U.S. Congress Research Paper

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The principal features of the U.S. Congress affecting its operation and outputs are the elements of its institutional structure, including its size, the manner in which its members are elected, its leadership offices, and the role of political parties. The outputs of Congress are significant because one of the main functions of Congress is to translate citizens’ preferences and needs into government policies. Because Congress does not make decisions in isolation, its interactions with other branches of government also affect its functions.

Institutional Structure

Article 1, section 1 of the United States Constitution invests all legislative powers in a bicameral (two-house) Congress consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate. The Constitution further provides that each state will have at least one member in the House of Representatives and two senators.

The House of Representatives contains 435 seats in accordance with federal legislation. Its size has not changed since the 1910 census reapportionment, the process by which the remaining 385 House seats are divided on the basis of state population after each state is allotted its constitutionally guaranteed representative. According to the Constitution, candidates for the House must be at least twenty-five years old, have been a citizen of the United States for seven years, and be a resident of the state (but not district) in which they seek election. House members are elected every two years in single-member (one member per district), plurality (first past the post) legislative districts in elections that must take place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years. As a result, every four years members of the House are elected on the day of a presidential election. House districts must be geographically compact and contiguous, have roughly equal population, and be racially fair.

The United States Senate is composed of 100 seats, with two senators elected from each of the fifty states regardless of state size or population. From 1789 to 1913 senators were elected by state legislatures. Senators currently are elected directly by citizens within states in accordance with the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. A senator must be at least thirty years old, have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and be a resident of the state in which he or she is elected.

Congress uses a system of committees to organize itself. In the first Congresses, the body relied on ad hoc rather than standing committees, in which membership and policy jurisdiction are stable. In the early 1800s the failures of the ad hoc, or select, committee system resulted in a gradual expansion of the standing committee system, although its emergence was slower in the Senate than in the House. Major reductions of the number of committees in both chambers took place in the 1920s and 1940s. The majority party has usually held more seats than the minority on each standing committee. For more than a century, the parties have relied on a seniority rule to determine the chairs of committees.

In the early Congress, formal leadership of each chamber was minimal. There was frequent turnover of the House Speakership and only weak leadership in the Senate. During this period, first the floor and then the increasingly common standing committees often challenged party leaders for control. After the Civil War, polarization of the parties facilitated greater influence by their leaders. However, a lack of cohesion within the Democratic Party in particular, due to the distinctiveness of southern Democrats from the early 1900s to the 1960s, meant that committees, rather than party leaders, were used to organize authority in Congress. In the post-reform Congress (1974 to the present), the parties have become more internally homogenous and differentiated, leading to greater assertiveness among party leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999. The components of the parties’ leadership structures include (if in the majority) the Speakership in the House and the president of the Senate, and for both parties the majority/minority leader and whip. Each party also maintains a caucus/conference committee, a policy committee, a committee to allocate committee seats, and a campaign committee charged to maximize the party’s seats.


A member of Congress’s (MC) career is influenced by different goals, including crafting effective legislation and turning personal political preferences into public policy, maximizing his or her influence within the legislature, career ambition, and securing reelection. A week spent meeting with concerned lobbyists and raising campaign funds in Washington is usually followed by a weekend back home with one’s constituents, listening to their specific needs and ensuring that the MC is not viewed as “out of touch.”

The nature of congressional elections differs by chamber. House elections tend not to be competitive, with roughly 95 percent or more of incumbents who choose to stand for reelection retaining their office. In contrast, the Senate is more competitive, and Senate seats are much less likely to go unopposed. The cost of a congressional election is enormous and growing, with a majority of campaign expenditures used to purchase advertisements on television. Accordingly, MCs spend much of their time raising money for their next campaign from both political action committees and individual constituents, and potential challengers must prove they can raise the campaign funds necessary to be considered viable candidates. Much of federal campaign finance law is laid out in the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971. A Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo (1976), upheld FECA’s contribution limits and reporting requirements but struck down restrictions on expenditures by candidates and independent political groups.

To be reelected, MCs must closely monitor their constituents’ attitudes. They must also attempt to appeal both to their primary constituency, or the subset of constituents who will participate in their party’s primary, and their geographic constituency, or the citizens eligible to vote in the general election. Representation of constituents’ interests includes casework, bill sponsorship, committee selection and effort, making speeches on the floor, and roll-call voting. Empirical work has shown that MCs’ roll-call votes tend to match closely the preferences of their district, and those MCs who deviate too far from their constituents receive fewer votes and are less likely to be reelected. In addition, MCs who represent competitive districts and homogenous districts tend to be more responsive to constituents. Senators are more responsive to constituents in the final two years of their six-year terms than in the first four years. Finally, retiring legislators appear to be somewhat less responsive to constituents’ interests.

Congress and the President

The relationship between Congress and the president is defined by constituencies and political parties. Each member of Congress must keep the interests of his or her district in mind when taking positions on legislation. The president’s constituency, by contrast, encompasses the entire nation. The political and legislative priorities of the president are thus likely to be different from those of individual members of Congress, even those members within the president’s own party.

Political parties also shape the relationship between the president and the Congress. If the president is affiliated with the majority party in Congress, in particular both of its chambers, the agendas of the president and congressional leadership are more likely to be similar, and opportunities for crafting and passing legislation are greater. If the president is affiliated with the minority party in Congress—a situation known as divided government—these opportunities may be fewer. However, the president may choose to bypass the legislative process in Congress through the use of direct action such as executive orders, which bear the force of law but are not approved by the Congress, or through the threatened or actual use of the presidential veto.


  1. Fenno, Richard F., Jr. 1973. Congressmen in Committees. Boston: Little Brown.
  2. Mayhew, David. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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