Skip Nav

Glossary of Terms Related to Congressional Records

How Long Is a Term of Congress?

❶Campaigning at Home and in Washington. As ratified in , the Twenty-Second Amendment provides that "no person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice".

Main Navigation (Slideout)

Choose a video to embed
[error message]
Header Menu

However, the Constitution grants each chamber some unique powers. The Senate ratifies treaties and approves presidential appointments while the House initiates revenue-raising bills. The House initiates impeachment cases, while the Senate decides impeachment cases.

The term Congress can also refer to a particular meeting of the legislature. A Congress covers two years; the current one, the th Congress , began on January 3, , and will end on January 3, The Congress starts and ends on the third day of January of every odd-numbered year. Members of the Senate are referred to as senators; members of the House of Representatives are referred to as representatives, congresswomen, or congressmen. Scholar and representative Lee H. Hamilton asserted that the "historic mission of Congress has been to maintain freedom" and insisted it was a "driving force in American government" [2] and a "remarkably resilient institution".

Congress reflects us in all our strengths and all our weaknesses. It reflects our regional idiosyncrasies, our ethnic, religious, and racial diversity, our multitude of professions, and our shadings of opinion on everything from the value of war to the war over values. Congress is the government's most representative body Congress is essentially charged with reconciling our many points of view on the great public policy issues of the day.

Congress is constantly changing and is constantly in flux. The Congress of the United States serves two distinct purposes that overlap: Most incumbents seek re-election, and their historical likelihood of winning subsequent elections exceeds 90 percent.

The historical records of the House of Representatives and the Senate are maintained by the Center for Legislative Archives, which is a part of the National Archives and Records Administration. Congress is directly responsible for the governing of the District of Columbia , the current seat of the federal government. The Articles of Confederation in created the Congress of the Confederation , a unicameral body with equal representation among the states in which each state had a veto over most decisions.

Congress had executive but not legislative authority, and the federal judiciary was confined to admiralty. Government powerlessness led to the Convention of which proposed a revised constitution with a two—chamber or bicameral congress.

Political scientist Julian E. Zelizer suggested there were four main congressional eras, with considerable overlap, and included the formative era s—s , the partisan era s—s , the committee era s—s , and the contemporary era s—today. Federalists and anti-federalists jostled for power in the early years as political parties became pronounced, surprising the Constitution's Founding Fathers of the United States.

With the passage of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Anti-Federalist movement was exhausted. Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency marked a peaceful transition of power between the parties in John Marshall, 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court empowered the courts by establishing the principle of judicial review in law in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison in , effectively giving the Supreme Court a power to nullify congressional legislation.

These years were marked by growth in the power of political parties. The watershed event was the Civil War which resolved the slavery issue and unified the nation under federal authority, but weakened the power of states rights. The Gilded Age — was marked by Republican dominance of Congress.

During this time, lobbying activity became more intense, particularly during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant in which influential lobbies advocated for railroad subsidies and tariffs on wool. The Progressive Era was characterized by strong party leadership in both houses of Congress as well as calls for reform; sometimes reformers would attack lobbyists as corrupting politics. The Senate was effectively controlled by a half dozen men. A system of seniority—in which long-time Members of Congress gained more and more power—encouraged politicians of both parties to serve for long terms.

Committee chairmen remained influential in both houses until the reforms of the s. Important structural changes included the direct election of senators by popular election according to the Seventeenth Amendment , [15] ratified in April 8, , with positive effects senators more sensitive to public opinion and negative effects undermining the authority of state governments.

Roosevelt 's election in marked a shift in government power towards the executive branch. More complex issues required greater specialization and expertise, such as space flight and atomic energy policy.

Kennedy narrowly won the presidency and power shifted again to the Democrats who dominated both houses of Congress until Congress enacted Johnson's Great Society program to fight poverty and hunger. The Watergate Scandal had a powerful effect of waking up a somewhat dormant Congress which investigated presidential wrongdoing and coverups; the scandal "substantially reshaped" relations between the branches of government, suggested political scientist Bruce J.

Political action committees or PACs could make substantive donations to congressional candidates via such means as soft money contributions. From to , the House expanded delegates, along with their powers and privileges representing U. In , a delegate for the District of Columbia was authorized, and in new delegate positions were established for U.

Virgin Islands and Guam. These six Members of Congress enjoy floor privileges to introduce bills and resolutions, and in recent congresses they vote in permanent and select committees, in party caucuses and in joint conferences with the Senate. They have Capitol Hill offices, staff and two annual appointments to each of the four military academies. While their votes are constitutional when Congress authorizes their House Committee of the Whole votes, recent Congresses have not allowed for that, and they cannot vote when the House is meeting as the House of Representatives.

In the late 20th century, the media became more important in Congress's work. Article I of the Constitution creates and sets forth the structure and most of the powers of Congress.

Sections One through Six describe how Congress is elected and gives each House the power to create its own structure. Section Seven lays out the process for creating laws, and Section Eight enumerates numerous powers. Section Nine is a list of powers Congress does not have, and Section Ten enumerates powers of the state, some of which may only be granted by Congress. Congress also has implied powers derived from the Constitution's Necessary and Proper Clause. Congress has authority over financial and budgetary policy through the enumerated power to "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States".

There is vast authority over budgets, although analyst Eric Patashnik suggested that much of Congress's power to manage the budget has been lost when the welfare state expanded since "entitlements were institutionally detached from Congress's ordinary legislative routine and rhythm". The Sixteenth Amendment in extended congressional power of taxation to include income taxes without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Congress has an important role in national defense , including the exclusive power to declare war, to raise and maintain the armed forces , and to make rules for the military. Congress can establish post offices and post roads, issue patents and copyrights , fix standards of weights and measures, establish Courts inferior to the Supreme Court , and "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

One of Congress's foremost non-legislative functions is the power to investigate and oversee the executive branch. In the Plame affair , critics including Representative Henry A. Waxman charged that Congress was not doing an adequate job of oversight in this case.

Congress also has the exclusive power of removal , allowing impeachment and removal of the president , federal judges and other federal officers. Bush , Bill Clinton , and George W. Bush [82] have made public statements when signing congressional legislation about how they understand a bill or plan to execute it, and commentators including the American Bar Association have described this practice as against the spirit of the Constitution.

Will called the Capitol building a "tomb for the antiquated idea that the legislative branch matters. The Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress in detail. In addition, other congressional powers have been granted, or confirmed, by constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth , Fourteenth , and Fifteenth Amendments gave Congress authority to enact legislation to enforce rights of African Americans, including voting rights , due process , and equal protection under the law.

Congress also has implied powers deriving from the Constitution's Necessary and Proper Clause which permit Congress to "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Constitutional responsibility for the oversight of Washington, D. Each territory and Washington, D. House of Representatives as they have throughout Congressional history. They "possess the same powers as other members of the House, except that they may not vote when the House is meeting as the House of Representatives.

Hamilton explained how Congress functions within the federal government:. To me the key to understanding it is balance. The founders went to great lengths to balance institutions against each other—balancing powers among the three branches: Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court; between the House of Representatives and the Senate; between the federal government and the states; among states of different sizes and regions with different interests; between the powers of government and the rights of citizens, as spelled out in the Bill of Rights No one part of government dominates the other.

The Constitution provides checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government. Its authors expected the greater power to lie with Congress as described in Article One. The influence of Congress on the presidency has varied from period to period depending on factors such as congressional leadership, presidential political influence, historical circumstances such as war, and individual initiative by members of Congress.

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson made the presidency less powerful than Congress for a considerable period afterwards. Nevertheless, the Presidency remains considerably more powerful today than during the 19th century. Congress is slow, open, divided, and not well matched to handle more rapid executive action or do a good job of overseeing such activity, according to one analysis. The Constitution concentrates removal powers in the Congress by empowering and obligating the House of Representatives to impeach both executive and judicial officials for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The Senate is constitutionally empowered and obligated to try all impeachments. A simple majority in the House is required to impeach an official; however, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for conviction. A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office in the future.

Impeachment proceedings may not inflict more than this; however, a convicted party may face criminal penalties in a normal court of law. In the history of the United States, the House of Representatives has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted. Another resigned before the Senate could complete the trial. Only two presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in and Bill Clinton in Both trials ended in acquittal; in Johnson's case, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction.

In , Richard Nixon resigned from office after impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee indicated he would eventually be removed from office. The Senate has an important check on the executive power by confirming Cabinet officials, judges, and other high officers "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.

Furthermore, treaties negotiated by the President must be ratified by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to take effect. As a result, presidential arm-twisting of senators can happen before a key vote; for example, President Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton , urged her former senate colleagues to approve a nuclear arms treaty with Russia in In , the Supreme Court established judicial review of federal legislation in Marbury v.

Madison , holding, however, that Congress could not grant unconstitutional power to the Court itself. The Constitution does not explicitly state that the courts may exercise judicial review; however, the notion that courts could declare laws unconstitutional was envisioned by the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton , for example, mentioned and expounded upon the doctrine in Federalist No.

Originalists on the Supreme Court have argued that if the constitution does not say something explicitly it is unconstitutional to infer what it should, might or could have said. It is a huge check by the courts on the legislative authority and limits congressional power substantially. In , for example, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of a congressional act of in its Dred Scott decision.

Investigations are conducted to gather information on the need for future legislation, to test the effectiveness of laws already passed, and to inquire into the qualifications and performance of members and officials of the other branches. Committees may hold hearings, and, if necessary, compel individuals to testify when investigating issues over which it has the power to legislate by issuing subpoenas.

Most committee hearings are open to the public the House and Senate intelligence committees are the exception ; important hearings are widely reported in the mass media and transcripts published a few months afterwards.

Congress also plays a role in presidential elections. Both Houses meet in joint session on the sixth day of January following a presidential election to count the electoral votes, and there are procedures to follow if no candidate wins a majority. The main result of congressional activity is the creation of laws, [] most of which are contained in the United States Code, arranged by subject matter alphabetically under fifty title headings to present the laws "in a concise and usable form".

Congress is split into two chambers—House and Senate—and manages the task of writing national legislation by dividing work into separate committees which specialize in different areas.

Some members of Congress are elected by their peers to be officers of these committees. Further, Congress has ancillary organizations such as the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress to help provide it with information, and members of Congress have staff and offices to assist them as well.

In addition, a vast industry of lobbyists helps members write legislation on behalf of diverse corporate and labor interests. The committee structure permits members of Congress to study a particular subject intensely. It is neither expected nor possible that a member be an expert on all subject areas before Congress.

Committees investigate specialized subjects and advise the entire Congress about choices and trade-offs. The choice of specialty may be influenced by the member's constituency, important regional issues, prior background and experience. While procedures such as the House discharge petition process can introduce bills to the House floor and effectively bypass committee input, they are exceedingly difficult to implement without committee action.

Committees have power and have been called independent fiefdoms. Legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks are divided among about two hundred committees and subcommittees which gather information, evaluate alternatives, and identify problems. At the start of each two-year session the House elects a speaker who does not normally preside over debates but serves as the majority party's leader. In the Senate , the Vice President is the ex officio president of the Senate.

In addition, the Senate elects an officer called the President pro tempore. Pro tempore means for the time being and this office is usually held by the most senior member of the Senate's majority party and customarily keeps this position until there's a change in party control.

Accordingly, the Senate does not necessarily elect a new president pro tempore at the beginning of a new Congress. In both the House and Senate, the actual presiding officer is generally a junior member of the majority party who is appointed so that new members become acquainted with the rules of the chamber. The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in It is primarily housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill , but also includes several other sites: Meade, Maryland; and multiple overseas offices.

The Library had mostly law books when it was burned by a British raiding party during the War of , but the library's collections were restored and expanded when Congress authorized the purchase of Thomas Jefferson 's private library. One of the Library's missions is to serve the Congress and its staff as well as the American public.

It is the largest library in the world with nearly million items including books, films, maps, photographs, music, manuscripts, graphics, and materials in languages. The Congressional Research Service provides detailed, up-to-date and non-partisan research for senators, representatives, and their staff to help them carry out their official duties. It provides ideas for legislation, helps members analyze a bill, facilitates public hearings, makes reports, consults on matters such as parliamentary procedure, and helps the two chambers resolve disagreements.

It has been called the "House's think tank" and has a staff of about employees. It was created as an independent nonpartisan agency by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of It helps Congress estimate revenue inflows from taxes and helps the budgeting process. It makes projections about such matters as the national debt [] as well as likely costs of legislation.

Lobbyists represent diverse interests and often seek to influence congressional decisions to reflect their clients' needs. Lobby groups and their members sometimes write legislation and whip bills. In , there were approximately 17, federal lobbyists in Washington. Some lobbyists represent non-profit organizations and work pro bono for issues in which they are personally interested.

Congress has alternated between periods of constructive cooperation and compromise between parties known as bipartisanship and periods of deep political polarization and fierce infighting known as partisanship. The period after the Civil War was marked by partisanship as is the case today. It is generally easier for committees to reach accord on issues when compromise is possible. Some political scientists speculate that a prolonged period marked by narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress has intensified partisanship in the last few decades but that an alternation of control of Congress between Democrats and Republicans may lead to greater flexibility in policies as well as pragmatism and civility within the institution.

A term of Congress is divided into two " sessions ", one for each year; Congress has occasionally been called into an extra or special session. A new session commences on January 3 each year unless Congress decides differently.

The Constitution requires Congress meet at least once each year and forbids either house from meeting outside the Capitol without the consent of the other house.

Joint Sessions of the United States Congress occur on special occasions that require a concurrent resolution from both House and Senate. These sessions include counting electoral votes after a presidential election and the president's State of the Union address. The constitutionally-mandated report , normally given as an annual speech, is modeled on Britain's Speech from the Throne , was written by most presidents after Jefferson but personally delivered as a spoken oration beginning with Wilson in Joint Sessions and Joint Meetings are traditionally presided over by the Speaker of the House except when counting presidential electoral votes when the Vice President acting as the President of the Senate presides.

Ideas for legislation can come from members, lobbyists, state legislatures, constituents, legislative counsel, or executive agencies. Anyone can write a bill, but only members of Congress may introduce bills. Most bills are not written by Congress members, but originate from the Executive branch; interest groups often draft bills as well. The usual next step is for the proposal to be passed to a committee for review. Representatives introduce a bill while the House is in session by placing it in the hopper on the Clerk's desk.

Joint resolutions are the normal way to propose a constitutional amendment or declare war. On the other hand, concurrent resolutions passed by both houses and simple resolutions passed by only one house do not have the force of law but express the opinion of Congress or regulate procedure.

Bills may be introduced by any member of either house. Congress has sought ways to establish appropriate spending levels. Each chamber determines its own internal rules of operation unless specified in the Constitution or prescribed by law. Each branch has its own traditions; for example, the Senate relies heavily on the practice of getting "unanimous consent" for noncontroversial matters.

Each bill goes through several stages in each house including consideration by a committee and advice from the Government Accountability Office. The House has twenty standing committees; the Senate has sixteen. Standing committees meet at least once each month. Witnesses and experts can present their case for or against a bill. After debate, the committee votes whether it wishes to report the measure to the full house.

If a bill is tabled then it is rejected. If amendments are extensive, sometimes a new bill with amendments built in will be submitted as a so-called clean bill with a new number. Generally, members who have been in Congress longer have greater seniority and therefore greater power.

A bill which reaches the floor of the full house can be simple or complex [] and begins with an enacting formula such as "Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. A final vote on the bill follows. Once a bill is approved by one house, it is sent to the other which may pass, reject, or amend it.

For the bill to become law, both houses must agree to identical versions of the bill. The Constitution specifies that a majority of members known as a quorum be present before doing business in each house.

However, the rules of each house assume that a quorum is present unless a quorum call demonstrates the contrary. Since representatives and senators who are present rarely demand quorum calls, debate often continues despite the lack of a majority.

Voting within Congress can take many forms, including systems using lights and bells and electronic voting. The Constitution, however, requires a recorded vote if demanded by one-fifth of the members present. If the voice vote is unclear or if the matter is controversial, a recorded vote usually happens.

The Senate uses roll-call voting , in which a clerk calls out the names of all the senators, each senator stating "aye" or "no" when their name is announced. In the Senate, the vice president may cast the tie-breaking vote if present. The House reserves roll-call votes for the most formal matters, as a roll call of all representatives takes quite some time; normally, members vote by using an electronic device.

In the case of a tie, the motion in question fails. Most votes in the House are done electronically, allowing members to vote yea or nay or present or open. After passage by both houses, a bill is enrolled and sent to the president for approval.

A vetoed bill can still become law if each house of Congress votes to override the veto with a two-thirds majority. Finally, the president may do nothing—neither signing nor vetoing the bill—and then the bill becomes law automatically after ten days not counting Sundays according to the Constitution.

But if Congress is adjourned during this period, presidents may veto legislation passed at the end of a congressional session simply by ignoring it; the maneuver is known as a pocket veto , and cannot be overridden by the adjourned Congress.

Senators face reelection every six years, and representatives every two. Reelections encourage candidates to focus their publicity efforts at their home states or districts. Nevertheless, incumbent members of Congress running for reelection have strong advantages over challengers. As a result, reelection rates of members of Congress hover around 90 percent, [6] causing some critics to accuse them of being a privileged class.

Both senators and representatives enjoy free mailing privileges called franking privileges. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has treated campaign contributions as a free speech issue. Elections are influenced by many variables. Some political scientists speculate there is a coattail effect when a popular president or party position has the effect of reelecting incumbents who win by "riding on the president's coattails" , although there is some evidence that the coattail effect is irregular and possibly declining since the s.

If a seat becomes vacant in an open district, then both parties may spend heavily on advertising in these races; in California in , only four of twenty races for House seats were considered highly competitive. Since members of Congress must advertise heavily on television, this usually involves negative advertising , which smears an opponent's character without focusing on the issues.

Prominent Founding Fathers writing in The Federalist Papers felt that elections were essential to liberty, and that a bond between the people and the representatives was particularly essential [] and that "frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.

Unlike the presidency, Congress is difficult to conceptualize. The rough-and-tumble world of legislating is not orderly and civil, human frailties too often taint its membership, and legislative outcomes are often frustrating and ineffective Still, we are not exaggerating when we say that Congress is essential to American democracy.

We would not have survived as a nation without a Congress that represented the diverse interests of our society, conducted a public debate on the major issues, found compromises to resolve conflicts peacefully, and limited the power of our executive, military, and judicial institutions The popularity of Congress ebbs and flows with the public's confidence in government generally Also, members of Congress often appear self-serving as they pursue their political careers and represent interests and reflect values that are controversial.

Scandals, even when they involve a single member, add to the public's frustration with Congress and have contributed to the institution's low ratings in opinion polls.

An additional factor that confounds public perceptions of Congress is that congressional issues are becoming more technical and complex and require expertise in subjects such as science, engineering and economics. When the Constitution was ratified in , the ratio of the populations of large states to small states was roughly twelve to one. The Connecticut Compromise gave every state, large and small, an equal vote in the Senate. But since , the population disparity between large and small states has grown; in , for example, California had seventy times the population of Wyoming.

A major role for members of Congress is providing services to constituents. One way to categorize lawmakers, according to political scientist Richard Fenno , is by their general motivation:.

Members of Congress enjoy parliamentary privilege , including freedom from arrest in all cases except for treason , felony , and breach of the peace and freedom of speech in debate. This constitutionally derived immunity applies to members during sessions and when traveling to and from sessions. The rules of the House strictly guard this privilege; a member may not waive the privilege on their own, but must seek the permission of the whole house to do so.

Senate rules, however, are less strict and permit individual senators to waive the privilege as they choose. The Constitution guarantees absolute freedom of debate in both houses, providing in the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

Obstructing the work of Congress is a crime under federal law and is known as contempt of Congress. Each member has the power to cite individuals for contempt but can only issue a contempt citation—the judicial system pursues the matter like a normal criminal case.

If convicted in court, an individual found guilty of contempt of Congress may be imprisoned for up to one year. The franking privilege allows members of Congress to send official mail to constituents at government expense.

Though they are not permitted to send election materials, borderline material is often sent, especially in the run-up to an election by those in close races. The petition, "Remove health-care subsidies for Members of Congress and their families", has already gathered over 1,, signatures on the website Change. Like other federal employees, congressional retirement is funded through taxes and participants' contributions. And like Federal employees, members contribute one-third of the cost of health insurance with the government covering the other two-thirds.

The size of a congressional pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest three years of their salary. Please join our advisory group to let us know what more we can do. We love educating Americans about how their government works too! Please help us make GovTrack better address the needs of educators by joining our advisory group.

Would you like to join our advisory group to work with us on the future of GovTrack? Toggle navigation Search GovTrack govtrack. What is the law? Congress Bills Congress Congressional terms of office. Congressional terms of office Use this page to browse bills in the U. Congressional terms of office has 0 sub-categories that you can use to track a more targeted set of legislation: Subject areas of legislation are provided by the Library of Congress.

Enacted — Including by Incorporation into Other Bills. Sign Up Get Alerts. Start by telling us more about yourself: Other We hope to make GovTrack more useful to policy professionals like you.

How Many Representatives Are in Congress?

Main Topics

Privacy Policy

Office Term limits He specifically put forth the idea of congressional term limits and suggested a national constitutional convention be used to accomplish the amendment, since the Congress would be unlikely to propose and adopt any amendment that limits its .

Privacy FAQs

Six years for Senators, and two years for House members. One-third of the Senate is elected every two years. The entire house is up for election each time.

About Our Ads

Congressional terms of office-related bills in the U.S. Congress. Brief explanations of terms and phrases describing U.S. Congress practice and procedure Home > Help > Glossary. The Congressional Budget Office is a legislative branch agency that produces independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.

Cookie Info

What Are the Terms of Office for Representatives? A: Quick Answer. Members of the House of Representatives serve terms of 2 years. How Long Is a Term of Congress? Who Are the U.S. Congressional Representatives for Texas? What Is a Closed Meeting of the Members of Each Party in the House? While senators are elected to serve terms of 6 years, members of the House of Representatives are elected to serve terms of only 2 years. There are no limits to how many terms to which members of Congress may be elected.