The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States of America, consisting of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both senators and representatives are chosen through direct election.
As provided by the United States Constitution, each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives represents a district and serves a two-year term. House seats are apportioned among the states by population.
The 100 Senators serve staggered six-year terms. Each state has two senators, regardless of population. Every two years, approximately one-third of the Senate is elected.
Article I of the Constitution vests all legislative power in the Congress. The House and Senate are equal partners in the legislative process (legislation cannot be enacted without the consent of both chambers); however, the Constitution grants each chamber some unique powers. The Senate is uniquely empowered to ratify treaties and to approve top presidential appointments. Revenue-raising bills must originate in the House of Representatives, which also has the sole power of impeachment, while the Senate has the sole power to try impeachment cases.
The Congress meets in the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC.
The Congress of the United States has its roots in the First Continental Congress, a meeting of representatives of twelve of the thirteen British Colonies in North America which two years later declared independence. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, referring to the new nation as the "United States of America".
Under the Articles of Confederation, which came into effect in 1781, the Congress of the Confederation was a unicameral body with equal representation among the states in which each state had a veto over most decisions. With no executive or judicial branch, and minimal authority given to the Congress, this government was weak compared to the states. The Congress of the Confederation had authority over foreign affairs and military matters, but not to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce, or enforce laws. States remained sovereign, and were thus free to ignore any legislation passed by Congress. This system of government led to economic troubles in the states and disputes among the states.
The ineffectiveness of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation led the Congress to summon the Convention of 1787. Originally intended to revise the Articles of Confederation, it instead wrote a completely new constitution. Virginia delegate James Madison called for a bicameral Congress in his Virginia Plan: the lower house elected directly by the people, and the upper house elected by the lower house. The smaller states, however, favored a unicameral Congress with equal representation for all states; William Paterson countered Madison's proposals with the New Jersey Plan. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the House of Representatives was to provide representation proportional by population, whereas the Senate would provide equal representation by states. In order to preserve further the authority of the states, it was provided that state legislatures, rather than the people, would elect senators.
The Constitution gave more powers to the federal government, such as regulating interstate commerce, managing foreign affairs and the military, and establishing a national currency. These were seen as essential for the success of the new nation and resolve the disputes that had arisen under the Articles of Confederation, but the states retained sovereignty over other affairs. To protect against abuse of power at the federal level, the Constitution mandated separation of powers, with responsibilities divided among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Furthermore, the legislative body would be bicameral, so there would be checks and balances. The Constitution was ratified by the end of 1788, and its full implementation was set for March 4, 1789.
The post-Civil War Gilded Age was marked by Republican dominance of the Congress. The Progressive Era saw the Seventeenth Amendment (ratified in 1913), which provided for the direct election of senators. The early 20th century witnessed the rise of strong party leadership in both houses of Congress. In the House of Representatives, the office of Speaker became extremely powerful. Leaders in the Senate were somewhat less powerful; individual senators still retained much of their influence. After the revolt against Speaker Joe Cannon in 1910, the seniority system emerged. Members became powerful chairmen through years of seniority, regardless of the leadership. Committee chairmen remained particularly strong in both houses until the reforms of the 1970s and 1990s.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election as President in 1932 marked a shift in power towards the presidency. Numerous New Deal initiatives were proposed from the White House and sent to Congress for approval, rather than legislation originating in Congress. After the Watergate scandal and other abuses of power by the Nixon administration, Congress began to reassert its power to oversee the executive branch and develop legislation.
During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45), the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress. The Republicans won control of both houses in the 1946 elections, only to lose them in 1948; with Dwight D. Eisenhower's election to the presidency in 1952, the Republicans again won both houses. However, after the Democratic Party again won back control in the elections of 1954, it was the majority party in both houses of Congress for most of the next 40 years; the Republicans were only able to win control of the Senate for a six-year period (1981–87). The Republicans won a majority position in both houses of Congress in the elections of 1994. The Republicans controlled both houses until 2006, except the Senate for most of 2001 and 2002, when the Democrats had the majority after Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent and caucus with the Democrats. In 2006, the Democratic Party regained control of the House of Representatives, and the results of the Senate elections yielded a Senate makeup of 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and two independents. In the 110th Congress (2007–08), the Democratic voting bloc had a 51-49 majority in the Senate because the two independents, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, aligned themselves with the Democratic Party. As of January 2009, the Democratic Party has the majority in both houses, with a Democratic president.