Life in the USA
Government and Law
Structure of Government
The Legislative Branch
The Legislative Branch of the federal government consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, called collectively the United States Congress. The term “bicameral” system of representation applies, since the Congress has two chambers. Only the Congress may enact legislation or declare war*. The Congress also has the ability to confirm or reject presidential appointments, as well as significant investigate power.
The House of Representatives consists of 435 members, each of whom is elected to a two-year term. The individual states are entitled to Representatives based on their proportion of the population, hence, when population shifts occur, some states lose Representatives and other gain. The presiding officer is the Speaker of the House, elected by the Representatives themselves. The Speaker is third in the line of succession to the Presidency.
The House has the exclusive power to initiate revenue bills and impeach federal officials. In the case of a tie in the American Electoral College, the House may choose the President (although this has occurred only rarely).
The United States Senate consists of 100 Senators, two for each state regardless of population, elected for six-year terms. The Senate has the sole power to confirm those presidential appointments that require consent, and to ratify treaties. If the House impeaches a federal official, the Senate conducts the trial.
Let us clarify some terminology that might be confusing. The term “Congress” applies generally to both houses. A “Congressman,” “Congresswoman,” or “Congressperson,” refers strictly to one of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.
To create a law, first a member of Congress introduces a bill. This may often be at the request of the President or private individuals. The bill then moves for review to a committee that specializes in its subject matter. There are 17 Senate committees, with 70 subcommittees, and 23 House committees, with 104 subcommittees. In these committees and subcommittees hearings are conducted, often with experts present, to debate the merits of the bill. If the bill survives the committee process, it goes before the entire House or Senate for consideration. Some bills pass or fail with little debate, while still others become national issues requiring extensive debate, compromises, and modifications. When a bill passes both houses of Congress it goes to the President’s desk for signature. The bill become an “Act” (law) once the President signs. If the President vetoes (rejects) the bill, it dies, unless two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the veto.
The individual American states each have some kind of legislative branch. Some have a bicameral system similar to that of the federal government, but a number have only a single representative body. Procedures differ on a state to state basis.
*Only the Congress can engage in a formal declaration of war. The President, however, is Commander-in-Chief of all American armed forces. American presidents have initiated military conflicts that in all respects appear to be full-scale wars, without congressional approval. These situations have caused considerable friction between the Executive and Legislative branches of the government, particularly during the Vietnam era.
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