Congressional Organization

If you have ever watched the Congress at work in Washington, D.C. or on television on C-SPAN, you may have wondered who is in charge. Is it the person sitting at the front of the chamber holding the gavel? Or are the people speaking from the floor, presenting bills more powerful? Or is someone else exercising power behind the scenes? Because the Congress is a complex organization with multiple levels of decentralized leadership, it is difficult for the casual observer to decipher who is really "in charge." Before determining who wields the most power in the Congress, it is first necessary to understanding how the Congress is organized and how power is formally distributed among its members.

A Bicameral Legislature in a Separated System

The most significant organizational feature of the United States Congress is that it is a bicameral legislature. Instead of just one house, there are two, a House of Representatives and a Senate. The two bodies are important in several significant ways. First, the number of representatives each state sends to the House is based on the population of each state, while each state has the same number of Senators (two). Recall that the Constitutional Convention delegates from the small states had originally wanted the number of representatives from each state to be equal in both houses while the large states wanted representation to be based on population in both houses. It was the "Great Compromise" of the convention that established popularly based representation in the House and the equal representation of states in the Senate.

Another significant difference between the two houses is that House members serve only two years in between elections while Senators serve six. Additionally, each House member represents about the same amount of people (about 650,000),1 but Senators represent anywhere from 495,000 people (in the case of Wyoming) to 33.9 million people (in the case of California). Such enormous differences in the scale of representation can lead to significant differences in the ways House members and Senators approach their jobs. The rules and procedures of the House and Senate also differ significantly between the House and the Senate. These differences are discussed in "The Legislative Process."

Not only is the legislative branch divided into two houses, but the Constitution also establishes a "separated system," in which there is a distinct executive and judicial branch. In practice, this means that the legislature must share power, or exercise it jointly, with the other branches of government. To pass a law, for example, the Congress must first approve a bill and then send it to the president to be signed or vetoed. If the Congress overrides a veto (a two-thirds majority vote in both houses is required to do so), it must still rely on the executive branch to implement the policy or program established by the bill.

Why 435 Members?

Why are there 435 members in the House of Representatives? The Constitution originally set the number at 65, leaving the future size of the House up to the Congress. The only condition was that the number of representatives was not to exceed one for every thirty-thousand people. As the nation grew and more states were added to the Union, the Congress expanded the number of House members to its current size of 435, where it has remained since 1912.2 Every ten years, a national census is conducted and the seats in the House are "reapportioned," allotting each state a proportion of seats roughly equal to its proportion of the entire national population.

According to the 1910 Census, the population of this nation was about 92 million people. With 435 representatives, there was a House member for every 210,000 people. In the 2000 Census, with a national population of 281 million, there is only one representative for every 647,000 people. There is no reason that the size of the House cannot be expanded. All it would take is an act of Congress.

Constitutional officers

The Constitution establishes three specific congressional leadership positions and leaves the creation of other offices to the Congress. The three constitutionally created positions are the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

The Speaker of the House is elected by members of the House and is generally recognized as the leader of the majority party in the House. There is no requirement that the Speaker actually be a member of the House, but every Speaker chosen by the House has been. The importance and power of the Speakership has varied widely over time. Today, the Speaker of the House has a privileged position among House members, with the ability to heavily influence the agenda and priorities of the House. The Speakership, however, is not as powerful as it once was. The general membership and other leaders in the House have become much less willing to let the Speaker exercise power and authority over them. Consequently, the Speaker is now more of a "first among equals" than a ruler of followers.

The Constitution establishes that the Vice President of the United States of America shall be the President of the Senate. However, the President of the Senate is only authorized to break tie votes in the Senate.3 Furthermore, because it was anticipated that the official duties of the Vice President would prevent daily attendance in the Senate, the Constitution also provides for a President Pro Tempore, or temporary President, to preside when the Vice President is absent. The President Pro Tem is selected by the members of the Senate and is generally one of the more senior members of the majority party. The President Pro Tem, however, is not the most powerful leader of the Senate. The real power in the Senate is in the hands of party leaders.

Political Organization

Beyond its bicameral nature, the most distinctive feature of the Congress is the way it is divided and organized along party lines. Democrats and Republicans have alternated control of the Congress since the mid-1800s. Even before that, when the parties were known by other names, there was strong two-party competition for control of the House. Congressional scholars think about political control of the House and Senate in terms of "Congresses." Every two years, there is a new "Congress." After the first elections under the new Constitution, the First Congress convened in 1789. The Congress that convened after George W. Bush's reelection in 2004 was the 109th Congress. Of the 71 Congresses since 1865 (after the Civil War), either the Republicans or the Democrats have been the majority party in the House and the Senate all but one time--the Senate was evenly divided during the 47th Congress (1881-1883).4 On 13 occasions, however, opposing parties have controlled the House and Senate. Most remarkably, there have been 29 congresses during which opposing parties controlled at least one house of Congress and the Presidency. (For more on divided government, see Office of the President.)

Party competition in the Congress influences everything from where members sit in the House and Senate chambers to who members associate with and how they vote on the bills that come before them. Members of one party commonly refer to members of the other party as the Representatives or Senators "on the other side of the aisle." Republicans and Democrats both meet in exclusive party meetings called caucuses to plan party strategy. Even outside of formal party meetings, members are more likely to associate and spend time with members of their own party. And as members decide how to cast their votes in Congress, party affiliation is often the deciding factor. (PHOTO at Right: Republicans and Democrats traditionally sit on opposite sides of the aisle in the House. Looking at the flag in the photo on the right, Democrats sit on the left side and Republicans on the right).

In both the House and the Senate, the members of each party choose their leaders. As noted, members of the Majority Party in the House generally select their leader to be the Speaker.5 The Democrats and Republicans in each house also select several other party leaders. Majority and Minority Party Leaders are selected in each house along with party policy leaders (these positions have different names in each party and in each house) and Majority and Minority Party Whips. Contrary to common belief, a Whip does not "whip" party members into line, but rather encourages members to vote with their party and, where necessary and feasible, negotiates with them to secure their votes. On Capitol Hill, Whips are often called "vote counters" because, more often than not, they are only in a position to tell party leaders how members are likely to vote. They do not have the ability to "deliver" votes for the party. While members generally vote with the rest of the members of their party, there are no requirements that they do so and parties generally do not attempt to punish members for voting "the other way." (Members' voting decisions are discussed in greater detail in "Congressional Representation."

The Committee System

As the subject matter of legislation has expanded, the Congress has become increasingly specialized. Most members of Congress develop an area or two of legislative expertise during their careers in Washington. For example, a Senator who is an expert in military and international issues might know comparatively little about education and welfare. By working together with members who are experts in other policy areas and sharing information with each other, Senators and House members benefit both from their own expertise as well as that of their colleagues.

The tendency to specialize is institutionalized and facilitated by the committee system in the Congress. There are nineteen standing, or permanent, committees in the House of Representatives and seventeen in the Senate. Each committee has a narrowly defined subject matter over which it has exclusive jurisdiction.6 There are also currently three Joint Committees, comprised of members of both houses.7 The Congress also, as temporary needs arise, establishes "Special" or "Select" committees to investigate particular matters or to study pressing policy problems.

Congressional committees have been called the "legislative workshops" of the Congress because it is in committee  that legislation is thoroughly reviewed and amended. Woodrow Wilson's famous observation about committees, made in 1885, has largely stood the test of time:

The House sits, not for serious discussion, but to sanction the conclusions of its committees as rapidly as possible. It legislates in its committee-rooms; not by the determination of majorities, but by the resolutions of its specially-commissioned minorities; so that it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work.8

While there have been notable departures from the generally committee-centered legislative process, these have been exceptions to the rule. Indeed, there are comparatively far fewer changes made during the consideration of legislation by the full House or Senate than there are during committee consideration. And while a simple majority of House members can force a committee to send a bill to the floor for immediate consideration, it is only on the rarest of occasions that the committee system is bypassed. (See "The Legislative Process" for more on the role of Committees.)

Two other features of the Committee system deserve brief mention. First, the Chair of a Committee in the Congress has a great deal of discretion in setting committee agendas and scheduling hearings for legislation. A Chair that does not like a bill can often kill it simply by neglecting to bring it before the committee for consideration. The power of Committee and Subcommittee Chairs in the House and the Senate underscore the decentralized nature of power in the House. When Speaker Newt Gingrich repeatedly challenged the authority of Committee Chairs during the 104th Congress (1995-1996), the general membership of the House responded negatively. Since that time, Chairs have regained their traditional status as Committee leaders and Committees have reasserted their positions as legislative "gatekeepers."

Finally, committee leadership positions have generally been held by the most senior members of each party on the committee. While seniority still plays an important role in determining committee chairmanships, it is much less important than it once was.

1. Congressional districts are supposed to be, to the extent possible, exactly equal in size (in terms of population, not geographic area). However, because of the way the 435 congressional districts are divided up among the fifty states, there are some districts that are smaller than others. For example, Wyoming, with only 495,000 residents, gets to send a Representative to the House because each state is guaranteed at least one House member. At the other extreme, Montana, with 905,000 residents falls just short of having two representatives from the state. Rhode Island, with a population of 1,050,000 is the next largest state. It sends two representatives to the House.
2. The Congress briefly expanded the size of the House to 436 and then 437 members after Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union during the late 1950s. After the 1960 Census and reapportionment, however, the number was again reduced to 435.
3. A tie-breaker provision is necessary because with two Senators representing each state, there is always an even number of members in the Senate.
4. The Senate was also briefly divided 50-50 at the beginning of the 107th Congress in 2001. However, one Republican Senator changed his affiliation to Independent, giving the Democrats a 50-49 edge.
5. The Speaker is formally chosen by a vote of the entire House of Representatives. However, the Majority Party, if it remains unified, can elect a Speaker without any supporting votes from members of the other party. In fact, the vote for Speaker is almost always a straight party-line vote.
6. There are some bills that cover multiple subjects and, therefore, fall into the jurisdiction of more than one committee. In these cases it is common for bills to be referred to more than one committee. See "The Legislative Process" for more details.
7. The three are the Joint Economic Committee, the Joint Committee On Taxation and the Joint Committee On The Library Of Congress.
8. Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 69.