Congress of the United States

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The Congress of the United States is the highest lawmaking body in the United States and one of the oldest national legislatures in the world. Established under the terms of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the House of Representatives and the Senate have for over 200 years created the federal laws governing the United States. Congress remains one of the few national assemblies that research and draft their own legislation rather than simply voting on bills created by the government in power. In addition to its legislative functions, the U.S. Congress is

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empowered by the Constitution to ensure that the administration of government is carried out according to the laws it establishes, to conduct special investigations, and to exercise other special powers in relation to the executive and the judiciary.

Speaker of the House

As the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House holds one of the highest positions in Congress. The position is filled at the start of each two-year term in a vote by the full House membership. The selection of the Speaker is generally determined by the majority party, and thus the Speaker is always a leading member of that party. The Speaker's broad powers and privileges allow the majority to control the House's legislative agenda.

The significance of the office cannot be underestimated. The Speaker is in a position to set the rules of the House and to adjudicate when procedural conflicts arise. The Speaker's rulings can be challenged, but rarely are; traditionally, they are final. Behind the scenes, the office's power is even broader. This is because voting is a relatively small part of the House's business: its essential legislative work is done in committees. The Speaker plays a vital role in appointing committee chairs, influences the referral of bills to the committees, and effectively decides the timetables of the bills. Bills favored by the Speaker will leave committee more quickly and come to an early vote. The minority party's concerns will wait.

Outside Congress, the Speaker customarily enjoys high visibility in U.S. politics. The media frequently report the Speaker's opinions, transforming the office into a political bully pulpit much like that of the Senate majority leader, and the Speaker often campaigns for party loyalists in election years. Depending on which party occupies the White House, the Speaker can be either a strategically placed ally or powerful foe of the president. The relationship between the two branches of government does not end there: under the rules of succession, the Speaker is second in line after the vice president to assume the presidency.

Not every Speaker has been a high-profile individual. In 1999, the House elected J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) to serve as Speaker, replacing NEWTON GINGRICH. Hastert served as a high school teacher for 16 years until he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served for six years. He was elected to Congress in 1986.

Hastert has retained a relatively low profile in his two terms as Speaker, especially compared to that of his immediate predecessor. Gingrich was largely credited with leading Republican victories in Congress in 1994, when the GOP took control of both houses for the first time since 1954. He remained in the public spotlight for the next four years, including strong advocacy to fulfill the CONTRACT WITH AMERICA and other GOP programs. However, in 1997, he faced several charges for ethical violations stemming from alleged use of official House resources for unofficial purposes, and he was reprimanded and fined $300,000 by the House. Gingrich resigned suddenly in November 1998, almost exactly four years after the 1994 Republican victory.


Loomis, Burdett A. 2000. The Contemporary Congress. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Mayhew, David R. 2000. America's Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere, James Madison through Newt Gingrich. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

History and Structure

Between 1774 and 1789, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS served as the federal lawmaking body for the 13 American colonies and (after it passed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) the United States. The Continental Congress proved to be an ineffective national legislature, however, particularly after ratification of its founding constitution, the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION, in 1781. This congress lacked the authority to raise funds from the states and was not adept at the administration of federal government.

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Senate Majority Leader

The Senate majority leader has somewhat less official power than the Speaker of the House. This is because the vice president is technically the Senate's presiding officer, a ceremonial position that calls chiefly for casting a vote in the event of a tie. The Senate majority leader's official duties include helping make committee appointments, helping establish a legislative timetable, and directing debate. Notably, in the Senate, these duties usually involve consultation with the leadership of the minority party. The comparatively diminished procedural powers of the majority leader hardly reduce the position's significance. As chief strategist and spokesperson for the majority party, the majority leader exercises considerable influence over political debate, and certain unique duties of the Senate itself lend extra influence to the role.

Differences between the House and Senate account for the contrasts in leadership duties. The House sends bills to the Senate, where they are debated extensively at a slower, more deliberate pace. For this reason, the majority leader is chosen from within the party's caucus less for the Senator's bureaucratic efficiency than for his or her knowledge, experience, and persuasive abilities. The Senate leader does not have the House Speaker's extensive authority over the legislative agenda: instead, bills are called up for debate depending on when the committees report them and on when both parties' leaders have agreed to schedule them. The majority leader can speed up the process for certain bills but requires the unanimous consent of the Senate to do so.

However, the majority leader exercises influence in important areas not open to the House Speaker. Only the Senate can approve treaties with foreign governments, and the Senate alone has the authority to confirm presidential nominations to the cabinet and federal courts. The majority leader, assisted by a lieutenant known as the majority whip, seeks to marshal the votes of the party's members on these matters. The responsiveness of the majority leader to the president's wishes thus plays a crucial role in shaping domestic and foreign policy as well as the composition of the federal judiciary.

The national importance of the majority leader was highlighted in December 2002 when Senator TRENT LOTT (R-MS) was engulfed in a firestorm of public criticism that forced him to give up his position as majority leader in the...

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