How Congress Works: A Beginner’s Guide

Here is a beginner’s guide on how the U.S. Congress works:

Introduction to Congress

The U.S. Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government, responsible for making laws. It is bicameral, meaning it has two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. This structure is designed to balance the interests of states with large and small populations.

Political power in the United States
Political power in the United States

Structure of Congress

The Senate

  • Composition: 100 Senators, two from each state.
  • Terms: Senators serve six-year terms with approximately one-third of the seats up for election every two years.
  • Leadership: The Vice President of the United States is the President of the Senate but only votes to break ties. Day-to-day operations are overseen by the Senate Majority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader.

The House of Representatives

  • Composition: 435 Representatives, apportioned based on state population.
  • Terms: Representatives serve two-year terms, with all seats up for election every two years.
  • Leadership: The Speaker of the House is the presiding officer and the leader of the majority party in the House. Other key leaders include the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader.

Functions of Congress


  • Introduction of Bills: Bills can be introduced in either the House or the Senate, except for revenue bills, which must originate in the House.
  • Committees: Bills are referred to specialized committees that review, amend, and vote on them. Key committees include the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Floor Debate: If a committee approves a bill, it goes to the floor of its respective chamber for debate. In the House, debate is often limited by rules, while the Senate allows for unlimited debate unless cloture is invoked to end a filibuster.
  • Voting: After debate, the bill is put to a vote. If it passes in one chamber, it goes to the other chamber for consideration.

Conference Committee

  • If the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, a conference committee made up of members from both chambers works out the differences. The revised bill must then be approved by both chambers.

Presidential Action

  • Once both chambers pass a bill, it is sent to the President. The President can sign the bill into law, veto it, or allow it to become law without a signature. Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate.

Other Functions


  • Congress oversees the executive branch to ensure laws are implemented properly. This includes holding hearings, conducting investigations, and using the power of the purse to influence executive actions.


  • The House has the power to impeach federal officials, including the President, for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Senate conducts the trial and can remove the official from office with a two-thirds vote.

Advice and Consent

  • The Senate has the power to advise and consent to presidential appointments and treaties. This includes confirming judges, cabinet members, and other key officials.

Budgeting and Appropriations

  • Congress is responsible for creating the federal budget and appropriating funds for government operations. This involves passing appropriation bills and overseeing federal spending.

Public Involvement

  • Elections: Citizens elect members of Congress. House members are elected every two years, while Senators are elected every six years, with staggered terms.
  • Constituent Services: Members of Congress provide services to their constituents, helping with issues related to federal agencies and listening to their concerns and opinions.
  • Public Input: Citizens can contact their representatives, participate in town halls, and provide testimony during committee hearings to influence legislation.


Understanding how Congress works is essential for engaging with the democratic process in the United States. From drafting and passing laws to overseeing the executive branch, Congress plays a crucial role in shaping national policy and representing the interests of the American people.