What is the main task of the Congress

United States

Prof. Dr. Peter Lösche

To person

Prof. em. Dr. Peter Lösche, taught at the Department of Political Science at the Georg-August University in Göttingen. His work focuses on politics and society in the USA, parties and associations as well as party and election campaign financing.

What duties and rights does the American Congress, which consists of the House and Senate, have? How is it elected, which members is it made up of?

The Washington Capitol, seat of the US Congress. (& copy AP)

Article I, paragraph 1 of the US Constitution provides: "Legislative power rests in the United States Congress, which consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives". In the US system of division of powers, Congress is largely autonomous. This is why US political science also speaks of the "semi-sovereign congress". Sovereign because Congress is the legislature. Semi-sovereign because other powers - the President through his suspensive veto, the Supreme Court through its decisions on the constitutionality of laws - are involved in the legislative process. The congress differs from houses of representatives in parliamentary systems of government in that it is the legislator, while in Germany, for example, the executive is significantly involved in the legislative process, often as its initiator. On the other hand, it is formally not even possible for the president to introduce bills himself into the parliamentary deliberation process in Washington. If the government wants to get a bill in motion, it has to look for MPs in both houses to take the initiative. Under constitutional law, the President is limited to messages to Congress in which he can include legislative proposals; he forwards the draft budget to parliament. In constitutional reality, however, with the emergence of the welfare state and the rise of the USA to become a world power, competencies have passed from the legislative to the executive. Especially in times of crisis - such as the Great Depression and the New Deal - these were downright forced upon the President.

Composition and task

The Congress consists of two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate has two senators from each state, regardless of the size of the population. With 50 individual states today, it has 100 members. A third of the senators are elected every two years. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, consists of 435 members. The mandates are distributed among the individual states according to their number of inhabitants. After each census, which takes place every ten years, the seats are reassigned and the constituencies are realigned in the event of changes. The population migration to the south or west is then expressed in the increasing or decreasing number of representatives of a state. New York State had 34 MPs in 1981 and 29 MPs in 2001, while California had 45 MPs in 1981, 53 MPs in 2001, Florida 19 MPs in 1981, and 35 MPs in 2001. The House of Representatives is re-elected every two years. One legislative term of the congress therefore lasts two years.

The congress performs three central tasks:
  • Legislation;
  • Budget advice and decision-making (power of the purse);
  • Control of the President and the Executive (oversight).


Bills are discussed in the committees and sub-committees of both houses and require the approval of both chambers. If the drafts decided by both houses differ from each other, an alignment takes place in a kind of mediation committee, a conference committee. This is not a standing committee (like the mediation committee between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat), rather it is set up on an ad hoc basis for each new bill that needs to be reconciled. Only after the President's signature does a bill become law.

The president can be controlled and restricted in his power through legislation. This was the aim of the so-called War Powers Resolution, for example. Under the Constitution, the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, but only Congress has the right to declare war. This right of Congress has been increasingly eroded in the 20th century. The president sent the military into battle without a declaration of war - for example to Vietnam.

In order to prevent such undeclared wars, the War Powers Resolution provides that in the event of an attack on the United States, on American property, or on American armed forces, the President may, without the express consent of Congress, for 60 days (also under special conditions for 90 days) able to send troops. However, the President must then consult Congress and inform it of further developments. Presidents are circumventing the War Powers Act by obtaining the right to deploy troops in a different way, namely through an approving resolution of Congress instead of a formal declaration of war - as was the case under George W. Bush in the war against Iraq.

Budget advice and decision-making

Congress was more successful in restricting presidential power in the budgetary area. The power of the purse is a central right of every parliament, because the allocation of funds sets political priorities. It is expressly assigned to Congress by the US Constitution. This competence has been undermined by various presidents by tacitly not spending money that had been placed in the budget to fund certain programs at the will of Congress. The Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 prohibited this practice. Today the President must officially notify Parliament if he does not intend to spend approved funds - and Congress can destroy this intention with a simple majority. In addition, this law tightened the previously extremely complicated and confusing process of budgetary advice in Congress. And as a counterbalance to the Office of Management and Budget, which drafts the budget in the Executive Office, which is then forwarded to Congress by the President, the Congress has created its own bureaucracy in the budget area, the Congressional Budget Office, in which over 200 experts work.

Control of the executive branch

The most time consuming task of Congress is to oversee the executive branch, scrutinize individual agencies and key actors to see how they are executing the law. Oversight can take place in a wide variety of ways. That starts with laws like the War Powers Act and the Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which limit executive power. Also feared are hearings before committees and sub-committees, at which prominent executives could be questioned in public. Any committee or subcommittee of Congress can turn into a committee of inquiry. But it is also possible to set up special committees of inquiry. These are - similar to courts - coercive means available. In addition to summoning and questioning witnesses, they can request the delivery of documents and files from the executive branch and, in the case of refusal to testify, even request punishment for disregarding Congress. Only the President and his staff in the White House Office are protected from such hearings and investigations on the basis of what is known as executive privilege.

Scientific services and investigative authorities are available to Congress in order to fulfill its legislative and control functions. These include the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress with over 4,000 employees, the Congressional Research Service with over 700 academic assistants and the General Accounting Office, a kind of audit office of Parliament with over 3,000 employees. The Congress has thus also created its own bureaucracies in the area of ​​legislation and control as a counterweight to the government bureaucracy.

The fragmentation as a characteristic of the US political system is also evident in Congress. Unlike a clearly structured parliamentary group in which there is a majority and a minority, as in Great Britain or Germany, the Congress is fragmented in three ways: On the one hand, the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives act as individuals, as political ones Entrepreneur. On a second level, there are dozens and dozen of committees and sub-committees, which are subdivisions of Congress. And on the third level there is the leadership of the congress. Although the latter has gained power over the last few decades, its competencies and actual influence cannot be compared with the leadership of factions and parliaments in parliamentary systems of government.