Social Policy & Programs Consulting
Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice
The United States Congress: Myths and Facts
Too many Americans don’t know what Congress is, or how it works.
April 5, 2018
Congress has most of the political power in the United States. Public support for Congress has reached another all-time low. Our disapproval should be based in reality, not in fantasy, rumor, or ignorance. Our schools don’t bother to teach this stuff.
WHAT’S A CONGRESS?
The Constitution requires that a new "Congress" convene every two years. Members are elected in November of even-numbered years and the new Congress opens in the following January. There are two sessions of each Congress; each lasts one year. The first Congress assembled in 1789. The 115th Congress opened in January 20173 and will close in January 2019, when the 116th Congress will open. We are now in the second session of the 115th Congress.
All bills that were pending before a Congress, but not passed, expire when that Congress ends. Anything that didn't pass must be re-introduced.
Somehow, a lot of Americans got the idea that there is something called “Congress and the Senate”. There is not. The United States Constitution defines Congress in Article I, Section 1:
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.
Yes, folks. Congress consists of the House AND the Senate.
They are called the two “houses” or “chambers” of Congress.
And yes, ALL legislative powers. Presidents do not make laws. Government agencies do not make laws. Corporations do not make laws. Political parties do not make laws. Members of Congress make laws. And we need to hold them accountable for the laws they make – or don’t make. The Constitution does permit Presidents to issue Executive Orders and executive branch agencies to issue regulations, but those are not laws.
There is no limit to the number of terms that members of Congress can serve. They serve until they retire, die, or the voters elect someone else.
THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
There are 435 members in the House of Representatives. The Constitution requires a census every ten years to see how many representatives each state gets. Each state has at least one House member. You can find your House member’s name through the search function on the House of Representatives website.
House members must be at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and reside in their states when elected. They serve two-year terms.
All revenue bills must originate in the House – not spending bills, not budget bills. “Revenue” means taxes, fees, fines, and any other money coming into the U.S. Treasury. Despite what many people claim, bills authorizing spending do not have to begin in the House.
There are 100 U.S. Senators – two for each of our 50 states. You can find your Senators’ names on the list in the Senate website.
Candidates must be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least 14 years, and reside in their states when elected.
All senators serve six-year terms.
The Constitution divides the Senate into three groups, called “classes”. One class is up for election in every even-numbered year, along with the entire House of Representatives. That way, new members will comprise no more than 1/3 of the Senate at any one time. This enables continuity, stability, and tradition in the Senate. Each senate seat always remains in its class, even if a senator resigns or dies before her/his term ends. The two senators from each state are in different classes.
The Senate must approve, or confirm, certain presidential appointments and all treaties. All ratified treaties are U.S. law, just as much as any law passed by Congress and signed by the president.
The Constitution requires the House Speaker, Vice President as President of the Senate, and Senate President Pro Tempore as Congressional officers, but it gives members authority to elect any additional leaders they choose.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is Speaker of the House. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are House Majority and Minority Leaders, respectively. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is president pro tempore. Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders. Vice President Mike Pence technically serves as Senate President. The vice president is not “in charge of the Senate”. S/he is president of the Senate in name only and votes only to break a tie.
The Constitution authorizes each house of Congress to make its own rules of procedure. Congress has chosen to operate primarily through the committee system, and to give a great deal of power to political party leaders. Senate rules permit filibusters. House rules do not.
Each member of Congress has an office budget for staff and other necessities.
Congressional committees do most of the work in Congress and are very powerful. Each committee handles a particular topic. There are Agriculture, Education, Transportation, Military Affairs, Budget, and other committees in each chamber. The House has 21 standing committees, the Senate has 20, and there are six joint committees. Each committee also has its own staff.
The House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader appoint their respective committee members. House members serve on one committee; Senators serve on three or four. Members can request committees in which they’re interested. Those with the most seniority are likely to get what they want. Each committee contains members of both parties. The member from the majority party with the most seniority usually serves as chair.
The Constitution’s Article I lists the composition, powers, and duties of Congress. While it is true that “the government” can only conduct actions permitted in the Constitution, you have to read the entire document to see just what it includes. The Constitution is an outline for our government. It is not a detailed operating manual.
Members of Congress do not have to vote according to their constituents’ wishes. They can vote any way they want.
Every member of Congress employs staff people whose job is to help constituents – that’s you – to solve bureaucratic problems with the government. It’s called “constituent services. It is not an imposition. It is their job. If you have a bureaucracy problem that you can’t solve by yourself, contact one of your members of Congress.
While presidents have limited military authority under the War Powers Act, only Congress can actually declare war.
That hasn’t been done since 1941.
The Constitution requires the president to report to Congress on the state of the union “from time to time”. That report does not have to be every year, in person, on TV, or in a joint Congressional session. Those things are tradition, not law. If the president wants to, s/he can send a blast e-mail to every member of Congress every day, and that would satisfy the Constitution.
As much as we may object, obstruction of the government is never treason. Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution. Refusing to adopt a budget, repeatedly voting to repeal a law, and general boorishness are not treason.
The Constitution does not require Congress to pass a budget. Sorry, folks. It just doesn’t. The word “budget” does not appear in the Constitution at all.
Each federal fiscal year, and each new budget, begins on October 1 of the prior calendar year. Fiscal year 2018 began on October 1, 2017 and ends on September 30, 2018. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 outlines a specific timetable for submitting, considering, debating, approving, monitoring, and auditing the budget.
The United States government cannot spend a penny on anything, anywhere, ever, without specific approval by Congress. That approval is granted through a process called “appropriations”. It is unconstitutional for the government to spend money without that appropriation.
Only the House of Representatives can impeach the president, vice president, federal judges, and other federal officials. Impeachment does NOT mean that the official is removed from office. It means that s/he is charged with a crime. The Senate then holds the trial to decide whether the official is guilty. If the Senate convicts that person, then s/he is removed from office.
Members of Congress cannot be recalled or impeached. They can only lose their jobs by losing an election or being expelled by their colleagues. So, if you don’t like what they’re doing, then VOTE.
Members of Congress work more hours in every week than most Americans ever thought of working. Whether you like them or not, whether you agree with their principles or not, they do show up for work. Yet politically ignorant Americans think that the members aren’t working if they’re not on the House and Senate floors every minute. That is not the way Congress works.
Professional football players spend only about three hours a week on the playing field. Other than that, they watch game films; have practices, team meetings, medical treatments, public appearances, and more. All of that comprises their work week. Even when they’re not on the game-day playing field, they’re still working. It’s a full-time job.
When in session but not on the legislative floors, members of Congress attend committee meetings and hearings, read and develop legislation, give media interviews, and read reams of letters, reports, and briefings. They meet with constituents, lobbyists, department heads, each other, and their staffs. Sometimes, they even meet with the president. Their phones never stop ringing. And they are assaulted all day, every day, everywhere they go, by people who only want “one minute” of their time.
There is no “typical” Congressional work week. The leaders set the schedules. They try to recess for weekends, but that doesn’t always happen. Floor sessions can begin anywhere from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM and can last from 10 minutes to 14 hours. Sometimes, they don’t schedule any floor activity at all for a few days to accommodate committee and other activity.
Breaks around federal holidays can last for several days. But they’re still working. While on “break”, they meet with constituents in their district offices and in town hall meetings. They have staff meetings, phone meetings, and all of the same things they do in Washington. Election year campaign and fundraising events add even more time to their schedules.
PAY, PENSIONS, AND HEALTH INSURANCE
Some Americans insist that members of Congress take home truckloads of money, don’t participate in Social Security, and get full pay for their lifetimes after serving only a single term in Congress. Sorry, folks, it isn’t true.
Members earn $174,000. Majority and Minority Leaders earn $193,400. The Speaker of the House earns $223,500. From that salary, they have to pay for two residences –one in their home districts and one in the Washington area. The 27th amendment to the Constitution indexes their salaries to inflation, but they have not accepted their raises since January 2009.
During the last three government shutdowns, many people griped that Congress was still being paid. Congress does not have a choice. The Constitution requires that Congress, the president, and Supreme Court justices be paid. Withholding their pay is unconstitutional.
Plenty of people whine that Congress should earn minimum wage, or less. That may be true. However, even if Congress voted itself a pay cut today, the 27th says that change cannot take effect until January 3, 2019. That gives the voters a chance to vote them out of office.
Members have exactly the same pension as all other federal employees, and they do participate in Social Security. Their health insurance is through Obamacare, and they do pay into it. If Obamacare disappears, they’ll most likely return to the federal health care system. That’s right. Your Senators and representatives have the same benefits as your mail carrier, Veterans hospital nurses, national park rangers, and the janitors at your local federal building.
Members of Congress do not collect their full paychecks for life after serving only a single term. Like most pensions, it is financed through a combination of employee and employer contributions. Also, like private pensions, benefits are calculated through a formula that considers both length of service and retirement age. There is no pension for serving less than five years. Full benefits begin after 25 years of service. The starting amount of a federal employee’s annual pension may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary.
There is nothing more American than a lobbyist. The American founders wanted lobbyists. They expected them. Our own Declaration of Independence says:
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, …
Lobbying was so important to them that they enshrined it in the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the . . . right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We do not need fewer lobbyists. We need more of them. If the ninety-nine percent would do more lobbying, then the one percent would have less power. Thousands of bills are introduced in Congress every year. Only a few dozen become laws. Nothing moves unless someone pushes it.
CONTACT YOUR LEGISLATORS
While you probably won’t be paid for it, you can be a lobbyist, too. There are two simple steps:
So that’s it. Congress may be a mess, but it’s not a mystery.
For more information:
Read the Constitution
U.S. House of Representatives
Community Matters: Lobbying
The 115th Congress Opens for Business
Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting ~ Community Matters
P.O. Box 97803 ~ Pittsburgh, PA 15227 ~ 412-310-4886 ~ firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright Patricia A. O'Malley ~ All rights reserved