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Legislative Branch of Government: Definition, Power & Function

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

Define the legislative branch of government, understand the various powers that the branch possesses, and learn about its important function in creating legislation in this lesson.

Federal and State Legislative Branches

The legislative branch is one of three divisions of government that works in conjunction with the executive and judicial branches. Its main responsibility is the creation of laws. The United States Constitution outlines the powers of the legislative branch, Congress, which is divided into two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Every state within the country has a legislative branch, which acts in a similar fashion to the federal legislative branch. Article I of the Constitution outlines the federal legislative branch.

The House of Representatives has 435 members from all 50 states. Each state's population decides how many members in the House it will receive. Members of the House serve for a two-year term and must be at least 25 years old. The Senate has 100 members with each state electing two senators apiece. Each member of the Senate must be at least 30 years old.

Each of the 50 states also has legislative branches that create legislation and consider legislation introduced by the state's governor. Forty-nine states have a bicameral (two-house) legislature that is similar to the federal legislature. All of these states refer to their upper house as the Senate, while some states refer to their lower house as either the House of Representatives or the Assembly. Nebraska is the only state that has a unicameral (one-house) legislature.

Power of the Legislative Branch

The legislative branch, including both the House and the Senate, is given extensive powers by the Constitution. The legislative branch is the only branch that can create laws or change existing laws. Once a bill is passed through the legislative branch, the president must sign the bill in order for it to become a law. The executive branch does have an important check on the legislative branch when the president vetoes a law. However, the legislative branch can override the president's veto if both houses agree to do so with a two-thirds vote by all of its members.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution specifically lists the powers of the legislative branch. These listed powers include the power to tax, borrow money, to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states, to establish rules for the naturalization of foreigners seeking citizenship, to establish a post office, to raise and maintain an army and navy, and to declare war.

Clause 18 of this important section gives the legislative branch the power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper, and to carry out the enumerated powers (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 18). This necessary and proper clause, also known as the elastic clause, allows the legislative branch to remain flexible and adjust with the circumstances that changing times require.

In addition to specially listing the powers of the legislative branch, Section I, Article 9 of the Constitution details the powers that are denied to Congress. Some of these include the inability to suspend habeas corpus (due process rights) unless there is a rebellion or invasion, and no passage of an ex post facto law, which makes individuals subject to prosecution for committing an act before that act was deemed illegal. Also, no taxes can be levied on exports from a state, no preferential treatment can be given to one state over another in terms of commerce, and no titles of nobility can be granted.

The Constitution also grants the legislative branch the power to create an annual budget for the federal government. With this budgetary power, which is facilitated through the collection of taxes and tariffs, the legislative branch can also specifically direct how federal monies should be spent. Also, the House and the Senate can investigate possible wrongdoings within the federal government. This power includes the right to subpoena individuals to appear before Congress and offer testimony under oath to further an investigation.

The House can impeach a federal official, including the president or a justice of the Supreme Court, which means to bring charges of possible wrong-doing. Once an official is impeached, a trial is conducted within the Senate which decides if the individual is innocent or guilty. The Senate also has the power to ratify (approve) treaties negotiated by the executive branch.

Functions of the Legislative Branch

The most important function of the legislative branch is its lawmaking authority. In order for a law to be created, a bill must be introduced by either a member of the House or Senate. Once introduced, the bill is brought to a committee for review. The Senate has 17 committees, including 70 subcommittees, while the House has 23 committees and 104 subcommittees. Each committee is organized around a specific policy function. A bill is first reviewed in a subcommittee where it can be accepted, amended, or rejected. Once accepted, the bill then goes to the full committee where it can again be accepted, amended, or rejected.

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