Patricia A. O'Malley
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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice

The 116th Congress is Open for Business
What is a “Congress” Anyway?
​January 3, 2019


Every two years, Congress reboots.  Like a bright New Year’s Day, it’s fresh, and clean, and brief.  The 116th Congress assembled on Thursday, January 3 – a day for family and tradition, smiles and handshakes.  They’ll return to the backstabbing soon enough.

Because American schools don’t teach civics properly, they produce politically ignorant citizens.  Many Americans think that “Congress” is 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 115th Congress officially closed at noon on Thursday, January 3, 2019 and the first session of the 116th Congress opened moments later.  The second session of the 116th will open in January 2020.

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. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was elected as Speaker.  Pelosi previously served as  Speaker from 2007-2011 (110th and 111th)  Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is Majority Leader and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is Minority Leader.

Vice President Mike Pence is President of the Senate.  Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) will serve  as Senate President Pro Tempore.  While not required, that position traditionally goes to the Senator from the majority party who has the most seniority.  The President Pro Tem has the right to speak first on any measure brought to the Senate floor.  S/he (someday) can also be very influential in persuasion and in moving legislation.  Because the Republicans retained the majority of Senate seats in November’s election, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) remains as the Senate Majority Leader and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) remains as the Minority Leader.

You can see the other leaders at and

Both House and Senate have been majority Republican since 2015. 
Now, Democrats control the House with a majority of 235 to 199 Republicans.
Republicans retain control of the Senate with 53 members while the Democrats have 45 and there are two independents.

There are 435 seats in the House, but only 434 members attended today’s session.  The race for the 9th District of North Carolina has not yet been decided due to allegations of illegal campaign activity.  That may require a special do-over election.

While still predominantly composed of upper-middle class white men, the 116th is the most diverse Congress in history.  It includes:

  • 102 women in the House
  • 25 women in the Senate
  • The first two Muslim women, both in the House
  • The first two Native American women, also both in the House
  • The youngest woman ever elected – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), at 29.
  • 27% of House members and 9% of Senators are non-white

Since the election, new members have been requesting committee assignments and joining caucuses, and 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.

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 Mike Pence, in his capacity as President of the Senate, swore in the 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."

All of the bills that were pending before Congress, but not passed, at the end of 2018 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 116th Congress will be P.L. 116-1.  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.  The House promises to investigate Donald Trump’s activities.

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.

Nancy Pelosi wasted no time getting started.  After the members were sworn, they voted to

  • approve the House’s revised Rules of Procedure
  • approve two bills to reopen the government without a dime for Donald Trump’s wall
  • approve six bills to fund various parts of the government.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) introduced articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

The Senate conducted no votes.

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. 

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.

I’d be surprised if even half of the members of Congress have read the document which they so avidly swear to uphold.

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.

Americans expect a lot of change from the new Congress.
If you want something, now is the time to get started lobbying for your issues.

Lobbying is not what the politicians and media tell you it is.
"Giving buckets of money to legislators" is not lobbying. 

Lobbying is the act of trying to convince elected officials - local, state, and federal - to support or oppose legislation and policies that you care about.
Lobbying is the only thing that can restore our democracy. 
Our schools are supposed to teach this stuff, but they don't want you to know that YOU have the power to influence your government.

Every legislative victory that occurs is the direct result of lobbying. 
Nothing moves in government unless someone pushes it. 
The harder you push, the more it can move.
But be prepared for someone to push back.

Legislators listen to corporate lobbyists because they're the only ones doing the talking.
If you want your representatives to listen to you, then start talking to them.
If the 99% would do more lobbying, the 1% would have less power.

Lobbying is more important than voting.
Everyone can do it.
And it doesn't cost a dime.

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

For more information:
U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. Senate
Congressional Record
U.S. Constitution
C-SPAN Every federal, state, local, and tribal government department and agency
Axios:  A look inside the most diverse Congress in History
Learn how to lobby

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