What does Congress do?
Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. It makes the laws needed to govern, determines which government agencies and programs will be created, and approves all funds spent by the government. Congress has specific powers: to collect taxes, raise armies, declare war, regulate commerce, and provide for the general welfare. It can also act more generally by passing any law necessary to execute the powers granted to it by the Constitution. Congress enacts legislation but cannot implement it. That's left to the executive branch. But Congress does retain oversight power and may investigate how the executive branch has administered the programs or laws Congress has approved.
What is a Congress?
Each two-year term of the U.S. Congress is called a Congress. Congresses are numbered consecutively from the 1st (1789-1791) to the current 113th Congress (2013-2015). A Congress always begins on January 3 of odd-numbered years and has two regular sessions, one each year beginning in January. A session of Congress may continue for the entire year, and bills under consideration remain alive from one session to the next. Bills that have not been approved by the close of the Congress die automatically.
How does a bill become law?
Most laws begin as similar proposals in both the House and Senate. In both chambers, once a bill is introduced, it is assigned to the appropriate committee (depending upon the subject matter) and then often (especially in the House) to a subcommittee. The subcommittee reviews the bill, may hold hearings and amend the bill, and finally may recommend approval of the new version by the full committee. If it concurs, the full committee sends (reports) the bill, with any additional amendments it votes, to the floor for debate and final vote. In the House, the bill first must pass through the Rules Committee before it goes to the floor. The House Rules Committee, which acts as a legislative gate keeper, decides whether or not to schedule the floor debate and imposes procedural rules for the House debate. In the Senate, the rules for debating a bill are set by a "unanimous consent agreement."
The House and Senate must approve the bill in identical form before sending it to the president, so any differences must be worked out in a conference committee. With the differences resolved, the president can then sign the bill, veto it, or pocket veto it. Once signed (or if the veto is overridden), the bill becomes a law. If the president does not sign or veto the bill within ten days while Congress is in session, the bill automatically becomes law. The enacted bill also may be called an act or, more formally, an act of Congress.
How does Congress adjourn?
Daily sessions of the House almost always end with adjournment, but for procedural reasons the Senate is more likely to recess, rather than adjourn. That continues the Senate's legislative day, which can go on for weeks until the chamber finally adjourns. Congress may adjourn briefly in mid-session for a holiday or vacation; this is called "adjournment to a day certain." To end a session of Congress, the House and Senate adjourn sine die, which is Latin for "without a day." Congress then meets next year on the day fixed for starting a new session, January 3, unless it establishes another day by law or the president calls it into special session.
What kinds of votes are there?
The Senate regularly votes in two ways: by voice vote and by roll-call vote. In a voice vote, the presiding officer calls first for yeas and then for nays, with senators shouting their responses. The presiding officer determines the outcome. A roll-call vote, used for important questions, involves reading senators' names one-by-one and recording their spoken votes.
House members may vote in four different ways: by voice vote and roll-call (as in the Senate), by "standing vote," and by "recorded vote." The quickest of the four is the voice vote. In a standing vote, or "division," members voting in favor stand and are counted, followed by those voting against. For important questions the House usually turns to a recorded vote. The House has an electronic voting system that automatically records the votes and displays them on a giant electronic board behind the Speaker's desk. Though the recorded vote is usually preferred because it is much faster, the House Speaker can ask for a roll-call vote instead. In both the House and Senate, a matter may also be passed by "unanimous consent," so long as no member raises objections to it.
What types of committees are there?
Congress has five types of committees -- standing committees, subcommittees, special or select committees, joint committees, and conference committees. House and Senatestanding committees are permanent committees that handle most of the legislative business. Each has a broad area of legislative responsibility -- for example, veterans' affairs or appropriations -- and the membership size varies. Most standing committees also have subcommittees, which in some cases, especially in the House, handle much of the actual legislative work.
The House and Senate also sometimes form select or special committees to investigate specific problems, such as drug abuse or the predicted year 2000 computer problem. These committees are usually temporary and generally cannot report legislation, though they may issue recommendations. (The House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees are exceptions, however; they are permanent). Joint committees usually are permanent and include members of both houses (chairmanships generally alternate between the House and Senate every two years). Issues handled by joint committees include taxation, the economy, the Government Printing Office, and the Library of Congress. Conference committees are a special kind of joint congressional committee formed to iron out differences in versions of the same bills passed by the House and Senate.
What are the special duties of the Senate?
While the Senate shares legislative powers with the House, the Constitution also assigned it other special duties as part of the system of checks and balances. For example, the Senate shares certain executive powers with the president -- confirmation of appointments, including both executive branch officials and judicial branch nominees, and ratification of treaties. In addition the Senate shares power in the impeachment process -- the House has the power to bring charges against an accused official, while the Senate conducts the trial for removal from office. Following presidential elections, both the Senate and the House count the electoral votes. If the vice presidential candidate fails to win an electoral majority, the Senate decides the winner; the House chooses the president if no candidate wins an electoral majority in that race.
What are the special duties of the House?
Although the House shares the power to legislate with the Senate, the Constitution gives it three special duties. The House (1) originates all revenue-raising bills, (2) initiates impeach proceedings against federal officials, and (3) chooses the president if no candidate wins a majority in the electoral college.
Adapted from Wetterau, Bruce, Desk Reference on American Government(2nd edition), Congressional Quarterly Press, 2000