Chapter 12 Congress in Action
Section 1Congress Organizes Focus Question: How does Congress carefully organize itself to get its complex job done?
New Term of Congress • When a new term starts the HR reorganizes because new members are taking seats. • The members elect their leader, who swears in all the members. • They then adopt their work rules and appoint the members of their permanent committees. • The Senate does not need to reorganize because two-thirds of its members stay the same from term to term.
Speaker of the House • Presides over the HR and may debate or vote on any matter. • The Speaker is the majority party’s leader and the most powerful person in Congress.
President of the Senate • The Vice President of the U.S. • He or she oversees the Senate’s sessions but cannot debate and only votes in a tie. • In the VP’s absence, the president pro tempore presides.
Other Powerful Leaders in Congress • The majority and the minority party floor leaders, the parties’ chief spokespeople. • They are selected during the party caucuses – the meetings of the members of each party just before Congress convenes. • The floor leaders pass laws that their parties want. • They are aided by whips, or assistant floor leaders.
Committee Chairmen • Also powerful in Congress. • They head the standing committees that do most of Congress’s work. • Each is almost always that committee’s longest-standing member from the majority party. • This custom is part of the seniority rule, which gives the most important posts to party members who have served the longest.
Section 2Committees in Congress Focus Question: How does the Senate and the House both divide into committees to manage their business and decide which bills will receive attention?
Standing Committees • Where Congress does most of its work. • Small groups. • Permanent and specialize in one subject each. • Handle all bills related to that subject.
Majority Party • Holds the majority of the seats on each committee. • The parties decide committee membership, and Congress ratifies the choices.
House Rules Committee • One of the most powerful. • Its members determine when and under what conditions the whole HR will debate and vote on bills. • The Rules Committee can speed up, delay or even prevent action on a bill.
Special Committees • Select Committee is a group set up for a specific and usually temporary purpose, such as an investigation. • Joint Committee, which can be either temporary or permanent, includes members from both houses so that separate committees in the houses do not duplicate each others work.
Conference Committee • A type of temporary committee that is set up when the HR and the Senate have each passed different versions of the same law. • The conference committee works out a compromise bill that both houses will accept.
Section 3How a Bill Becomes a Law: The House Focus Question: How does a bill move through reviews and committee hearings before it reaches the House floor? And, if it passes, where does it go from there?
Bill • Congress considers thousands of bills and resolutions at each session. • A bill is a proposed law that applies to the national as a whole or to certain people or places.
Resolutions • A measure that one house passes but does not have the force of law. • Aconcurrent resolution also lacks the force of law and deals with matters in which the HR and Senate must act jointly. • A joint resolution does have the force of the law and deals with unusual or temporary matters.
Rider • A bill or resolution usually deals with only one topic, but a rider regarding an unrelated matter may be included. • A rider is a proposal with little chance of passing on its own, so it is attached to a bill that probably will pass.
After a Bill is Introduced • It is read. • The Speaker then sends it to the appropriate standing committee. • Most of the work on bills is done in subcommittees, or small groups within committees. The committee may act on the bill or set it aside and ignore it. In the latter case, a discharge petition, approved by the HR majority, may send a bill to the floor for debate.
Out of Committee • A bill is placed on a calendar, or schedule for debating bills. • Before the bill is debated, the Rules Committee must approve it or it dies.
On the Floor • The bill is read again. • In the interest of speed, the entire HR may debate it as a Committee of the Whole – one large committee that has less strict rules than does the HR. • For example, the quorum, the number of members required to do business, is smaller for a Committee of the Whole than for the HR.
Finally A Vote Takes Place • If approved the bill is engrossed, or printed in final form. • It is read once more and if approved is sent to the Senate.
Section 4The Bill in the Senate Focus Question: What is the law making process in the Senate like?
Same Steps as HRBut Less Formal • Unlike the HR, the Senate allows debate on bills to go on until all senators agree to end it. • If one senator does not agree, debate continues and may result in a filibuster, a process in which a senator delays Senate action by talking at great length. • The Senate can stop a filibuster only if three-fifths of the senators vote for cloture, or limiting debate.
To the President • For Congress to send a bill to the President, both houses must have passed identical versions of it. • If necessary a conference committee works out a compromise version that both houses will approve.
Presidential Veto • The President has 10 days to act on a bill. • He can veto, or refuse to sign, the bill and send it back to Congress. The bill then dies unless both houses approve it again by a two-thirds vote.
Other Options • The President may also allow the bill to become a law without a signature by not acting on it within the 10-day period. • As a variation of this option, if Congress adjourns before the end of the 10-day period and the President has not signed the bill, the bill dies, a possibility called the pocket veto.