The 115th Congress is Open for Business
What is a “Congress” Anyway?
 January 16, 2017

Every two years, Congress reboots.  Like a bright New Year’s Day, it’s fresh, and clean, and brief.  The 115th Congress assembled on Tuesday, January 3 – a day for family and tradition, smiles and handshakes.  They’ve already returned to the backstabbing.

The U.S. Constitution
Because American schools can’t or won’t teach civics properly, they produce politically ignorant citizens. 

Many Americans think that “Congress” is only the House of Representatives.  It is not.  
Article I, Section 1 of the United States Constitution says:
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.

That means that BOTH the House AND the Senate are equal parts of Congress. 

It is incorrect to refer to the House of Representatives as “Congress”. 

Two senators represent each state.  House members are assigned to states by population.  Each state has at least one House Representative, also called a congressman/woman.  Congress makes the national laws and authorizes all federal spending.  
The president can’t spend a dime without Congressional approval.

The Constitution requires that a new "Congress" convene every two years.  In even-numbered years, every one of the 435 House seats and one-third of the 100 Senate seats, called a “class”, are up for election in November.  That election creates a new Congress, which opens early in the following January.  There are two sessions of each Congress; each lasts one year.  The first Congress was elected in 1788 and assembled in 1789.  The 114th Congress officially closed at noon on Tuesday, January 3, 2017 and the first session of the 115th Congress opened moments later.  The second session of the 115th will open in January 2018.

Congressional Officers
The Constitution requires only the House Speaker, Vice President as President of the Senate, and Senate President Pro Tempore as Congressional officers, but it gives the members authority to elect any additional officers they choose.  

The Speaker of the House is traditionally a member of the majority party, but that is not required.  House members can elect anyone – even a non-member – as their Speaker.  As expected, Rep. Paul Ryan (D-WI) was re-elected as Speaker. 
Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) retained their posts as House Minority and Majority Leaders, respectively.

In the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden will remain as President of the Senate until Mike Pence is inaugurated as Vice President on January 20.  Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) remains as Senate president pro tempore.  While not required, that position traditionally goes to the Senator from the majority party who has the most seniority.  Because the Republicans retained the majority of Senate seats in November’s election, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) remains as the Senate Majority Leader. 
Because former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) retired, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is the new Minority Leader.

You can see the other leaders at and

Diversity in Congress
The new Congress has 3 new senators and 56 new representatives – 30 Democrats and 29 Republicans.  The Senate includes 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats, and two independents who will caucus with the Democrats.  The House includes 194 Democrats and 241 Republicans.  There are no vacancies in the 115th Congress.

Since the election, new members have attended various orientation sessions in Washington to acquaint them with the buildings, their offices, government employment policies, and routine procedures.  Each member’s individual website is up and running.

While still predominantly composed of upper-middle class white men, the 115th is the most racially and culturally diverse in history.  The 535 members include 104 women, 102 racial minorities, 39 non-Christians, 7 openly LGBT members.  You can read more detailed statistics at The Hill.

Legislation in Congress
All of the bills that were pending before Congress, but not passed, at the end of 2016 have expired.  Congress will consider only new legislation from this point forward.  Anything that didn't pass last year can be re-introduced.  The House and Senate clerks number the bills in the order in which they are introduced - HR 1, S1, and so on.  Laws adopted by Congress and signed by the president are called "Public Laws" and are numbered consecutively.  The first law passed by the 115th Congress will be P.L. 115-1.  You can see all Congressional activity at

While the actual bills have died, many important issues remain unresolved.  Congress will still attempt to tackle or obstruct federal spending, the budget, gun control, immigration, climate change, infrastructure, jobs, national security, and other matters.  Senate confirmation hearings of President-Elect Trump’s nominees will be interesting.

Congress does most of its work through committees, which are very powerful.  Committees are organized by topic, such as Defense, Agriculture, Budget, Judiciary, etc.  Look at the House and Senate websites for complete committee lists.  All committee chairs are members of the majority party.  The "ranking member" is the most senior member of the minority party in each committee.

Opening of Congress
The first day is, by tradition, a family day.  Members' families visit their offices, and the House and Senate Chambers, and attend the swearing-in.  Contrary to common belief, the House oath takes place in a group, not individually.  Vice President Joe Biden, in his capacity as President of the Senate, swore in senators in groups of four.  Members may hold bibles or other documents if they wish, but are not required to do so.

The Constitution requires that members take an oath before starting their terms, but does not specify what the oath should be.  However, the Constitution does give each Congressional chamber the power to write its own rules of procedure.  So the oath has evolved over the years, and is the same for House and Senate:
"I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God."

When the 112th Congress opened in 2011, Speaker John Boehner demanded that the House read the entire U.S. Constitution aloud, on the House floor, as its first order of business.  It was quite a spectacle as dozens of members took turns reading passages. It would have been nice if anyone had bothered to stick around to listen to the entire reading.  Not one member did so.  This year, they read the Constitution again for the fourth time, with the same results.

Keeping Up with Events
However, it’s a good idea for all Americans to read the Constitution occasionally.  Take the time to read it now.  The original text, without signatures, contains only 4,400 words.  The full text, including all 27 amendments, has 7,591 words.  It only takes about an hour.

You can watch live Congressional proceedings on C-SPAN TV.  The House and Senate each have their own channels.  Check your listings for the channel numbers.  You can also get it on  All Congressional activity – bills introduced, laws passed, committee reports, treaties, hearings, etc. – is available at  The Congressional Record contains a daily journal of all speeches, remarks, and documents submitted to Congress.

This is your government.  If you don’t take the time to use the resources available, don’t complain that you don’t know what’s going on.  Use the links below to find the names of your representatives.  Browse their websites to see what they think is important.  Then write a letter about something that’s important to you.

America will work for you when you know how to make it work.

For more information:
U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. Senate
U.S. Constitution
C-SPAN Reference Center and General Government

Contact Pat to get email notice of all new Community Matters articles.

Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice

Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting    ~    Community Matters
P.O. Box 97803    ~    Pittsburgh, PA  15227   ~    412-310-4886    ~
Copyright Patricia A. O'Malley    ~    All rights reserved
Established 1993