About the Legislative Branch of US Government

Establishing the Laws of the Land

Woman walks on fountain near U.S. Capitol
Woman Walks on Fountain Near U.S. Capitol. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Every society needs laws. 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.

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 Senate has 100 members, with each state allowed two representatives, regardless of size or population. The House of Representatives currently has 435 members, with each state's representation dependent upon its population. Each member of the House represents a specific geographic district within the state, while senators represent their whole state.

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. Senators are elected to six-year terms. The vice president presides over the Senate and has the right to cast his vote in the event of a tie.

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer who also works as a copy editor for the Camden Courier-Post. She formerly worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about books, religion, sports, music, films and restaurants.