2.2 Structures, Powers, and Functions of Congress

This is a rather large section packed with content and vocabulary. This section details the leadership roles of the legislative branch, and how Congress gets its work done writing bills and making legislative policy.

What you need to learn

How does the structure, rules, and leadership of the legislative branch affect policy making?

The House of Representatives Leadership

Speaker of the House

Majority Leader & Minority Leader

Majority Whip & Minority Whip

The United States Senate Leadership

President of the Senate

President Protempre

Majority Leader & Minority Leader

From a Bill to a Law

house & senate

non-germane riders

pork barrel spending

committee assignment


federal budget bill:

mandatory spending & discretionary spending

deficit spending

Getting Work Done

parliamentary procedure


standing committees

joint committee

select committee

conference committee

Policy Making in the House

House Rules Committee

Committee of the Whole

Discharge Petition

Policy Making in the Senate

debate time

the filibuster

the cloture rule

unanimous consent

Structures, Powers, and Functions of Congress

How Congress operates, does its work, and make U.S. legislative policy.

Leadership Structure of the Legislative Branch

The United States Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government, is a bicameral institution consisting of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each body has its unique leadership structure, roles, and responsibilities, designed to balance power and ensure effective governance. This chapter delves into the leadership hierarchy and functions within both chambers.

Leadership in the House of Representatives

Speaker of the House

  • Position and Power: The Speaker is the highest-ranking member and presiding officer of the House. Elected by the House members, the Speaker’s role includes overseeing House business, setting the legislative agenda, and representing the House to the President and the Senate.
  • Duties: The Speaker facilitates discussions, ensures House rules are followed, and is second in the presidential line of succession, after the Vice President.

Majority and Minority Leaders

  • Roles: The Majority Leader is the spokesperson and leader of the party holding the majority of seats in the House, while the Minority Leader heads the party with fewer seats.
  • Functions: They coordinate party strategy, legislative planning, and liaise with the Senate and the President. They also play a significant role in floor proceedings, guiding debates and legislative priorities.

Majority Whip & Minority Whip

  • Purpose: Both the majority and minority parties have Whips whose job is to mobilize party members for voting, gauge sentiment on various issues within the party, and ensure party discipline.
  • Activities: Whips communicate the leadership’s views to members, count votes before actions on significant legislation, and assist in managing and strategizing party goals.

Leadership in the U.S. Senate

President of the Senate (Vice President of the United States)

  • Constitutional Role: The Vice President serves as the President of the Senate but does not have a vote except to break a tie.
  • Engagement: Historically, the Vice President’s presence in the Senate is limited to ceremonial occasions or when a tiebreaker vote is anticipated.

President Pro Tempore

  • Function: In the Vice President’s absence, the President pro tempore presides over the Senate. This position is traditionally held by the senior member of the majority party.
  • Responsibilities: The President pro tempore can preside over Senate sessions and fulfills ceremonial duties. They are third in the line of presidential succession.

Majority and Minority Leaders

  • Senate Leadership: The Majority Leader is considered the most powerful position in the Senate, leading the chamber’s legislative agenda and strategy. The Minority Leader serves as the chief spokesperson and strategist for the minority party.
  • Influence: Unlike the House, the Senate Majority Leader does not have formal control over the agenda but wields significant influence through collaboration and negotiation with other senators and the Minority Leader.


  • Senate Whips: Similar to the House, the Senate has Majority and Minority Whips who assist their leaders in managing their party’s legislative program and ensuring member attendance during key votes.

Joint Leadership Responsibilities

  • Conference Committees: Leaders from both chambers may serve on or appoint members to conference committees, which reconcile differences in House and Senate versions of a bill.
  • Legislative Collaboration: Leadership in both chambers often works together to coordinate legislative priorities, especially on issues requiring bipartisan support.

The leadership structure of the U.S. Congress is designed to facilitate the legislative process, ensuring that both the House of Representatives and the Senate function effectively within the larger framework of federal governance. Through a complex system of roles and responsibilities, leaders in both chambers guide the development and passage of legislation, representing both party interests and the overall welfare of the country.

Policy Making and Debate Rules in the House and Senate

The United States Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate, operates under a set of rules and procedures that govern the policy-making process, including how debate is conducted and how legislation is moved forward. These rules are designed to structure debate, manage legislative flow, and ensure orderly decision-making.

House of Representatives

Debate and Speaking Time Rules

  • In the House, debate times are strictly regulated to ensure that discussions remain focused and to manage the legislative schedule. The House Rules Committee often sets these limits for each bill.
  • Speaking time during debates is generally limited to one minute per member during the “morning hour” and to five minutes per member during general debates, unless otherwise specified by the rules adopted for that bill.

Rules Committee

  • The House Rules Committee plays a pivotal role in the legislative process. It determines how and when a bill will be presented to the House floor, including setting the terms for debate and amendments.
  • It can issue “special rules” which may limit or prohibit amendments and dictate the length of the debate.

Committee of the Whole

  • This procedural device allows the House to function in a more flexible manner. When the House resolves into the Committee of the Whole, it can consider and debate legislation with less stringent rules than in full House sessions.
  • In this format, quorum requirements are lower, and members can speak more than once on the same issue, facilitating detailed discussion.
  1. Discharge Petition
  • A discharge petition is a means by which members can bypass committee review and bring a bill directly to the floor for a vote. This requires the signatures of 218 members (a majority of the House).
  • It’s a tool for the minority to force a vote on a bill that the committee or leadership has stalled.

U.S. Senate

Debate Time

  • Unlike the House, the Senate does not typically impose strict time limits on debate. This allows for extensive discussion and has historically made the Senate a forum for open debate.
  • Senators may speak for as long as they wish on any matter unless Senate rules or unanimous consent agreements specify otherwise.

The Filibuster

  • A filibuster is a tactic employed by Senators to delay or block legislative action by extending debate on a bill. There are no time limits on debates in the Senate, so this can theoretically continue indefinitely.
  • Historically, Senators could filibuster by speaking for hours on the floor. Today, the threat of a filibuster is often enough to stall legislation.

The Cloture Rule

  • Cloture is a procedure used to end a filibuster and bring the matter to a vote. To invoke cloture, three-fifths of the Senate (usually 60 out of 100 Senators) must vote in favor.
  • Once cloture is invoked, debate is limited to 30 additional hours, after which a vote must be taken.

Unanimous Consent

  • The Senate often operates on unanimous consent agreements, which are used to expedite the legislative process by suspending certain procedural rules.
  • These agreements can set time limits for debate, structure the amendment process, and schedule votes. A single Senator can object to a unanimous consent request, requiring the Senate to follow its regular procedures.

The rules governing policy making and debate in the House and Senate are designed to balance the need for thorough discussion with the practicalities of legislative scheduling. While the House operates under more structured and time-bound procedures to manage its larger membership, the Senate’s rules allow for more extended debate and flexibility, reflecting its smaller size and tradition of extended deliberation. These procedural differences underscore the distinct roles and functions of the two chambers in the legislative process.

Congressional Legislative Work: An Overview

Congress, the legislative branch of the United States government, employs a structured process to create, debate, and pass legislation. This process is governed by parliamentary procedures and the committee system, which together ensure that legislation is thoroughly examined, debated, and amended before it becomes law. Understanding these mechanisms is crucial to grasp how Congress completes its legislative work.

Parliamentary Procedure

Parliamentary procedure in Congress includes a set of rules and guidelines that govern the legislative process in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. These procedures:

  • Structure Debate: They determine how legislation is introduced, debated, amended, and voted upon.
  • Ensure Order: Parliamentary procedures ensure that legislative debates and decisions occur in an orderly and predictable manner, facilitating the management of the legislative agenda.
  • Enable Decision Making: Through motions, votes, and quorums, parliamentary procedures provide the mechanisms through which decisions are made.

Purpose and Function of Committees

Committees are the workhorses of Congress, playing a critical role in the legislative process. They:

  • Review Legislation: Committees analyze and review proposed legislation, making recommendations on its merits.
  • Specialize in Policy Areas: Each committee specializes in specific policy areas, allowing members to develop expertise.
  • Hold Hearings: Committees conduct hearings to gather information, take testimony from witnesses, and debate the details of proposed legislation.

Types of Committees

Standing Committees

  • Definition: Permanent committees established under the rules of each house that continue from one Congress to the next. They consider legislation and oversee agencies, programs, and activities within their jurisdictions.
  • Examples: The House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Joint Committees

  • Definition: Committees consisting of members from both the House and Senate. They may be permanent or temporary and usually perform advisory functions.
  • Purpose: Often focus on issues of common interest, such as the economy or taxation, and can conduct studies or oversee specific areas of policy.

Select (or Special) Committees

  • Definition: Temporary committees established by a resolution for a specific purpose and, typically, a limited duration.
  • Function: They investigate specific issues not within the jurisdiction of standing committees or address matters requiring intensive study. Examples include committees investigating government scandals or emerging issues.

Conference Committees

  • Purpose: Formed to reconcile differences in legislation that has passed both chambers. Conference committees are temporary, joint bodies composed of House and Senate members.
  • Process: Members negotiate a compromise on differing versions of a bill, and the revised bill must then be approved again by both the House and Senate.

Legislative Process Flow

The typical legislative process in Congress involves several stages, from the introduction of a bill to its passage and presentation to the President for signing. Committees play a pivotal role throughout, determining the bill’s fate at various points. After a bill is introduced, it is referred to the relevant committee(s), where it is studied, amended, and potentially approved for further debate by the full House or Senate. Differences between House and Senate versions of a bill are resolved in a conference committee.


The intricate structure of parliamentary procedures and committees in Congress ensures that legislative work is carried out efficiently and effectively. This system allows for detailed scrutiny of legislation, specialization in policy areas by members, and a mechanism for consensus-building. Through standing, joint, select, and conference committees, Congress tackles the complexities of lawmaking, reflecting the diverse interests and needs of the American people.

How a Bill Becomes a Law: The Role of Committees and Legislative Terms

The process by which a bill becomes a law in the United States is a comprehensive procedure that involves multiple steps, significant scrutiny, and negotiation. Committees play a pivotal role in this process, serving as the initial filters that evaluate, amend, and determine whether a bill should proceed. Understanding this process also involves familiarizing oneself with specific legislative terms such as non-germane riders, pork barrel spending, and logrolling, which reflect the complexities and strategies involved in legislative negotiations.

Introduction of a Bill

A bill can be introduced in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, except for revenue bills, which must originate in the House. Once introduced, the bill is assigned a number and referred to the relevant committee(s) based on its subject matter.

Committee Review

  • Initial Scrutiny: The committee examines the bill’s details, considers its implications, and decides whether to hold hearings.
  • Hearings: Experts, government officials, and the public may be invited to provide testimony on the bill’s merits or drawbacks.
  • Mark-up Session: Committees or subcommittees review the bill’s language, making amendments as necessary. This is where much of the detailed work on legislation occurs.
  • Committee Vote: If the committee approves the bill, it is reported out to the floor of the House or Senate for further debate and voting.

Floor Action

  • Debate: Members debate the merits of the bill, offering amendments. In the Senate, this stage can involve extensive discussion, including the possibility of a filibuster.
  • Vote: If the bill passes in one chamber, it is sent to the other chamber to undergo a similar process.

Terms Explained

  • Non-Germane Riders: These are amendments added to a bill that are not related to the bill’s subject. While the House rules generally prohibit non-germane amendments, the Senate does not, allowing for a broader range of issues to be attached to legislation.
  • Pork Barrel Spending: This term refers to the allocation of government spending for localized projects secured primarily to bring money to a representative’s district. While often criticized, pork barrel spending can be a way for members to deliver tangible benefits to their constituents.
  • Logrolling: This practice involves an agreement between legislators to support each other’s bills. For example, two members might agree to vote for each other’s proposals to ensure both bills receive the necessary support to pass.

Reconciliation and Presidential Action

  • Conference Committee: If the House and Senate pass different versions of the bill, a conference committee made up of members from both chambers negotiates a compromise.
  • Final Approval: The compromised bill is sent back to both the House and Senate for a final vote. No amendments are allowed at this stage.
  • Presidential Decision: Once both chambers pass the same version, the bill is sent to the President, who can sign it into law or veto it. Congress can override a veto with a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

The process of a bill becoming a law in the United States involves a detailed system of checks, balances, and negotiations. Committees play a crucial role in shaping legislation, conducting in-depth reviews, and making substantive changes before a bill reaches the floor for broader debate. Legislative terms like non-germane riders, pork barrel spending, and logrolling illustrate the strategic and often complex nature of legislative negotiation and coalition-building. This intricate process ensures that legislation is thoroughly vetted and debated, reflecting the diverse interests and concerns of the American electorate.

Passing a Federal Budget Bill in Congress


The process of passing a federal budget bill in Congress is a complex, often contentious undertaking that involves negotiation, compromise, and an intricate understanding of federal spending categories. The federal budget includes mandatory spending, discretionary spending, and may involve deficit spending, reflecting the government’s priorities and fiscal policy stance. In recent years, the budget process has become increasingly politicized, leading to debates that extend far beyond fiscal concerns.

The Budget Process

  1. Presidential Proposal: The process begins with the President submitting a budget request to Congress, outlining the administration’s revenue and spending priorities for the next fiscal year.
  2. Congressional Action: The House and Senate Budget Committees each develop their budget resolutions based on the President’s proposal, which set overall spending limits but do not allocate funding to specific programs.
  3. Appropriations: Discretionary spending is determined through appropriations bills crafted by the Appropriations Committees in both chambers. These bills fund government agencies and programs.
  4. Mandatory Spending: This category, which includes Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, is determined by existing laws rather than the annual appropriations process.
  5. Reconciliation: If necessary, a reconciliation process can adjust spending or revenues to align with the budget resolution’s goals, particularly for reducing the deficit.

Key Terms Defined

  • Mandatory Spending: Expenditures required by law, covering entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These are not subject to the annual appropriations process.
  • Discretionary Spending: Funding for government programs that Congress appropriates annually, including defense, education, and transportation.
  • Deficit Spending: Occurs when the government’s expenditures exceed its revenues, requiring borrowing to cover the difference.

Political Controversy

In recent years, the budget process has become fraught with political controversy. Key issues include:

  • Partisan Divides: Sharp disagreements between and within parties over spending priorities and the size of government have led to impasses.
  • Rising Deficits: Concerns over increasing federal deficits and the national debt have heightened tensions, particularly regarding how to address mandatory spending growth.
  • Policy Riders: Attempts to attach policy changes or non-germane riders to budget bills can exacerbate disagreements.

When Congress cannot pass a budget or stopgap funding measures (continuing resolutions), it leads to a government shutdown. That means exactly what it sounds like–the entire United States Federal Government, most of it’s employees across the country, and most of the services they provide come to a stop. Watch the video below to see what this looks like and why this is becoming so common.