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
A Bicameral Legislature in a Separated System
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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.)
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 69.