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A Legislative Branch Overview for Students

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 1/4/2012

What is the legislative branch of our government? What two convening chambers form this branch, and what qualifications are required of members? What powers does each body have separately and together? Learn the answers to these questions and more when you read the following informative article.

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    What is the Legislative Branch of our Government?

    The Legislative Branch of the United States is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, which together are referred to as Congress. This branch was established by Article I of the Constitution. As granted in the Constitution, only Congress can pass legislation, declare war, confirm or reject Presidential appointments, and investigative legal matters.

    The House of Representatives consists of 435 members. Members are elected from the 50 states based on a state’s total population. Six non-voting members represent Washington DC, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and four other United States’ territories. The Speaker of the House presides over the House and is elected by the Representatives. After the Vice President, the Speaker succeeds the Presidency. Representatives are elected every two years and must be 25 years old and a United States’ citizen for at least seven years. House members must be a resident of the state they serve, but they are not required to live in the district.

    One hundred Senators comprise the Senate. Each state elects two Senators to six-year terms. Since Senate terms are staggered, approximately one-third of Senators face re-election every two years. Senators must be 30 years old, citizens of this country for at least nine years, and residents of the state they represent. The President of the Senate is the Vice President of the United States and casts the deciding votes in a Senate tie.

    The exclusive powers of the House of Representatives include initiating revenue bills, impeaching national officials, and electing the President if a tie occurs in the Electoral College. Exclusive powers of the Senate are confirming Presidential appointments that require consent, and ratifying treaties. The House must also confirm appointments to the Vice Presidency, however, and any foreign trade treaties. Representatives additionally refer federal officials that the Senate tries in impeachment cases.

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    How Does a Bill Become a Law?

    Now that you know what the legislative branch of our government is, let’s look at the legislative process. Although anyone can write legislation, only Congressional members can introduce a bill. After a bill is introduced, it is sent to an appropriate subcommittee, reviewed, and either accepted, amended, or rejected. If a subcommittee agrees to push it forward, the bill is then considered by the full committee. Subcommittees and committees can hold hearings throughout the legislative process and listen to testimony from experts in favor of the bill and from those who oppose it. Congress can subpoena people to testify, when necessary.

    If the bill receives approval from the full committee, then it is reported to the House or Senate floor. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader decide when to put the bill on the legislative calendar. The bill may be considered immediately if the matter is urgent; or it may not be scheduled for months, if at all.

    Both the House and the Senate debate during this process. Each House member who wants to speak only has a few minutes, and this time depends on the number and type of amendments. Debate time in the Senate, however, is unlimited. Senators may speak about other legislation under consideration or use this time to delay a vote on a bill by refusing to back down. This is called a filibuster, and it can be broken if 60 Senators invoke cloture, or the stopping of debate, and force a vote on the bill. The bill passes with the votes of a simple majority.

    Before the President receives a bill for consideration, it must pass both the House and the Senate. Although the two bills should read exactly the same, as specified in the Constitution, a Conference Committee usually meets to achieve this goal. The committee, made up of both House and Senate members, finalizes a conference report. This final version of the bill is then voted on again in each chamber. If the bill first came from the House, the final bill is enrolled by the Clerk of the House (or if it came from the Senate, the Secretary of the Senate), then given to the House Speaker and the President of the Senate to sign.

    Finally, the bill is sent to the President, who can either sign it into law or veto it. With a veto, the bill is sent back to Congress, which can override the veto with a two-thirds vote of each chamber and pass it into law. A bill can also become law if Congress is in session and the President does not take action within 10 days. A bill dies if a pocket veto occurs, or when Congress adjourns before 10 days pass and the President does not take action. If Congress wants to pass the bill, the process must begin again.

References

  • “The Legislative Branch.” The White House, Web. 23 September 2010.
  • “GOVERNMENT 101: How a Bill Becomes Law.” Project Vote Smart, Web. 23 September 2010.

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