Andrew Clem home

United States
Congress
Principal functions,
leadership, modern chronology


Capitol east.

Overview

The United States Congress was originally intended by the Framers of the Constitution to be the most important of the three branches of government. During the 20th Century, however, the Executive and Judicial Branches steadily encroached upon the legislative "turf" of Capitol Hill. The relative power of Congress has waxed and waned in a cyclical fashion over the years, generally receding in times of war, when strong presidential authority is expected. The bicameral structure of Congress-- the House of Representatives vs. the Senate -- was a clear example of the desire by the Founding Fathers to restrain the exercise of government power, so as to preserve liberty. Those who express frustration at the slow pace of congressional work often forget this basic point. The U.S. government was not supposed to be "efficient."

Principal functions

Lawmaking: Congress may pass laws, subject to the limits set forth in the Constitution.

Budget: Both chambers have responsibilities for deciding on taxing and spending issues. The House plays a special role, inasmuch as all taxing bills must originate in the House.

Representation: Both chambers, and especially the House, serve to voice the concerns and wants of their constituents. If voters are pleased with what their legislators do in Washington, they are more likely to be reelected, and vice versa.

Advice and Consent: The U.S. Senate plays a special "Advice and Consent" role, having the power to confirm or reject presidential appointees for Cabinet posts (department secretaries, etc.), judgeships, ambassadors, and heads of other key Executive Branch agencies. The Senate also has the power to ratify or reject foreign treaties.

Oversight: Congressional committees can hold hearings to inquire into how Executive branch agencies are performing their duties.

Constituent service: Members of Congress try to help individual constituents get government services, cutting bureaucratic red tape, etc.

Organization

Leaders of each chamber for the subsequent two-year term are selected during the "lame-duck" session that follows each congressional election. In the Senate, the Majority Leader is in charge of floor proceedings, although there is greater flexibility with regard to procedure compared to the House. The Speaker of the House exercises strong control over the agenda. Both chambers delegate much of their work to various committees, but committees play an especially large role on the House side.

Current status

The Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 elections, and gained several seats in the Senate but fell short of a majority. An unusally sharp partisan divide, accompanied by increasing ideological polarization, has made it very difficult for Congress to reach agreement on the budget, debt ceiling, confirmation of presidential appointees, etc. The 2012 election left that situation unchanged, with a divided Congress and a Democratic president (Obama) who was reelected. The Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate.

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DID YOU KNOW?
The number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives was permanently capped at 435 by an Act of Congress in 1912.

U.S. House of Representatives, party control

| | |
Term         | Democrats | | Republicans
1971-1972 Carl Albert255 180
1973-1974 Carl Albert242+1 192
1975-1976 Carl Albert291 144
1977-1978 Tip O'Neill292 143
1979-1980 Tip O'Neill277 158
1981-1982 Tip O'Neill242+1 192
1983-1984 Tip O'Neill269 166
1985-1986 Tip O'Neill253 182
1987-1988 Jim Wright258 177
1989-1990 Tom Foley260 175
1991-1992 Tom Foley267 167
1993-1994 Tom Foley258 176
1995-1996 204 230Newt Gingrich
1997-1998 207 227Newt Gingrich
1999-2000 211 223Dennis Hastert
2001-2002 212 221Dennis Hastert
2003-2004 205 229Dennis Hastert
2005-2006 202 232Dennis Hastert
2007-2008 Nancy Pelosi244 191
2009-2010 Nancy Pelosi255 180
2011-2012 195 240John Boehner
2013-2014 201 234John Boehner
2015-2016 188 247John Boehner / Paul Ryan **
2017-2018 193 2 240Paul Ryan

SOURCES: The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2012; Washington Post; www.politico.com
** NOTE: John Boehner resigned as speaker of the house in October 2015, and was replaced by Paul Ryan, who remains in that position.
As of Jan. 24, 2017, 2 seats are vacant.


DID YOU KNOW?
The United States Senate considers itself "the greatest deliberative body in the world." The British House of Commons might beg to differ, however.

U.S. Senate, party control


| | |
Term         | Democrats | | Republicans
1971-1972 Mike Mansfield54+2 44
1973-1974 Mike Mansfield56+2 42
1975-1976 Mike Mansfield60+2 38
1977-1978 Robert Byrd61+1 38
1979-1980 Robert Byrd58+1 41
1981-1982 46+1 53Howard Baker
1983-1984 46 54Howard Baker
1985-1986 47 53Bob Dole
1987-1988 Robert Byrd55 45
1989-1990 George Mitchell55 45
1991-1992 George Mitchell56 44
1993-1994 George Mitchell57 43
1995-1996 48 52Bob Dole
1997-1998 45 55Trent Lott
1999-2000 45 55Trent Lott
2001-2002 Tom Daschle51* 49
2003-2004 49 51Bill Frist
2005-2006 44+1 55Bill Frist
2007-2008 Harry Reid50+1 49
2009-2010 Harry Reid57+2 41
2011-2012 Harry Reid51+2 47
2013-2014 Harry Reid53+2 45
2015-2016 44+2 54Mitch McConnell
2017-2018 46+2 52Mitch McConnell

SOURCES: The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2012; Washington Post; www.politico.com
* In 2001, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords switched parties, giving Democrats control of that chamber.
Since 2005, one or two independents have caucused with the Democrats, hence "+1" and "+2". The Louisiana Senate seat currently held by David Vitter will be decided in a runoff election in December.