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What is Congress? - Definition, Powers & Structure

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  • 0:02 What Is Congress?
  • 0:18 Structure
  • 1:25 Procedures
  • 2:04 Powers
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will review what the United States Congress is. We will take a closer look at the makeup of Congress, what its powers are and what it represents.

What Is Congress?

The United States Congress is the national federal legislative body of the United States of America. The main job of Congress is to make the laws for the United States that affect our everyday lives and protect our rights.

Structure

The House of Representatives and the Senate are the two houses that make up the body of Congress. The House of Representatives has 435 members, and the Senate has 100 members. All members earn their seat by direct vote from the citizens on Election Day. Both of these houses meet in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Each state elects two senators to the Senate and at least one representative to the House of Representatives. A state may elect more than one representative depending on the population of the state.

The brunt of the writing and work that these two houses do is passed on to different committees, or groups of legislators that are divided into specialized areas. The committee will have a project assigned to it, will do the research and work, and then report back to the main body. The two houses also have a library at their disposal and a significant number of various staff members to assist them in their day-to-day activities.

Procedures

A term of Congress is divided into two separate sessions, one for each year that the Congress is serving. Sessions are the time that the Congress meets all together to work. Each house meets with its own members in order to work on bills, which are new potential legislation or resolutions. There are times in which the two bodies meet together and these are called joint sessions. Joint sessions are mainly scheduled for counting electoral votes after an election for a new president of the United States or during the president's State of the Union Address to the nation.

Powers

Article 1 of the United States Constitution states, 'All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.' Each house has different powers but legislation, or laws, cannot be passed without the consent of both houses.

There are three ways in which Congress retains powers. First, there are powers that Congress maintains that were specifically written into the Constitution. Second, there are powers that have been granted to Congress after the Constitution was created by way of amendments to the Constitution. Lastly, there are powers that are implied by different clauses in the Constitution.

The enumerated powers are specifically given to Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. These powers include the ability to lay and collect taxes from the American people. These powers also include the power to borrow money on behalf of the United States, to regulate commerce, to raise and support an army and a military, to establish post offices and to create and print money. These powers are exclusive to the legislative body of Congress.

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