For good or for bad, and like it or not, the US is a nation of laws. We have federal laws covering almost everything in our everyday lives. There are federal laws for how much income and other taxes we have to pay to the federal government; to protect the quality of our air and water; to punish those who commit crimes; and to make sure that our military veterans are cared for after they leave the service. The list is almost endless.
Where do all these laws come from? The main job of the Legislative Branch of the federal government is to write laws. And specifically to write laws that protect our basic, fundamental freedoms, like freedom of speech and religion, or to make sure that the all persons are treated equally and fairly, such as laws that bar employers from firing or refusing to hire people from certain racial or ethnic groups or women simply because of their race or gender.
This branch of the government has other jobs and powers, too. For example, it has the power to make or "coin" money, declare war and approve or disapprove of persons the President selects to hold certain offices.
The Legislative Branch is created by Article I of the US Constitution. Its main job is to write laws. It doesn't apply or interpret the laws (that job belongs to the Judicial Branch), and it doesn't enforce the laws (that's the job of the Executive Branch. This Branch is made up of two parts or "chambers," namely, the House of Representatives (the "House") and the Senate. Together, the House and the Senate are known as the Congress. The Constitution gives Congress all sorts of powers, such as the power to:
- Lay and collect taxes
- Make money and fix its value
- Create post offices
- Declare war, and to create and fund the branches of the US military
- Create courts that are lower than or "inferior to" the Supreme Court of the United States
The House of Representatives is the larger of the two parts of Congress. Right now, it's made up of 435 members who are known as "Representatives" or "Congressmen" or "Congresswomen." Each state has at least one Representative, but most have more than one. That's because each state is divided into areas, which are called "congressional districts." These districts are based upon the population of each state. The number of Representatives for any state is based upon number of districts in a state. So, a more populated state has more districts, and so more Representatives, than a less populated state.
In addition to the Representatives from each of the states, there are six other members who represent the District of Columbia and the US Territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands. These Representatives don't participate in any voting in the House.
Members of the House serve for two-year terms. So, every two years, the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election.
The House has some powers that the Senate doesn't:
- Only the House may "introduce" or begin making tax laws
- The House decides if high-ranking government officials, like the President, Vice President, and federal judges, should be "impeached," or removed from office for committing a crime against the US (called "treason") or some other serious crime
- In Presidential elections, if there's a tie or deadlock in the electoral college, the House decides who'll be President by holding a vote: Each state has one vote, regardless of how many Representatives a state may have. (The "electoral college" is made up of persons from each state (they're called "electors"), and they vote for the President and Vice President after the general election. Usually, the electors from each state cast their votes to match the popular vote of their state)
There are 100 Senators; each state has two, regardless of its population. Senators serve for six-year terms, and unlike the House, only one-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years.
The Senate has powers that the House doesn't:
- Any treaty written by the President must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate
- The President's nominations or appointments to high-ranking offices and positions, such as justices of the Supreme Court of the United States and other federal judges; the heads or leaders of various "executive" departments, such as the Department of the Treasury; and ambassadors, must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate
- Once the House decides that a government officer should be impeached for committing treason or some other high crime, only the Senate may hold a trial to determine if he will be removed from office
Congress' biggest, most important job and power is making laws. When laws are made, both chambers have to work together. Making a law is a multi-step and often complicated process, but in simplified terms:
- One or more Representatives or Senators writes a new law, called a "bill"
- Both the Senate and House talk about or "debate" the bill, with each side usually offering changes or "amendments"
- After both the House and Senate agree on what the bill should contain, each chamber votes on it
- If the bill passes the vote in both the House and the Senate, it's sent to the President. The President may either: (1) Sign it, in which case the bill becomes a law; (2) Reject or "veto" it, in which case the bill "dies" and doesn't become a law, or; (3) Do nothing at all, which in most cases means that the bill will become a law 10 days after it was sent to him
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have an idea for a new law that will help protect the lives of a lot of US citizens. Can I write it myself, or do I need your help? What's the best way to tell the Representatives and Senators of my state about my proposed law?
- Why can't Congress make one law for the entire country about driving while intoxicated or "drunk driving?"
- I don't agree with the philosophies of the person the President has nominated to be a judge of a federal court in my state. How can I challenge or protest this appointment?