The United States Congress’ History and Functions


The United States Congress is a legislative branch of the federal government of the United States that is made up of two branches: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Article One of the Constitution details its formation, the process of lawmaking, the powers that each house possesses, and the powers that Congress does not possess. Its history can be traced back to the late 1700s when the government that was formed under the Articles of Confederation failed. Since its founding, Congress has been involved in the enactment of numerous laws that revolutionized America. Both bodies of Congress have different legislative powers, even though they are supposed to be interdependent. In that regard, they function under different rules and traditions, and they have very distinct cultures that characterize their uniqueness.

However, they function as parts of a governing body that has the sole authority of making laws in the United States. The process of making laws comprises several steps that begin with the sponsoring of a bill by a House Representative and end with the President’s decision to veto it or sign it into law. The legislative body has numerous committees that specialize in different functions such as writing legislation and offering legal advice. A bill has to be discussed by both bodies of Congress before being presented to the President. In recent years, Congress has come under harsh criticism owing to the influence of money on elections and policy. Critics argue that a large portion of the members of both houses is not representing the interests of Americans, but rather the interests of wealthy individuals who use their resources to influence policy and elections.

The History of Congress

As mentioned earlier, the history of Congress can be traced back to the late 1780s. The current legislative body was formed in 1781 after the government that was formed under the Articles of Confederation crumbled (Bordewich, 2016). It was named the Congress of the Confederation, and it included representatives from each state. Under this system, Congress had only executive powers; the states had the power to reject the majority of the decisions made (Bordewich, 2016). As a result, the states had the majority of the powers in their hands. In order to remedy the situation, a convention of elected delegates was summoned in 1787 to resolve the state of the government’s powerlessness. The delegates suggested the creation of a revised form of the constitution that would give more powers to the national government and create a special branch that would be comprised of a House and Senate (Bordewich, 2016). The First Congress operated between 1789 and 1791, and it implemented several recommendations that are still in operation today (Bordewich, 2016). For example, it established the presidency, formulated departments within the government, established the judiciary, passed several laws, and ratified the Bill of Rights (Bordewich, 2016). Its initial meetings were held in New York City and Philadelphia, prior to their transfer to the Capitol in the District of Columbia. Currently, the Senate comprises two representatives (senators) from each state while the House of Representatives includes members elected from states based on their population.

The Legislative Process

As the legislative branch of the United States government, Congress is responsible for making laws to govern the country. The process of making laws has several steps that involve the discussion and approval of bills in both the House and the Senate (The White House, n.d.). The process begins with the introduction of a bill by a member of the House of Representatives during a live session (Ritchie, 2016). The sponsor and co-sponsors of the bill must sign it before it is presented to the committee of jurisdiction for review. The House has more than twenty committees that work on the different aspects of the bill, including its study, hearings, and approval. After the committee approves and releases the bill, it is then brought to the House for debating, voting and amendment if necessary (Ritchie, 2016). If members of the House vote for the bill, it is then presented to the Senate, where it is reviewed by another committee. If the committee releases it, the Senate debates and votes. In case any changes are made, it is returned to the House so that members can agree to the new adjustments. Afterward, it goes through a final period of approval in both bodies. A bill that has been accepted by Congress is described as “enrolled (Ritchie, 2016). Finally, it is presented to the President for enactment. Usually, the President has a grace period of 10 days to either reject the bill and return it for further changes or sign it into law.

Oversight of the Executive

One of the most important roles of Congress is oversight of the executive branch of government. This authority of this function is based on the mandate of the United States Constitution, and it involves several roles, including the evaluation, administration, and monitoring of federal agencies, government activities and programs, as well as the process of policy implementation (Maryville University, n.d.). In order for Congress to exercise this power, it has to first be in possession of information on how the executive branch is carrying out its functions. For example, it must be aware of the cost of the various programs, their effectiveness, and whether their implementation was legally compliant (Ritchie, 2016). The aforementioned powers are usually exercised through the congressional committee system that carries out investigative, impeachment, confirmation, appropriation, budget, and authorization processes.

The Supreme Court ruled that the fact that the constitution gives Congress the power to make laws, also gives it the authority to conduct investigations. In that regard, it can issue subpoenas, and any individual who gives false information could be liable for criminal prosecution (Maryville University, n.d.). It is also within Congress’ power to impeach the President, his deputy, and any government official who engages in treasonable and other criminal infractions. The Senate possesses the power to approve the nomination of individuals into the executive branch (Ritchie, 2016). Congress can also establish or change a government program as it deems fit (Maryville University, n.d.). Finally, the legislative branch can use its powers to influence the budget process in order to replace less-impactful programs with the ones that they consider more valuable to Americans.

A Comparison of the House and Senate


The House of Representatives and the Senate are similar in that they play similar roles in the making of laws. They review, debate, and vote on the bills that are presented to them by special Congress committees (France, 2020). Their agreement is needed for a bill to become law in the US. They both possess numerous powers that are derived from the constitution (The White House, n.d.). For example, one of their most important roles is to oversee the executive branch. In that regard, they can impeach and remove a president whom they deem unfit to govern the country (France, 2020). Both bodies are comprised of individuals (Representatives and Senators) who are elected by the public. Regardless of the existence of these similarities, there are differences too that reveal the uniqueness and independence of each body.


The composition of both bodies and the requirements for election is different. For example, the House has more members and has more independence with regard to its operations than the Senate. For an individual to be elected to the House, they must be at least 25 years old, reside in the state in which they are vying, and must have been a US citizen for no less than seven years (France, 2020). On the contrary, a senatorial candidate must be at least 30 years and must have been a US citizen for not less than nine years (France, 2020). With regard to numbers, each state is represented by two senators while the number of representatives is determined by the population of the individual state. Senators serve for a term of six years while members of the House serve for two years before reelection (Maryville University, n.d.). Both bodies of the legislative branch also differ in terms of individual roles and responsibilities, and mode of operation.

The proposition of bills for enactment into law can only be done by members of the House. On the contrary, the Senate can only propose amendments to any bill that is presented by the lower chamber. The two chambers also have different modes of operation. For instance, in the House, a bill is usually reviewed by a special committee before it comes to the floor to be debated for a limited duration of one hour (France, 2020). In the Senate, legislation is rarely presented to a committee for review, and the members debate a bill until they are satisfied that they have exhausted its every aspect (Maryville University, n.d.). Party leaders and committees have different ways of performing their duties in both bodies. The House has many members, and therefore, each cannot get the opportunity to contribute (Maryville University, n.d.). Therefore, the Speaker possesses great powers that allow him/her to choose the bills to discuss and at what time. In contrast, the Senate does not have a speaker who controls its operations (Ritchie, 2016). Rather, the majority and minority leaders derived from the two major political parties work together with the members to create and implement a schedule.

The Influence of Money on Elections and Policy

In recent years, Congress has come under harsh criticism for allowing individuals to influence elections and policy through monetary contributions. Surveys have shown that a small group of wealthy individuals influence elections and policy by giving huge donations for campaigns to political parties and individual politicians (Ritchie, 2016). As a result, they drown the voice of American citizens. In many instances, the identities of donors are hidden so that the citizens cannot become aware of individuals who try to influence them and the system (Weisler & Bannon, 2018). Congress will always be influenced by money because members depend on donations from wealthy individuals and corporations to fund their election and reelection campaigns.

Public Policy Models

Congress uses several public policy models in its role as the legislative branch of government. These include institutionalism, elitism, and pluralism. The institutionalism model focuses on the structures, composition, and functions of government agencies. According to group theory, an important component of pluralism, policymaking is largely based on the influence of groups (Weisler & Bannon, 2018). Conflict and competition between interest groups play a key role in the types of policies that are enacted. Elitism is a public policy model that suggests that major policies are made under the influence of the elites as the ordinary people are uninvolved because they are uninfluential (Weisler & Bannon, 2018). The elites manipulate public opinion in order to promote their agendas and interests.

Iron Triangle and Sub-governments

The “iron triangle” can be defined as the relationship that exists among committees of Congress, lobbying groups, and the bureaucracy in the making of policies. This term was formulated by Gordon Adams in 1981 to describe how the three groups work to influence the lawmaking process (The bureaucracy, n.d.). The term is based on the assumption that bureaucratic agencies have a goal to create a power base, and fight for the interests of its members. In the US, power is mainly exercised by Congress, through its numerous committees and subcommittees (Weisler & Bannon, 2018). In order to influence policy, agencies align themselves with members of these committees, thus the manifestation of the iron triangle. In one corner are interest groups that have the ability to influence the election of a member of Congress, who promotes their agendas in return (The bureaucracy, n.d.). The second corner is occupied by members of Congress who usually support laws that promote the interests of a certain group. The third corner is occupied by bureaucrats who are usually associated with regulated industries and large corporations (The bureaucracy, n.d.). The efforts of the three groups to create their own power bases result in a sub-government that possesses immense power to influence and determine policy.


Congress is one of the three branches of the US American government that is responsible for making laws. In order to execute this obligation, it takes the concerted efforts and the collaboration of its constituent bodies: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Congress serves numerous roles, including law-making, executive branch oversight, people representation, and public education. Even though the two entities are independent and function differently, they are interdependent and their approval is required for the enactment of a bill into law. They are comprised of members elected by the public at the state level. Representatives represent state districts and serve two-year terms while senators represent the state and serve a six-year term. The legislative process begins with the presentation of a proposed bill by a member of the House. It is reviewed by a congressional committee before being presented to the House for debating and voting. It is then passed to the Senate for review, debating, and voting. If it is approved by both entities, it is taken to the President who can either sign it into law or take it back to Congress for adjustments. In recent years, Congress has been criticized harshly because of the influence of money on elections and policy. A few wealthy individuals make large donations to politicians and political parties, and in return, they support and promote their interests in Congress. Institutionalism, elitism, and pluralism are the most common public policy models that Congress adopts. The influence of billionaires ensures that elite individuals influence policy to their benefit. The relationship among committees of Congress, lobbying groups, and the bureaucrats create a sub-government that has immense powers in influencing the types of policies that are implemented.


The bureaucracy: The real government. (n.d.). US Web.

Bordewich, F. M. (2016). The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a group of extraordinary men invested the government. Simon and Schuster.

Dunn, W.N. (2016). Public policy analysis (5th ed.). Routledge.

France, E. (2020). What’s the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives? Web.

Maryville University (n.d.). American government 101: Difference between House and Senate. Web.

Ritchie, D. A. (2016). The US Congress: A very short introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Weisler, W. R., & Bannon, A. (2018). Democracy: An election agenda for candidates, activists, and legislators. Brennan Center for Justice. Web.

The White House. (n.d.). The legislative branch. Web.

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