The United States Congress is the branch of government that passes laws. The authority to do this is granted by Article I of the Constitution.
The Constitution is organized into seven articles. Article I, defines the legislature, its powers and prohibitions and defines relations between the federal and state governments. Article II defines the presidency. Article III defines the judiciary and Article IV outlines the obligations of the state and federal governments.
Article I, the longest and most detailed of the articles, begins simply:
“Section 1. All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”
US House of Representatives: Composition, Election & Qualification of Members
Section 2 Defines the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is made up of members from each state according to the population of the states as determined every ten years in the national census. Every two years there is an election for every member of the House. The House elects the Speaker and its other officers, and has the sole power of impeachment. The following qualifications are required to serve in the House:
- 25 years of age
- 7 years a citizen of the United States
- An inhabitant of the state from which elected
Section 2 further defines the House term of two years; who may vote for House members (the voting requirements were to be same as set by the States for members of the State Legislature); who is counted for purposes of representation (at the time, three-fifths of the slaves were counted); the original number of representatives for each state, providing that every state shall have at least one; how vacancies are filled; the office of the Speaker of the House; and the power of impeachment.
US Senate: Composition, Election & Qualification of Members
Section 3 defines the US Senate. The US Senate is composed of two Senators from every state regardless of population. Each Senator serves a term of six years. The terms of Senators are staggered so that one-third of the Senate is elected every two years. The Vice-President is President of the Senate, voting in the case of ties. Senators elect their other officers. The Senate has the power to try impeachments. Article II gives the Senate power to approve presidential appointments and treaties. The following qualifications are required to serve in the Senate:
- 30 years of age
- 9 years a citizen of the United States
- An inhabitant of the state from which elected
The selection of Senators was given to the states. It remained this way until 1913 when the 17th Amendment provided for election by popular vote.
Sections 4, 5, 6 and 7: The Operation of Congress
Sections 4, 5, and 6 address technical operations of Congress, e.g.: meeting schedules, compensation, keeping of records,
Section 7 has important provisions:
- Any law regarding raising revenue for the government must originate in the House of Representatives. This means that any law regarding taxes must start in the House of Representatives.
- A bill passed by Congress becomes a law when signed by the president. Section 7 defines how a president can reject a bill via a veto, and how Congress can enact a law over the president’s objections.
The Enumerated Powers of the US Congress, Section 8
Section 8 of the Constitution grants specific powers regarding the laws which Congress may pass. Congressional power is to be limited to these “enumerated powers”. When Congress acts outside the enumerated powers granted that act is “unconstitutional”. This is the legal concept of “limited government”. An analogy is when an agent appointed by a “power of attorney” acts outside the powers granted by the principal. Such acts are illegal or invalid. This same is true of congressional acts that are outside the powers in Art. I, section 8.
Since 1803 in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court has exercised the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. For over 150 years the Court, in general, saw the Constitution as a real limit on the authority of Congress.
In 1942, that changed with the case of Wickard v. Filburn when the Court agreed Congress could regulate farmer growing wheat for his own use. With that case the Court began agreeing that The Commerce Clause gave Congress great authority over American life. With an expansive view of the Commerce Clause, Congress, with the approval of the Supreme Court, has the authority to legislate regarding anything affecting interstate commerce. In practice, this has given Congress control over most aspects of American life.
The Section 8 Enumerated Powers are:
- Lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises;
- Pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States;
- Borrow money on the credit of the United States;
- Regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;
- Establish a uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States;
- Coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures;
- Provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States;
- Establish post offices and post roads;
- Promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;
- Constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;
- Define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations;
- Declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
- Raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
- Provide and maintain a navy;
- Make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
- Provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
- Provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia;
- Exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over the seat of government;
- Make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers
Prohibited Acts of Congress: Section 9
In addition to granting specific power, the Constitution (original, not as amended) prohibits Congress from doing the following:
- Suspending the writ of habeas corpus
- Taxing the ports of one state more than the ports of another
- Passing bills of attainder or ex post facto laws
- Spending funds without passing a law allowing it to do so
- Granting titles of nobility
While Americans generally look to the Bill of Rights (Amendments I-X) as constitutional guarantees, two important rights are enumerated in Section 9. Habeas Corpus dates in Anglo-American legal tradition to the Magna Carta in 1215, and requires that when someone is held against his will the right to demand a judicial hearing. The restrictions on Bills of Attainder and ex post facto laws ensure that Congress cannot single out for punishment a particular person, or make something illegal after the fact.
Article I Limitations on State Governments
In order to maintain congressional authority in specific areas, the Constitution limits the actions of state governments. State governments cannot:
- Enter into treaties, coin money, pass bills of attainder, ex post facto laws or impair contracts
- Pass laws imposing import taxes or duties
- Engage in war
Article I, the First Article for the First Among Equals
The legislative, executive and judicial branches of the American government are often described as co-equal branches of government. Article I is by far the most detailed article of the Constitution. It was the legislature that the Founders saw as the true source of government authority. It is said the Congress is defined in Article I because as James Madison said the Congress was to be “the first branch of government.”
The enumerated powers of Article I are the primary source of congressional authority. Depending upon how one counts there are as many as thirty-five powers granted throughout the Constitution.