This category covers legislative bodies and their advisory and interdepartmental committees and commissions at the local, state, and national level.
Legislative bodies (from the Latin lex, "law," and latio, "a bringing") include the U.S. Congress, state legislative assemblies, and local commissions and boards. These entities are responsible for proposing, selecting, and amending the laws that govern all Americans. They have the authority to levy taxes, regulate commerce, borrow money, and exercise a number of additional powers.
Although it has been amended to alter the function of the legislature, the U.S. Constitution that became effective in 1789 defines the federal legislative branch. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution expressly reserves to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution. State legislative bodies have been likewise organized under state constitutions. The conceptual structure of most U.S. legislative bodies largely reflects European initiatives, such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689).
The authoritative purview of U.S. legislative bodies is often challenged in legal efforts to clarify the scope, limits, and respective balancing of federal versus state power. This helps to maintain the vitality and viability of the Constitution when applied to contemporary issues and crises. Accordingly, the U.S. legislative system has remained a healthy model for democracies around the globe.
All U.S. governing bodies at the national and state levels—and most local governments—are distinguished by the fact that their executive, legislative, and judicial branches are practically independent of one another. This portentous difference contrasts with cabinet governments, utilized in many European nations, in which the executive body is drawn from and responsible to the legislative arm. As a result, the president is solely responsible to the voters and is theoretically free from direct legislative control. Likewise, legislative bodies are relatively unfettered by the executive branch. This separation of powers, combined with a system of checks and balances, serves to reduce the potential power of the government to domineer U.S. citizens. For example, chief executives can veto legislative initiatives, but legislators can override their vetoes.
State legislators initiate, draft, and vote on proposed state laws. Each state has two legislative bodies, an upper house (Senate) and a lower house. Nebraska, which has only one house, is the exception. The lower house is usually called the House of Representatives, or in some states the Assembly or the House of Delegates. The size of legislatures varies. For example, during the early 2000s Georgia had 236 legislators, whereas Nevada had only 63. However, within each state, all representatives are elected from districts with an almost equal number of citizens. About half of the legislators meet annually to vote on laws, and the other half meet twice each year. Upper house members are customarily elected for a term of four years and lower house members for a term of two years.
Most community legislative bodies exist under one of three types of government. Under mayor and council systems—the most common type of local governing body in the United States—an elected council acts as the legislative body. Its ordinances are typically subject to confirmation by the mayor, who is the head of the executive branch. Conversely, in the commission form of government, the elected commission essentially serves as both the legislative and executive body. The third type of system, council-manager government, operates similarly to the commission arrangement, the primary difference being that the council appoints a manager to oversee governmental departments rather than running the departments itself. Also at the local level are a variety of county legislators, who also receive their lawmaking authority from the state.
Congress constitutes the legislative branch of the federal government. It is the responsibility of Congress to develop, draft, amend, and vote on laws and proposed legislation that applies to the entire nation. In addition to their legislative duties, members of Congress also spend much of their time representing constituents in grievances against the federal bureaucracy. Congress convenes once each year, beginning on January 3, for a few months. It also holds special hearings on important public issues. In addition, the president may call special sessions of Congress.
Under the original U.S. Constitution, Congress is vested with the "Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the Common Defense and...