About the Legislative Branch of U.S. Government

Establishing the Laws of the Land

Woman walks on fountain near U.S. Capitol
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Every society needs laws and in the United States, the power to make laws is given to Congress, which represents the legislative branch of government.

The Source of Laws

The legislative branch is one of three branches of the U.S. government—the executive and judicial are the other two—and it is the one charged with creating the laws that hold our society together. Article I of the Constitution established Congress, the collective legislative body made up of the Senate and the House.

The primary function of these two bodies is to write, debate and pass bills and to send them on to the president for his approval or veto. If the president gives his approval to a bill, it immediately becomes law. However, if the president vetoes the bill, Congress is not without recourse. With a two-thirds majority in both houses, Congress may override the presidential veto.

Congress may also rewrite a bill in order to win presidential approval; vetoed legislation is sent back to the chamber where it originated for reworking. Conversely, if a president receives a bill and does nothing within 10 days while Congress is in session, the bill automatically becomes law.

Investigative Duties

Congress can also investigate pressing national issues and it is charged with supervising and providing a balance to the presidential and judicial branches as well. It has the authority to declare war; in addition, it has the power to coin money and is charged with regulating interstate and foreign commerce and trade. Congress also is responsible for maintaining the military, though the president serves as its commander in chief.

Founded in 1921, as the General Accounting Office, the investigative Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits all budgets and financial statements sent to Congress by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Today, the GAO audits and generates reports on every aspect of the government, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent effectively and efficiently.

Government Oversight

Another important function of the legislative branch is oversight of the executive branch. Essential to the doctrine of checks and balances envisioned by the nation’s Founders and implemented by the Constitution, congressional oversight allows an important check on the president’s power and a balance against his discretion in implementing laws and making regulations.

One of the main ways Congress conducts oversight of the executive branch is through hearings. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs are both devoted to overseeing and reforming government operations, and each committee conducts oversight in its policy area.

For example, in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol, the House of Representatives established a 13-member bipartisan Select Committee to “investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes” relating to the attack. Specifically, the committee was tasked to investigate “the interference with the peaceful transfer of power” by “ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition.”

The Executive Branch also polices itself: Sixty-four Inspectors General, each responsible for a different agency, regularly audit and report on the agencies to which they are attached.

Why Two Houses of Congress?

In order to balance the concerns of smaller but more populated states against those of larger but more sparsely populated ones, the framers of the Constitution formed two disparate chambers

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is made up of 435 elected members, divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population according to the system of apportionment based on the latest U.S. Census. The House also has six non-voting members, or “delegates,” representing the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and four other territories of the United States. The Speaker of the House, elected by the members, presides over meetings of the House and is third in the line of presidential succession.

Members of the House, referred to a U.S. Representatives, are elected for two-year terms, must be at least 25 years old, U.S. citizens for at least seven years, and residents of the state from which they are elected to represent.

The Senate

The Senate is made up of 100 Senators, two from each state. Before the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, the Senators were chosen by the state legislatures, rather than the people. Today, Senators are elected to by the people of each state to six-year terms. The terms of the Senators are staggered so that about one-third of the Senators must run for reelection every two years. Senators must be 30 years old, U.S. citizens for at least nine years, and residents of the state they represent. The Vice President of the United States presides over the Senate and has the right to vote on bills in the event of a tie. 

Unique Duties and Powers

Each house has some specific duties as well. The House can initiate laws that require people to pay taxes and can decide whether public officials should be tried if accused of a crime. Representatives are elected to two-year terms.

The Senate can confirm or reject any treaties the president establishes with other nations and is also responsible for confirming presidential appointments of Cabinet members, federal judges, and foreign ambassadors. The Senate also tries any federal official accused of a crime after the House votes to impeach that official. The House also has the power elect the president in the case of an electoral college tie.

Legislative Branch and Political Parties

In addition to the House of Representatives and the Senate, the legislative branch includes several legislative agencies that support Congress in carrying out its duties. Among these agencies are the Congressional Budget Office, the Copyright Office, and the Library of Congress.

While the Constitution does not mention politics or political parties, they have grown into one of the fundamental institutions of modern U.S. government. Since the 1830s, the two dominant political parties in the United States have been the Republicans and the Democrats. In both chambers of Congress, there is a majority party and a minority party based on which party holds the most seats.

In addition to the Speaker of the House, who is the leader of the majority party, there is also a majority leader and a minority leader. Both majority and minority parties choose representatives to serve as “whips,” who count probable votes on pending legislation and negotiate between party leadership and regular members of Congress in an effort to achieve bipartisan agreement on major bills.

Updated by Robert Longley 

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Trethan, Phaedra. "About the Legislative Branch of U.S. Government." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-legislative-branch-of-us-government-3322299. Trethan, Phaedra. (2023, April 5). About the Legislative Branch of U.S. Government. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-legislative-branch-of-us-government-3322299 Trethan, Phaedra. "About the Legislative Branch of U.S. Government." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-legislative-branch-of-us-government-3322299 (accessed May 30, 2023).