Guide: United States Congress
Updated: Aug 18
Whilst the recent US elections received significant media attention in the UK, headline writers primarily focused on the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. However, the battle to become president was far from the only choice on the ballot.
Among a vast array of candidates vying for election to local and state-wide political office, America’s voters had the chance to elect their representatives to Congress. Yet with limited media focus on these ‘congressional’ elections, many people are left somewhat confused as to what Congress is.
To help you better understand this important feature of US politics, here is a simple guide explaining the workings and importance of the United States Congress.
So, what actually is Congress?
Congress is the legislative branch of the US government, meaning that it is effectively the American version of the UK Parliament. Like its British equivalent, the US Congress is known as a ‘bicameral legislature’ since it consists of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives.
In total, Congress has 535 members divided between these two chambers. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are based within the United States Capitol Building, located in Washington D.C.
The Senate and the House of Representatives: A Tale of Two Chambers
There are 100 members of the Senate, with two Senators representing each state regardless of its size or population. Senators are directly elected and serve six-year terms; a third of Senate seats are up for re-election each election year. The Senate is the upper chamber of Congress – like an elected version of the British House of Lords. The vice president acts as the Senate speaker and casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie. A simple majority of 51 results in a party controlling the Senate.
The House of Representatives has 435 members, each representing a specific ‘congressional district’ within a state. The more populous a state is, the more Representatives it has; California is allocated 53 Representatives, while Wyoming has only one. Representatives are also directly elected by the people, but are elected every two years. The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of Congress – like the UK House of Commons. The chamber elects its own Speaker who usually comes from the majority party in the chamber. A majority of 218 Representatives will result in a party controlling the House.
Powers of Congress
As the legislative branch of government, the main role of Congress is to make and pass laws. For a bill to become law, it must be passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. This can prove difficult when the two chambers are controlled by different parties.
In addition to passing laws, Congress has several further powers. For example, Congress can:
Confirm judicial and presidential appointments
Impeach a President
Approve or reject international treaties
'Control the purse strings' by managing federal budgets
Each of Congress’ two chambers wield specific powers which the other does not possess. Most importantly, only the House of Representatives can initiate ‘revenue bills’ (those which set taxes), and it is the sole chamber which can start the impeachment process. Similarly, the Senate possesses the exclusive power to confirm or reject presidential nominations, and it decides whether a president is guilty of impeachment accusations.
Congress and the President
The US system of government is based on the principle of ‘checks and balances’. This means that each of the three branches of government (the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary) constrain each other to ensure that no single branch becomes too powerful.
Significantly, Congress (the legislature) acts as a balance to presidential power through its power to impeach the president (the executive), as well as its ability to control budgets. Similarly, no bill can be enacted into law without the approval of both chambers of Congress.
In turn, the president balances Congressional power through executive orders and vetoes:
Executive orders made by the President are used to instruct the federal government on what they must do, and approval from Congress is not required. Executive orders are especially useful when Congress refuses to pass bills supported by the presidency, which often occurs when these two branches of government are controlled by different political parties.
The president also possesses has the power to veto legislation if they disagree with bills passed by Congress. In this case, the President may return a bill to Congress unsigned, along with a request that it is reconsidered. Although the presidential veto is a powerful tool, Congress can override it with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.
Party composition of Congress after 2020
The successful candidates in the 2020 Congressional election will take their seats in Washington on 3rd January. In the Senate, Republicans will take 50 of the 100 seats, with the Democrats holding 46. There will also be two Democrat-supporting independents, whilst two seats are still undecided. The Democrats will remain the majority party in the House with 222 seats compared to 211 for Republicans, whilst two more are undecided.
Currently, all eyes are on Georgia’s upcoming Senate run-off elections since no candidate in these races managed to secure a majority of votes in November. These run-off elections are pivotal to the balance of the Senate. If both Democrat challengers emerge successful, the chamber will be split evenly; if the Republican incumbents hold their seats, the party will maintain its Senate majority. Support from the Senate will be crucial for the Biden presidency’s hopes of delivering their policy promises.
Why Congress matters…
As we have seen, presidential elections often overshadow the race for congressional control. Nevertheless, Congress plays an essential part in American government and wields great power. Congress performs a number of different roles, from passing laws to declaring war and curtailing presidential power. Of course, it is important for political parties to focus on securing the presidency but, without controlling Congress, the best they can hope for is cooperation and compromise on delivering their policy promises.
For more guides and resources following the election, head to our dedicated US Politics section.