Originally Posted: October 3, 2019
The executive branch enforces laws. The judicial branch interprets laws. But it is in the law-making legislative branch, says Howard Schweber, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, “that the people deliberate and arrive at an agreement about the common good.”
When writing the U.S. Constitution, the framers built in three branches of federal government to ensure a separation of powers, and, as Article I states, “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.”
“The point of the Constitution was to replace a system in which the national government could only make laws that affected states in their relations with one another,” Schweber says. “The new system would be one in which the national government would make laws that applied to everyone—true national legislation.”
The framers referred to Congress as the “first branch,” establishing its structure and authority in Article I.
“Congress has the power to levy taxes, raise and maintain an army and navy, regulate interstate commerce, and pass any law it deems ‘necessary and proper,’ among a host of other powers like confirming judges and executive branch officials,” says Joshua Huder, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
Beyond these powers, here are 11 things you may not know about the legislative branch
The House, according to Schweber, was the expression of democracy, while the Senate was the expression of federalism. “The Senate was the place where each state’s interest could be asserted; the House was expected to be populated by virtuous, public-minded individuals who would only care for the national welfare,” he says. “So the House was intended to represent the people—that’s why there are a large number of representatives each attached to a particular number of people. The Senate, by contrast, is driven by the desire to ensure that each state would stand in a relationship of equality with the others.”
The framers looked to the British.
“The American system is modeled quite shamelessly on Britain’s, where a House of Commons and House of Lords each held legislative power,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “In essence, the House of Representatives/House of Commons represents the common people’s interests, and the Lords/Senate, the elites.
This is why senators enjoy six-year terms, and were originally selected not by popular vote but rather by each state’s legislature: Because they, like lords, were supposed to be further removed from the popular politics of the rabble and thus better insulated to consider great matters of state.”
Alexander Hamilton argued that senators should have lifelong terms.
The framers of the Constitution were at odds when it came to determining the length of Senate terms. According to the United States Senate Historical Office, six years was a compromise.
“Framers who favored longer terms argued that it would help the Senate check the democratic impulses of the House,” writes the office’s Betty K. Koed. “James Madison suggested a term of seven or nine years to hamper such influences. Alexander Hamilton argued that only lifetime terms could keep the ‘amazing violence and turbulence of the democratic spirit’ in check. Others wanted shorter terms to keep the Senate accountable.”
And, until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were selected by state legislatures rather than elected by voters.
The House has the power to name the president in case of a tie.
The Electoral College, noted in Article II, dictates the selection of the president occurs on a state-by-state basis rather than by popular vote. “So a tie in the Electoral College meant that the states had already spoken and failed to reach a decision,” Schweber says. “Turning the matter over to the Senate at that point would have been to reiterate the same failure of decision-making.”
And the House, Engel says, is where real sovereignty lies.
“Remember, the Constitution begins “We the people,” and the House most closely represents the broadest representation of the nation as a whole,” he says. “If there is a dispute over whom should lead us all, it only makes sense for the group that really represents all facets of the nation to have the final say.”
The House has been called on to exercise this power twice: In 1800, after a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and in 1824, when John Quincy Adams was named president by the House, although Andrew Jackson won the popular vote. READ MORE