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Congress of the United States

Congress of the United States, legislative branch of the U.S. federal government. Congress consists of 2 houses: the Senate, composed of 2 members from each state, and the House of Representatives, in which seats are appointed to the states on the basis of population. House membership, which was 65 in 1789, has grown with the nation's population but is now permanently fixed at 435. Membership is in proportion to state population as determined every 10 years by the census, but every state has at least 1 representative. Each member of the House now represents about 470,000 people. The state legislatures have responsibility for drawing the boundaries of congressional districts, but in 1964 the Supreme Court intervened to order that congressional districts within each state be “substantially equal” in population. The whole House is elected every 2 years.

The Constitution grants the House special powers in 3 areas: impeaching federal officials (who are then tried by the Senate), originating all revenue bills, and electing the president if no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College. The House is not a continuing body; it must organize itself anew when it meets for the first time in January following the election. The clerk of the House conducts the election of the speaker, who then takes office, swears in the other House members, and conducts the election of the other officers. The House adopts the rules of the new session, makes committee assignments, and begins work on a new round of legislation. The speaker is one of the most powerful figures in government, exercising an important influence over the course of legislation.

The U.S. Senate is composed of 100 members, 2 from each state. Since the Senate was created to represent the interests of the states, senators were elected by the state legislatures, rather than by popular vote, until 1913. The Senate is a continuing body; its members serve 6-year terms and only one- third of them are elected every 2 years. If a senator dies in office, the governor of the state names a replacement to serve until the next election. The Senate's advice and consent is necessary for appointments of all important government officials, including ambassadors and federal judges. The Senate also approves treaties, and the Foreign Relations Committee has become one of the most active in Congress, playing an important part in the conduct of foreign affairs. Since senators also represent much larger constituencies than do representatives, national and international issues generally play a larger role in Senate elections than in House contests. The Constitution provides that the vice-president shall preside over the Senate (he often delegates this duty to a senator), but the majority leader is usually the most powerful individual in the Senate. The Senate, being a smaller body than the House, allows much freer and more extensive debate, and many senators can attain considerable national stature.

For a bill (a proposed piece of legislation) to become law, the House and Senate must separately approve an identical text, which the president then must sign. If the latter vetoes (disapproves) a bill, Congress may repass it by two-thirds majority in each house. If the Senate and House versions of a bill differ, a committee is created to resolve the differences through compromise, and both houses vote on the new bill. Occasionally the House and Senate cannot agree, and the bill dies. Debate in the House is severely restricted because of the size of the body, but in the Senate, members may talk indefinitely and thus kill a bill unless cloture (closure of debate) is invoked by a two-thirds vote. Either house may separately pass a resolution on any subject, but such a resolution is not binding on the other house or on the president.

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21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia - Clyde to Constable, John