Mr. Valenzuela

Civics – Legislative Branch


Today in class, students investigated and explained the role of the Legislative Branch in our government. To see what we worked on today, click on the links below:

microsoft_word_logo The Legislative Branch or click here for the HTML version

adobe-pdf-logo Page 17 Class Notes

microsoft_word_logo Legislative Branch Cornell Notes Handout

Homework - p. 16 - Write a letter to a friend explaining how the legislative branch works. At least 10 sentences!

The Legislative Branch

Congress is the legislative branch of the government. It is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The job of Congress is to make laws.

The Responsibilities of Lawmaking

Members of Congress have responsibilities to different groups. Each member is responsible to the group of citizens he or she represents. These constituents expect senators and representatives to be their voice in Congress.

Members of Congress are also responsible to their political party. Each party works to elect members. Members are expected to support the issues that are important to that party. One way members do this is to bring a bill before Congress.

Members of Congress who want to run for reelection need support and money. They often get help from interest groups. Interest groups work to get members of Congress to support bills that help their group. Interest groups use lobbyists to do this. A member of Congress must also be a servant of the people. This means they give information and help to those who need it. This is an important role because it helps constituents and wins votes in the next election.

Members of Congress at Work

Members of Congress spend a lot of time learning about issues. They listen to and give speeches. They also vote on bills. Every day, they go to meetings with each other and with lobbyists and constituents. Members of Congress prepare bills. They study reports. They read letters, too. Staff members help them.

Representatives and Senators

There are 435 representatives in the House. Each serves for two years. Representatives may run for reelection. The number of representatives for each state depends on the state’s population.

The Constitution calls for a census. The census counts the number of people in each state. It is used to decide how many representatives each state has. Each state is divided into congressional districts. All congressional districts must have about the same number of people.


There are 100 members in the Senate. Each state has two. A senator focuses on the interests of the whole state, not just one district. Senators are elected for six- year terms. One third of the senators are elected every two years. The terms of senators overlap, unlike the terms of representatives. That means there are always some experienced members in the Senate.

Requirements, Salary, and Benefits

Senators and representatives must live in the states in which they are elected. Representatives must be at least 25 years old. Senators must be at least 30 years old. A representative must have been a citizen for at least seven years. A senator must have been a citizen for at least nine years.

Benefits include offices in Washington and in each district or state. Members receive money for their offices, staff, and travel. They also have free use of the mail to write to constituents.


Powers Given to Congress

The powers given to Congress are the same in one way. They all reflect one or more of the goals in the Preamble to the Constitution. Some of these goals are “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, and insure domestic tranquility.” Other goals are to “pro- vide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

Congress helps the general welfare, or well-being of the people. It does this by making laws that help people live better. Congress has the power to collect taxes and borrow money. It has the power to decide how the money it collects will be spent. It has final approval of the government’s budget.

Congress provides for the defense of the nation. It has the power to set up an army and a navy. Only Congress has the power to declare war.

Congress also helps establish justice. It has the power to create federal courts below the Supreme Court. Congress also has the power to impeach an official such as the President or a federal judge. Only the House can impeach. The Senate has the power to put the impeached person on trial. The person is removed from office if he or she is found guilty.

The Constitution does not list all the powers of Congress. The elastic clause gives Congress unnamed powers. It allows Congress to make all laws that are “necessary and proper” for carrying out the listed powers. The elastic clause makes the government flexible. That helps it to change with the times.

The Constitution gives Congress important powers that do not have to do with making laws. Congress also has the power to investigate matters related to the government. It can gather information to make laws. It can also find out how the executive branch is enforcing laws.

Limits on the Powers of Congress

Limits on the powers of Congress are both general and specific. The system of checks and balances sets general limits. Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution lists specific limits.

The most important of these specific limits protects the rights of citizens. If you are in jail without a charge, a lawyer or friend can get a writ of habeas corpus. This paper orders the police to bring you into court. The court decides if the police have enough evidence to keep you in jail. If not, you must be let go. The

Constitution says that Congress cannot take away this right except during invasion or civil war.

The Constitution also does not allow Congress to pass a bill of attainder. This convicts a person of a crime without a trial. In addition, Congress cannot pass an ex post facto law. Such a law makes a particular act a crime. Then it punishes people who did the act before the law was passed.

The meeting periods of Congress are called terms. Each two-year term is divided into two sessions. There is one session for each year. Members of Congress often work in committees to make laws. A committee is a small working group.

Leadership in Congress

The Constitution says that the House of Representatives must choose the Speaker of the House. It says that the Vice President serves as the president of the Senate. It also directs the Senate to choose a president pro tempore. This officer is called president pro tem, for short. The Democratic and Republican parties decide who the leaders will be. The party with more members is called the majority party. The one with fewer members is the minority party.

The majority party in the House chooses the Speaker of the House. The Speaker is the most powerful member. The Speaker chooses committee members and sends bills to committees. The Speaker also leads sessions.

The Vice President is in charge of sessions of the Senate. Unlike the Speaker, the Vice President cannot take part in debates. The Vice President votes only to break a tie. The majority party in the Senate chooses the president pro tem. This officer usually leads the Senate sessions. That is because the Vice President is busy with executive duties.


Floor leaders must guide bills through Congress. They work closely with committee leaders and party members. Assistant floor leaders are called whips.

They help the floor leaders.

Working in Committees

Committees do much of the work of making laws. A bill introduced in the House or Senate is sent to a standing committee. These are permanent committees. Each deals with one area, such as banking. Each has Democratic and Republican members. The chairperson of each committee belongs to the majority party. Committees control what happens to a bill. First, a standing committee studies it. Next, it holds hearings about the bill. The committee may suggest changes.

Finally, the committee decides whether to send the bill to the entire House or Senate. If the committee does not send the bill, the bill expires or dies. The House or Senate sometimes forms a select committee. This committee deals with a problem not covered by a standing committee. Members of both the

House and the Senate make up a joint committee.

A bill must pass in both houses. Then it can go to the President to be signed. Sometimes the houses cannot agree. Then a conference committee is formed. It is different from a standing committee because it is temporary. It tries to settle the differences between the houses.

The President’s Role

A bill is sent to the President after it has been passed by both houses. The President can sign the bill into law. He also may veto, or reject, a bill. The President may send the bill back to Congress unsigned. Congress can still pass the bill by a two-thirds vote of both houses.

A bill can also become law if the President holds it for ten days without signing or vetoing it. This is another way the President can veto a bill. It is called a pocket veto.

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