STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices

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CIVICS

Your Guide to Congress

The legislative branch has a hand in almost every part of your life, from money to laws. Here’s how it works and why it was set up that way. 

The U.S. president may get a lot of attention today, but back in 1787, Congress was the focal point. The nation’s founders considered the legislative, or lawmaking, branch of the government so important that they devoted almost the entire first half of the Constitution to establishing it—ahead of the presidency and the Supreme Court.

The founders set up Congress to give Americans a voice in the government. They created two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Representation in the House is based on state population,* while representation in the Senate is the same for every state—each gets two senators. 

The biggest job of the House and Senate is to make laws for the entire country. But the Constitution also tasks Congress with everything from printing money to punishing pirates. (Yes, pirates!) Surprised? There’s actually a lot that many Americans don’t know about Congress, despite its key role in our government. Luckily, this guide will fill you in. Read on!

The House and Senate have their own jobs.

Both chambers write, debate, and pass bills (proposals for new laws). But they have separate roles too. The Senate approves or rejects treaties with other nations and confirms presidential nominees for high-level jobs. The House has the sole power to introduce bills related to raising money for the government, though such bills also need Senate approval to take effect. 

Did You Know?

Senators with a sweet tooth can grab a treat from the candy desk in their chamber. Senator George Murphy of California started the tradition back in 1965.

Shutterstock.com (candy); Burazin/Getty Images (money)

Lawmakers can set their own salaries. Most make $174,000 a year. (They haven’t given themselves a raise since 2009.)

The two chambers are separate for a reason.

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The House and Senate were not set up to function as a single body. James Madison and the other founders wanted the two “as little connected” as possible. 

The House was meant to represent the people. The Senate was set up to represent the states.

The founders wanted a bill to become a law only “if both chambers—who had very different constituencies—thought it was a good idea,” says Sean Theriault, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Congress at a Glance

SENATE:

  • 100 senators
  • Each senator is elected to a six-year term.
  • A senator must be at least 30 years old and a U.S. citizen for at least 9 years.
  • Each state elects two senators. They represent a whole state.

HOUSE

  • 435 representatives
  • Each representative is elected to a two-year term.
  • A representative must be at least 25 years old and a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years.
  • Each state elects at least one representative, who serves the people in a particular district. States with larger populations have more districts—and more representatives.

The work of Congress isn’t all in Washington, D.C.

The House and Senate meet at the U.S. Capitol. But lawmakers typically also spend several days a week in their own states. They meet with constituents to find out what they need. Then they push for solutions in Congress. Many lawmakers also devote time to fund-raising for their next election. 

765,158

Average number of people each voting member of the House represents

Passing laws is an uphill battle.

The founders wanted laws to have wide support. That’s why bills need approval from a majority in both the House and the Senate—and from the president—to become law in most cases.

The process involves research, heated debate, and rewrites, and it usually ends in failure. Only 344 of the 16,601 bills proposed between January 2019 and January 2021 became law.

Another reason for the low success rate? Many lawmakers introduce bills to show where they stand, even if there isn’t support for them to pass.

Main Jobs of Congress

Lawmakers are master multitaskers. Here are some of their jobs that are outlined in the Constitution.

  • Money. Congress sets taxes and decides how that money is spent. 
  • Oversight. Lawmakers hold hearings to make sure that the government is running properly and using money efficiently. 
  • Defense. Only Congress can declare war. It also funds the U.S. military and punishes pirates for crimes at sea. 
  • Trade. Legislators pass laws to regulate the buying and selling of goods between states, and between the U.S. and other countries.
  • Mail. Congress ensures that the U.S. Postal Service runs safely and on time.


The majority party influences which bills receive a vote.

The political party with the most seats in a chamber gets to pick a lawmaker to run that chamber. The Speaker of the House sets the agenda for what the House will discuss. In the Senate, the majority leader gets to speak first—and can prioritize certain bills that way.

The minority party has power too.

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A single senator can stop a bill. An action called a filibuster lets a senator talk on the Senate floor for as long as he or she wants in the hopes that other senators will agree to change or drop the bill. Sixty votes are needed to end a filibuster—nine more than are required to get a law passed. 

Women in Congress

More than one-fourth of Congress’s current voting members are women—the most in history.

SENATE
100 members (24 women, 76 men)

HOUSE
435 members (119 women, 316 men)

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