Picture a bunch of grown adults shouting. Some of you might have actually imagined Congress, and that image would not be too far off. Picture a large group of adults shouting that create and pass legislation. A mixture of order and chaos. In other words, the beating heart of our democracy, but do you know how it works? If not, don’t worry. Just read on.
While the inspiration for our Congress goes all the way back to the British Parliament, our Continental Congress embodied the first American Congress. This legislative body produced laws for the original thirteen colonies, and declared independence from the British Empire. To gauge how much information college students actually know about Congress, I asked a few.
“[Congress is a] representative body split into a lower House of Representatives and an upper Senate which produces the laws for the United States,” Stony Brook University junior Jake Corso said.
Then, I turned to a different perspective. A friend of mine in Army ROTC goes to school far from Stony Brook at Baruch College. I expected a slightly different response because the schools reside far away from one-another, and perhaps because of the influence the Army has on his opinion.
“Congress is the representative legislative body of the US people for the federal government,” Baruch College junior John Koenig said.
Those answers hit the nail on the head. Currently, our American Congress encompasses both the upper house, a.k.a. the Senate, and the lower house, a.k.a. the House of Representatives.
The Senate consists of exactly 100 Senators. There are 2 from each state, elected at different times so that the senior Senators can aid the junior ones. This largely explains why they have staggered six-year terms. Before running for the Senate, you must be at least thirty. The founders probably assumed and thought age meant wisdom. You also must have been a citizen for nine years and live in the state you wish to run in. Unlike the president, you don’t need to be born in America.
The House of Representatives has 435 members in total, consisting of members from each state based on the state’s population. This existed to compromise between those who wanted equal representation (The Senate) and representation based on population (The House of Representatives). Like the Senate, they have staggered terms, though they’re shorter at only 2 years instead. Also similar to the Senate, the House requires prior citizenship. Although, it spans less, at 7 years rather than 9. You also must live in the state and district you plan on representing.
Even though age and citizenship have importance, so does education. Today, lawmakers have degrees like bachelors, masters or doctorates. Many also served in the military. Studying something relevant such as Political Science or English could help too.
Functions of Congress:
The Senate makes laws. Specifically, the Senate votes on bills originally passed by a simple majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate also exerts checks and balances on other branches. They exercise this by voting on presidential cabinet nominations, voting on a Supreme Court nomination, and alongside a similar vote in the House, override presidential vetoes. More importantly, the Senate votes on declarations of war, treaties and other policies like expelling senators, impeachment, and amending the constitution.
Historically, the Senate last voted on a declaration of war in 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. So technically, every war since then does not constitute an actual a war. The President simply initiated a military conflict with some vague powers the presidency has to declare war. Specifically, the President holds the position of the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This roughly means he controls them. Though debatable, the Constitution gives the President limited power to initiate conflicts for the defense of the nation. What “defense” means has been subjective, to say the least.
The Senate also voted down our League of Nations membership, which entails the only reason why America didn’t join the group. The League of Nations sought to prevent war through diplomacy. When America didn’t join, the League had little military capacity to assert itself. This was soon tested, and the League failed, when Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria, and Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia.
The House of Representatives chiefly proposes bills to the Senate. It can also impeach public officials like the President. If the Electoral College ever tied, the House would vote to decide on the President. Spending bills also starts here, which often includes tax changes.
How can you push Congress to create change?
Congress is basically the be-all and end-all for laws. America gets attacked? Congress could declare war. Foreign aid or treaties, boom, that’s the Senate’s job. The Senate is responsible for all of this. Congress holds the responsibility for a lot of our lives, like Title IX and protecting students from discrimination in college.
But, we must realize that Congress functions on behalf of us, the people. If you want change, call or write to your representative or senator. They or their office should answer. If they don’t seem interested, start a petition. When all else fails, you could protest too.
The best way to create change might even be running altogether. If that fits your plan, make sure to brush up on skills like public speaking and your knowledge of local government. Focus on the issues that impact the community or communities, gain contacts in government and maybe even practical experience like an internship. Most positions tend to divide on partisan lines too; for example, Republican vs. Democrat. Therefore, getting the party nomination has importance too. Shake up the establishment.
So, perhaps the definition, “Congress is a branch of government (I think) that helps pass laws and regulations,” New York Institute of Technology sophomore Amanda Rex described, doesn’t seem that far off.