Here are some commonly asked questions about the U.S. Congress and how it works:
How does a bill become a law?
Creating laws is the U.S. House of Representatives’ most important job. All laws in the United States begin as bills. Before a bill can become a law, it must be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the president. For a complete explanation of this often complicated process, please visit the legislative process section of the House website. A kid’s version of this site is also available.
What does a member of Congress do?
Members of Congress are responsible for representing the people of their District in the United States Congress. Part of this responsibility is writing and voting on bills in the U.S. Congress. They decide whether to vote for or against every bill that comes before Congress. All bills must pass Congress before they can go to the President to be signed into law. They may also draft bills and work with other Representatives to pass legislation.
In order to do my job well, I spend a lot of time meeting with people in California’s First Congressional District to tell them about what is happening in government and to listen to their concerns and ideas. Another important part of my job is to help you if you have a problem with the federal government. To see how I can help, click here.
How many members of Congress are there?
There are a total of 535 Members of Congress. One hundred serve in the U.S. Senate, while 435 serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
How long do members of Congress' terms last?
House members, referred to as Congressmen/women or Representatives, serve two-year terms and are up for reelection every even year (2006, 2008, etc.). Senators serve six-year terms and elections to the Senate are staggered over even years so that only about 1/3 of the Senators are up for reelection in any given even year.
How many members of Congress come from each of the 50 states?
Since the Senate is made up of 100 Senators, each state sends two Senators to represent them in Washington. In the House of Representatives, a state's representation is based on its population. States with small populations like North Dakota, Vermont and Delaware send only one representative to Washington, while the most populous state, California, sends 53 representatives to serve in the House.
How many people do congressmen and senators represent?
Members of the House each represent a section of their state, a Congressional District, which average about 600,000 people. Senators represent the entire state.
How many Democrats, Republicans and Independents are currently serving in Congress?
As of January 3, 2011, the Senate was made up of 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats, which gives Democrats a slim majority. In the House, there are currently 193 Democrats and 240 Republicans, with two vacancies.
How are the two chambers (House and Senate) different?
In the House, the majority party rules. The House conducts most of its important business by passing rules that determine the framework under which a bill will be debated. Since these rules only require a simple majority, the party with the most votes controls the debate. In most cases, rules limit debate so that major bills can be passed during one day of legislative business.
In the Senate, the majority still holds a significant advantage when it comes to scheduling which bills come to the floor, but any single senator can stop legislation from moving forward on his or her own. While debate is limited in the House to the guidelines created by the rule, debate in the Senate does not end until 60 Senators vote for a cloture motion that moves the bill forward for consideration. Since the majority does not currently bring to the table 60 votes on its own, it must work with the minority to set the rules for debate on important legislation. Often, this means that major pieces of legislation can be debated for one or two weeks on the Senate floor.
Why does Congress use a committee system?
Since Congress deals with a broad variety of different issues, it is impossible for all work to be done on either the House or Senate floor. Therefore, throughout history, committees have been created to address particular issues. Today, there are 21 permanent committees in the House of Representatives and 15 in the Senate. The main purpose of these committees is to collect information through hearings and investigations, and draft legislation which is then reported out for consideration by the entire chamber.
Congressman Thompson currently serves on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where he is a member of the Health Subcommittee and Social Security Subcommittee. The Congressman also serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where he is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Human Analysis and Counterintelligence and a member of the Oversight Subcommittee.