Congress of the United States

Responsibilities of Congress

The most important responsibility of Congress is that of making the laws of the United States. In both houses the work of preparing and considering legislation is done by standing committees, and in addition there are special committees in each house as well as joint committees with bicameral membership. The two houses have an equal voice in legislation, but revenue bills must originate in the House of Representatives. Bills, after having been passed by each house separately, must be signed by the president of the United States within 10 days of their submission, or they become law automatically, unless Congress is not in session. If vetoed by the president, a bill may become law only by its repassage by a two-thirds majority in each house. The Constitution requires a regular annual meeting of Congress, which, since the passage of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, begins on Jan. 3 each year. The president may call an extra session of Congress or of either house. The proceedings of each house are recorded in the Congressional Record.

Only the House of Representatives may impeach the president or other federal officers and the Senate alone has the authority to try impeachments, but each house is the judge of the qualifications of its own members. The Senate must ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote and confirm important presidential appointments to office, including cabinet members, judges of federal courts, and high-ranking officers of the armed forces. Because of this and because it is the smaller body and its members enjoy longer terms of office and virtually unlimited debate, the Senate is regarded as the more powerful of the two houses.

Congress, as a whole, reached the zenith of its power during Reconstruction. Throughout its history many critics have charged that Congress operates under antiquated machinery and processes that are inadequate. Procedural reforms proposed have included the adoption of a rule of relevancy in Senate debate, employing joint hearings on similar bills, liberalizing the methods by which a bill may be discharged from committee for consideration, and abolishing seniority as the basis for committee chairmanships.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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