Study Guide

Legislative Branch (Congress)

Legislative Branch (Congress) Introduction

  • Congress, the legislative branch of government, makes the nation's laws
  • Congress has vast but not unlimited powers
  • Each state has equal representation in the Senate, while votes in the House are apportioned based on population

Ever wonder who makes the laws? Who has the power to declare war? Who decides how much of your paycheck gets taken away for taxes? Who comes up with brilliant ideas like officially renaming french fries, "freedom fries," or declaring March 11th to be "National Funeral Director and Mortician Recognition Day"? The answer to all of the above is Congress, the legislative branch of our federal government, where congressmen and senators elected directly by the people meet to make the country's laws. Woodrow Wilson once said, "Anyone who is unfamiliar with what Congress actually does and how it does it...is very far from a knowledge of the constitutional system under which we live."blank" href="https://www.shmoop.com/legislative-branch/photos.html" title="Congress Photos">Congress Photos

What is Legislative Branch (Congress) About and Why Should I Care?

This is a tale of two Congresses.

Well, actually this is a tale of one Congress—but one Congress with two very different personalities.

The first Congress is an idealistic place—the beating heart of American democracy. James Madison called it "the first branch" of government, the place where the people's representatives meet in virtuous pursuit of the public interest.

The Senate, with its tradition of unlimited debate, fancies itself the "world's greatest deliberative body." The House lacks such a snappy nickname, but takes pride in being the most democratic institution of the national government.

The entire Congress serves as the modern embodiment of an ancient republican ideal stretching back to Plato and Aristotle, an ideal reflected even in the classical form of the Capitol building itself. Congress is our living temple of democracy.

This is the Congress that provided a platform for some of the greatest orators in American history—like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun, the trio of legendary lawmakers who were as powerful as most presidents in the early nineteenth century.

This is the Congress that reconstructed the United States into one nation following the devastation of the Civil War.

This is the Congress that overcame deep partisan divisions to pass the landmark bills that continue to shape the world we live in—the Social Security Act of 1935, which for the first time gave most Americans a chance to enjoy retirement in old age; the GI Bill of 1944, which gave millions of middle-class war veterans unprecedented opportunities for higher education and homeownership; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended Jim Crow racial discrimination; and the Reagan tax cut of 1981, which fueled a new prosperity in the markets by sharply lowering tax burdens on businesses and individuals.

This is the Congress we can all be proud of.

But then there's the second Congress, the one that seems less like a temple of democracy than a capitol of stupidity, corruption, and destructive partisanship.

This is the Congress where one senator beats the tar out of another with a gold-headed cane, right there on the floor of the world's greatest deliberative body.

This is the Congress where the Vice President of the United States, fulfilling his ceremonial role as the presiding officer of the Senate, greets a lawmaker of the opposition party with an unceremonious "Go f*** yourself!"

This is the Congress where legislators focus on the most critical issues facing the nation—like finding time to honor 50 glorious years of Marshmallow Peeps.

This is the Congress where a corrupt lawmaker can be arrested after police find $90,000 in bribe money wrapped in tinfoil inside his kitchen freezer (but give him credit for redefining the whole idea of "cold hard cash").

This is the Congress that led Mark Twain to quip a century ago, "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." (And this is the same Congress that makes Twain's words often ring just as true today.)

In this tale of two Congresses, the temple of democracy and the capitol of idiocy are, in fact, one and the same. This is our legislative branch, the sole lawmaking body of our representative democracy. It is—and always has been—a peculiar mix of the ridiculous and the sublime.

How did the framers of the Constitution design the legislative branch to serve as the voice of the people's will in pursuit of the public interest? How well does the Congress fulfill these democratic ideals in practice? What powers does Congress have, and how does it use them? And is it fair for so many of us—like Mark Twain—to view the legislative branch with such cynicism and disdain?

Legislative Branch (Congress) Trivia

Since 1789, more than 11,000 proposed amendments to the United States Constitution have been introduced in Congress. Only 27 have been ratified.

President Andrew Johnson, who was impeached in 1868 and nearly removed from office—he prevailed in his trial before the Senate by only one vote—later became the only president to serve in the Senate leaving the White House. In 1875, Tennessee returned Johnson to the same Senate seat he had earlier occupied from 1857-62. Johnson died just a few months later, however.

President Andrew Johnson, who was impeached in 1868 and nearly removed from office—he prevailed in his trial before the Senate by only one vote—later became the only president to serve in the Senate leaving the White House. In 1875, Tennessee returned Johnson to the same Senate seat he had earlier occupied from 1857-62. Johnson died just a few months later, however.

Legislative Branch (Congress) Resources

Books

Lee Hamilton, How Congress Works and Why You Should Care (2004)
A longtime congressman from Indiana, author Lee Hamilton served in the House of Representatives for 34 years. In this book, he attempts to describe how the institution really works, from the inside. Hamilton has a clear allegiance to the Congress and his book might be read as a kind of subtle defense of the legislative branch against the nation's widespread criticism of it.

Robert Remini, The House: The History of the House of Representatives (2007)
Remini, a talented popular historian, has joined forces with the Library of Congress to produce this highly readable—if not terribly critical—narrative history of the House of Representatives. For anyone interested in the 220-year history of the House, this is a great place to start.

Lewis Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (2006)
Gould's history of the Senate in the twentieth century takes a much more critical tone than Remini's history of the House; where Remini seems to have a certain affection for his subject, Gould's view of the Senate often seems to stand on the tipping point between skepticism and contempt. But there is a great deal of worthwhile material here, and Gould's interpretation of the Senate as an elitist institution full of egomaniacal grandstanders, often standing in the way of progress, is not one that entirely lacks justification.

Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (2002)
Lyndon Johnson became president because he was vice president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But he became vice president because he built himself up into one of the most powerful figures in Congress in the twentieth century. Caro's biography describes in staggering detail—weighing in at a hefty 1000 pages—Johnson's mastery of Senate politics in the 1950s.

Music

Woody Guthrie, Library of Congress Recordings, vols. 1-3 (1992 box set, original release 1964)
Okay, so it's a bit of a reach, but most congressmen don't really make sweet music. But the Library of Congress, which has served as the legislative branch's research arm for two centuries, is also an incredible repository for classic American music…which gives us the perfect opportunity to hype this priceless collection of recordings by Woody Guthrie, perhaps the greatest folk musician in American history. Check it out and learn why rock stars ranging from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen have embraced Guthrie's legacy.

Parliament, Gold (2005)
Okay, so this is even more of a reach. But Congress is sort of like Parliament, and Parliament is perhaps the greatest funk band ever. And who wouldn't rather listen to the mad genius of George Clinton and his band of merry men than the, um, memorable music created by actual members of the legislative branch? (That's ex-US Senator John Ashcroft singing his own original composition, "Let the Eagle Soar," in 2002. Didn't we warn you that Parliament was better?)

Images

The Capitol
Washington, DC's Capitol Building is the home of the United States Congress. The House is on the left, the Senate on the right.

Capitol Rotunda
The rotunda of the Capitol, under the dome, is one of the most impressive spaces in the building that houses the legislative branch of government.

Speaker of the House
The Speaker of the House is one of the most powerful figures in the United States government. The Current Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, is the first woman ever to fill the role.

Floor of the House
The 435 members of the House of Representatives meet in this ornate hall inside the US Capitol Building. The chamber is also used for joint meetings of Congress, such as the annual State of the Union address given by the President.

Caning on the Senate Floor
In one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the US Senate, in 1856 South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, beating him severely with a wooden cane. The same fierce intersectional conflict between pro-slavery southerners and anti-slavery northerners that created the Sumner-Brooks incident would lead, just five years later, to the Civil War.

Movies & TV

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Director Frank Capra's earnest feel-good classic tells the story of one good man transforming Washington's corrupt politics through his resolute honesty and integrity. The film made star Jimmy Stewart into one of the major Hollywood stars of the mid-twentieth century and provided a fictional model invoked by good-government reform candidates ever since.

Advise and Consent (1962)
An underrated classic from director Otto Preminger, Advise and Consent turns the Machiavellian backroom dealings of Congress into high drama. The story revolves around the contentious confirmation process required for a controversial nominee for secretary of state to take office. Who could have imagined that Article II, Section, Clause 2 would make for such brilliant cinema?

The Candidate (1972)
A young Robert Redford stars in the title role as a political idealist convinced to make a hopeless run against a popular incumbent for a supposedly unwinnable US Senate seat. As the campaign drags on, Redford's character finds himself more and more corrupted by the political machine and the partisan system. In the film's most iconic moment, Redford stares blankly into the camera just after learning he has unexpectedly won his election, asking "What do we do now?"

Websites

house.gov
The official website of the US House of Representatives provides an abundance of useful information, including schedules and calendars for current legislation and a variety of historical resources.

senate.gov
It's not quite as good as the House website in terms of providing information on current events, but the Senate's official home on the internet is great for historical and artistic exhibits online.

Roll Call
Roll Call is a newspaper devoted entirely to reporting events on Capitol Hill. The paper's website offers great one-stop coverage of news from the legislative branch.

THOMAS
In a slightly goofy move, the Library of Congress decided to name its legislative information portal after Thomas Jefferson. (Why they went with all-caps, we have no idea.) Odd name aside, THOMAS is a powerful tool for learning about current and past legislation and congressional policies.

Video & Audio

Schoolhouse Rock: How A Bill Becomes a Law
Why bother reading up on the convoluted process by which proposed legislation moves through Congress when you can just have cartoons sing it to you? (Warning: this song is annoyingly catchy and will get stuck in your head. "I'm just a bill....")

Primary Sources

The Constitution
You'll want to turn your attention to Article I, which establishes the form and structure of the legislative branch of government.

THOMAS from the Library of Congress
Named after Thomas Jefferson, THOMAS is the Library of Congress's incredibly useful point of access to all the primary-source info you could possibly desire regarding legislative branch activity. Bills and resolutions, roll call votes, past laws, current schedules, and the Congressional Record—it's all here, in easily searchable form.

McCullough v. Maryland
This landmark 1819 Supreme Court case interpreted the "Necessary and Proper Clause" of the Constitution in a liberal manner, establishing a precedent that would help lead to the gradual expansion of the implied powers of government over the course of the next two centuries.

Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820, was one of the most important pieces of legislation passed by Congress in the first half of the nineteenth century. The compromise quieted sectional controversy between the slave South and free North for a generation.

Pacific Railway Act
In 1862, Congress passed a landmark bill providing funding for the construction of a transcontinental railroad. That railroad, completed in 1869, tied the West Coast to the East and helped initiate a period of rapid economic and industrial growth in the United States.

Interstate Commerce Act
In 1887, Congress passed an act authorizing the federal regulation of the railroad industry, beginning a new era of extensive government regulation of the economy.

Social Security Act
Perhaps the most important legislative accomplishment of the New Deal, the Social Security Act passed by Congress in 1935 established a new system of government-funded retirement insurance for all Americans.

Civil Rights Act
In 1964, Congress ended a century of legal discrimination against blacks by passing the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed the Jim Crow system of de jure segregation.