Article I of the Constitution establishes Congress as the legislative branch of government with broad powers to provide for the “common defense and general welfare of the United States,” along with specific powers in important areas of domestic and foreign affairs.
The framers provided for a bicameral legislative branch with equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation based on state population in the House. The two bodies differ in a number of important ways that influence the way that they operate. The House is a more formal institution, where hierarchy and seniority are important factors. The Senate, as a smaller, more intimate body, is less bound by formal rules than the House. Senators typically garner more media attention than House members because they serve statewide constituencies and serve longer terms of office.
Political parties are central to the organizational structure of Congress. Parties provide a measure of discipline that helps the House and Senate to function more efficiently. Members who switch parties often lose the benefits of seniority, such as committee chair positions, and face an uncertain future when they seek reelection.
An extensive leadership structure provides an organizational framework that helps House members work effectively if not efficiently. At the top of the leadership hierarchy is the Speaker of the House, who is the body’s presiding officer. Majority and minority leaders help set their party’s agenda on issues. The whips encourage party unity on House votes.
The Senate leadership consists of the presiding officer, majority leader, minority leader, and whips. Unlike in the House, where the Speaker wields considerable power, the presiding officer is not the most visible member of the Senate and can only vote in case of a tie. The majority and minority leaders work together to schedule and manage Senate business. Whips are less important in the Senate than in the House because the closer personal relationships that develop in the smaller body make it easier to know how members will vote without a formal whip count.
Much of the important work in Congress is accomplished through committees. The fate of legislation—which bills will make it to the floor of the House and Senate—is determined in committees. Members seek committee assignments based on their desire to influence policy, exert influence, and get reelected. Most committee work receives little, if any, media coverage. Investigative committees are the exception when they are covering hearings on high-profile matters.
Making laws is a complex process guided by volumes of rules and influenced by politics. While many bills are proposed each congressional session, few make it all the way through the process to be signed by the president and become law. Congress is responsible for passing legislation enacting the nation’s annual budget, which is frequently a difficult task.
In recent years, the membership of Congress has become increasingly diverse, as more women and minority group members have been elected. Still, the dominant profile of the member of Congress is an older, white male. In addition to their constitutional duties, members of Congress engage in a host of other activities, many of which are related to getting reelected. Members strive to maintain close connections with their constituents while serving in Washington. They seek to publicize their activities through the mainstream press as well as social media. Congressional staffers aid members in keeping abreast of policy issues, performing constituent service, and dealing with the press.