or oppose, Minority Leader, Whips (chosen by the party) who work to ensure members vote in line with the party, Party Conference Chairs (chosen by the party), and committee chairs.  Fun fact:  the Speaker of the House does not actually need to be an elected member of the House.   
  7. How much do members get paid? The salary for a Representative is $174,000, but House leadership, which includes the Speaker of the House and the Majority and Minority leaders, receives up to $223,500. This number is set by Congress itself, but the Constitution doesn’t allow a change in salary to take effect until after the next election of the whole House. 
  8. What are House committees? There are two types of committees in the House: standing and select. Committee chairs are chosen by the party in the majority, and Ranking Members are chosen by the minority party. Standing committees are permanent and work to consider legislation, provide oversight, and recommend authorizations for government programs, whereas select committees (like the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress) are appointed for a specific period to serve a special function, usually investigative. There are 20 standing committees in the House.  Each member of the House can serve on several committees and subcommittees of those larger panels.   
  9. How does a bill get passed? Any member of the House can introduce a bill while the chamber is in session. After it is introduced, it gets sent to any committee with jurisdiction for its review. The designated committees then study the bill and may hold hearingsIn theory (but not always in practice), the process should proceed like this: After hearings are held, the legislation is in the mark-up session, where amendments are offered, and members vote to approve or disapprove changes. If amendments are successfully added, a new bill is prepared, and the committee reports the measure out (or it may vote not to do so)After clearing all committees with jurisdiction, the bill is then considered by the full House during the debate periodThe House Rules Committee plays a very important role. It decides the process by which the bill will be considered on the floor. Generally, this falls under these categories: Under “open rules,” amendments are offered, debated, and voted on, after which the bill is voted on. Under “closed rules,” no amendments are allowed, and under “modified closed rules,” a limited number of amendments usually designated by the Rules Committee are considered. Bills may also be considered by unanimous consent of the House, or under suspension of the rules with the agreement of at least two-thirds of the House. In many cases, largely non-controversial bills are considered this way. If the bill passes the House, it is sent to the Senate for consideration where it follows a similar path. If the Senate changes any language of the bill, it must return to the House for approval of the revised bill. If changes need to be resolved, another option is for a bipartisan group (called a conference committee) to be appointed from both the House and the Senate to resolve any differences. After the final measure has passed identically in the House and the Senate, it is sent to the president to sign or veto. 

While the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress won’t be changing the foundational structure of Congress, it could provide recommendations to key committees and the whole House to ensure the structure’s processes works as intended, to benefit the American people. When the process is circumvented, the deliberative function of Congress is diminished.  ICYMI, current and former members of Congress share how they think the institution can function better. 

Is Congress Working for You?