What Does the Legislative Branch Do?
Let’s begin at the near-beginning, with the US Constitution. The very first thing the Constitution discusses (after the “we the people” bit) is our topic today. It opens with “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”
The two other branches of the US Government are the executive and judicial. The legislative branch is responsible for writing the laws, the executive for enforcing them, and the judicial for ensuring that those laws are constitutional and for adjudicating disputes between citizens and the government. Having three branches of government creates a balance of power, which helps to prevent a group of people or even a single person from exercising too much control over the country.
The US has what’s called a bicameral legislature, simply meaning there are two separate chambers (or houses) within that branch of government. This is done in an attempt to balance the interests of the population with the interests of the states.
These two chambers of the legislature form what we call the Congress. Currently the House of Representatives has 435 voting members and the Senate has 100. There are always 2 senators per state, but the number of Representatives per state varies based on the population of a state.
Section two of the Constitution concerns the House of Representatives: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”
A couple notes:
1. If you are curious about what electors are and how they work, check out our video on the electoral college.
2. There are several other rules regarding qualifications of representatives, such as age and citizenship but we won’t discuss all of those here. The House of Representatives has several powers, including: the power to initiate revenue bills, impeach federal officials, and elect the President in the case of an electoral college tie.
Section three of the Constitution details the Senate: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.” Note that this clause has been modified by the 17th amendment, which changed the election method from state legislatures to popular vote.
I said previously, the chief role of Congress is lawmaking. The life of a law is as follows: First, a Representative proposes a law, which is called a bill. The bill is then studied by a committee. If the bill makes it through committee, the bill is put on a calendar to be voted on, debated or amended. If the bill passes by a House majority of 218 out of 435, it moves to the Senate, where it is assigned to another committee and, if approved, gets debated and voted on. Again, a Senate majority (51 of 100) passes the bill. Lastly, a committee consisting of House and Senate members rectify any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, before sending it to the House and Senate for final approval. The President has 10 days to sign or veto the completed bill.
Much of the actual work of Congress is done in the committees and subcommittees. There are some 200 of them. The idea is that working on a committee allows a member to specialize in a certain area of knowledge or policy.
According to the Senate, “Due to the high volume and complexity of its work, the Senate divides its tasks among 20 permanent committees, four joint committees, and occasionally temporary committees. The Senate has established guidelines for committees, but each committee adopts its own rules and procedures.
Standing committees generally have legislative jurisdiction. Subcommittees tackle specific areas of jurisdiction under the full committee, while select and joint committees generally provide oversight or deal with routine housekeeping responsibilities.”
Now let’s dive into how congress relates to other branches of our federal government, namely the executive branch, or office of the president, and the judicial branch, which includes the Supreme Court.
The relationship between the President and Congress is often strained. Checks and balances frequently allow one of the two to check the other. First, the Legislative branch basically holds the Nation’s purse strings, so, while the President proposes a budget, Congress is the actual entity that decides how much gets spent and where. The President can veto legislation (or laws) that Congress agrees upon, but Congress can override the President’s veto with a 2/3rds majority. Any treaty the President makes with foreign powers is subject to Congressional approval. There are even more checks and balances in this relationship, but we’re running out of time, so let’s talk judicial.
Congress does not get to pick candidates for the Supreme Court, the President does that, but they do get to approve or disapprove of those selections. The House of Representatives also has impeachment powers over federal officials (including the president), which means that they can level legal charges against an elected official, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will oversee the proceedings as the Senate will try the case. If 2/3rds finds that person guilty, then they will be removed from office.
After this review, I hope you’re feeling prepped and empowered. Thank you so much for watching.