Each state is entitled to two senators. Thus, Rhode Island, the smallest state, with an area of about 3,156 square kilometers has the same senatorial representation as Alaska, the biggest state, with an area of some 1,524,640 square kilometers. Wyoming, with 490,000 persons in 1987, has representation equal to that of California, with its 1987 population of 27,663,000.
The total number of members of the House of Representatives has been determined by Congress. That number is then divided among the states according to their populations. Regardless of its population, every state is constitutionally guaranteed at least one member of the House of Representatives. At present, six states—Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming—have only one representative. On the other hand, six states have more than 20 representatives—California alone has 45.
The Constitution provides for a national census each 10 years and a redistribution of House seats according to population shifts. Under the original constitutional provision, the number of representatives was to be no more than one for each 30,000 citizens. There were 65 members in the first House, and the number was increased to 106 after the first census. Had the one-to-30,000 formula been adhered to permanently, population growth in the United States would have brought the total number of representatives to about 7,000. Instead, the formula has been adjusted over the years, and today the House is composed of 435 members, roughly one for each 530,000 persons in the United States.
State legislatures divide the states into congressional districts, which must be substantially equal in population. Every two years, the voters of each district choose a representative for Congress.
Senators are chosen in statewide elections held in even-numbered years. The senatorial term is six years, and every two years one-third of the Senate stands for election. Hence, two-thirds of the senators are always persons with some legislative experience at the national level.
It is theoretically possible for the House to be composed entirely of legislative novices. In practice, however, most members are reelected several times and the House, like the Senate, can always count on a core group of experienced legislators.
Since members of the House serve two-year terms, the life of a Congress is considered to be two years. The 20th Amendment provides that the Congress will meet in regular session each January 3, unless Congress fixes a different date. The Congress remains in session until its members vote to adjourn—usually late in the year. The president may call a special session when he or she thinks it necessary. Sessions are held in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
POWERS OF THE HOUSE AND SENATE
Each house of Congress has the power to introduce legislation on any subject except revenue bills, which must originate in the House of Representatives. The large states may thus appear to have more influence over the public purse than the small states. In practice, however, each house can vote against legislation passed by the other house. The Senate may disapprove a House revenue bill—or any bill, for that matter—or add amendments which change its nature. In that event, a conference committee made up of members from both houses must work out a compromise acceptable to both sides before the bill becomes law.
The Senate also has certain powers especially reserved to that body, including the authority to confirm presidential appointments of high officials and ambassadors of the federal government as well as authority to ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote. Unfavorable action in either instance nullifies executive action.
In the case of impeachment of federal officials, the House has the sole right to bring charges of misconduct that can lead to an impeachment trial. The Senate has the sole power to try impeachment cases and to find officials guilty or not guilty. A finding of guilt results in the removal of the federal official from public office.
The broad powers of the whole Congress are spelled out in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution:
— to levy and collect taxes;
— to borrow money for the public treasury;
— to make rules and regulations governing commerce among the states and with foreign countries;
— to make uniform rules for the naturalization of foreign citizens;
— to coin money, state its value, and provide for the punishment of counterfeiters;
— to set the standards for weights and measures;
— to establish bankruptcy laws for the country as a whole;
— to establish post offices and post roads;
— to issue patents and copyrights;
— to set up a system of federal courts;
— to punish piracy;
— to declare war;
— to raise and support armies;
— to provide for a navy;
— to call out the militia to enforce federal laws, suppress lawlessness or repel invasions by foreign powers;
— to make all laws for the District of Columbia; and
— to make all laws necessary to enforce the Constitution.
A few of these powers are now outdated—the District of Columbia today is largely self-governing—but they remain in effect. The 10th Amendment sets definite limits on congressional authority, by providing that powers not delegated to the national government are reserved to the states or to the people. In addition, the Constitution specifically forbids certain acts by Congress. It may not:
— suspend the writ of habeas corpus, unless necessary in time of rebellion or invasion;
— pass laws which condemn persons for crimes or unlawful acts without a trial;
— pass any law which retroactively makes a specific act a crime;
— levy direct taxes on citizens, except on the basis of a census already taken;
— tax exports from any one state;
— give specially favorable treatment in commerce or taxation to the seaports of any state or to the vessels using them; and
— authorize any titles of nobility.
A congressman once observed that "Congress is a collection of committees that come together in a chamber periodically to approve one another's actions. " That statement correctly identifies the standing and permanent committees that are the nerve centers of the U.S. Congress. In a recent two-year session of Congress, for example, members proposed a total of I], 602 bills in the House and 4,080 in the Senate. For each of these bills, the committees responsible had to study, weigh arguments [or and against, hear witnesses and debate changes, before the bills ever reached the House or Senate floors. Out of almost ] 5,000 measures introduced, only 664—fewer than six percent—were enacted into law.
The Constitution does not specifically call for congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The committee system began in 1789, when House members found themselves bogged down in endless discussions of proposed new laws. The first committees dealt with Revolutionary War claims, post roads and territories, and trade with other countries. Throughout the years, committees have formed and disbanded in response to political, social and economic changes. For example, there is no longer any need for a Revolutionary War claims committee, but both houses of Congress have a Veterans' Affairs committee.
Today, there are 22 standing committees in the House and 16 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses: Library of Congress, printing, taxation and economics. In addition, each house can name special, or select, committees to study specific problems: Because of an increase in workload, the standing committees have also spawned some 300 subcommittees. Almost 25,000 persons help with research, information-gathering and analyses of problems and programs in Congress. Recently, during one week of hearings, committee and subcommittee members discussed topics ranging from financing of television broadcasting to the safety of nuclear plants to international commodity agreements.