Article I of the U.S. Constitution grants all legislative powers
to a bicameral Congress: a House of Representatives and a Senate
that are the result of a "Great Compromise" seeking
to balance the effects of popular majorities
with the interests of the states.
Our system currently provides for a two-year term of office
for House members from the 435 population-based districts.
In the Senate, voters of each state elect two Senators,
who serve 6-year terms that overlap (such that only one-third
of the chamber is up for election in any given election cycle).
The two chambers are fundamentally equal
in their legislative roles and functions.
Only the House can originate revenue legislation,
and only the Senate confirms presidential nominations
and approves treaties, but the enactment
of law always requires both chambers to separately agree to the same bill
in the same form before presenting it to the President.
Because each chamber has the constitutional authority
to make its own rules, the House
and Senate have developed some very different ways
of processing legislation, perhaps partially flowing
from their constitutional differences.
In general, House rules and practices allow a numerical majority
to process legislation relatively quickly.
Senate rules and procedures, on the other hand, favor deliberation
over quick action, as they provide significant procedural leverage
to individual Senators.
Congressional action is typically planned and coordinated
by party leaders in each chamber, who have been chosen by members
of their own caucus or conference - that is, the group of members
in a chamber who share a party affiliation.
Majority party leaders in the House have important powers
and prerogatives to effectively set the policy agenda and decide
which proposals will receive floor consideration.
In the Senate, the leader of the majority party is generally expected
to propose items for consideration, but formal tools
that allow a numerical majority to take action are few.
Instead, majority party leadership typically must negotiate
with minority party leaders (and often all Senators)
to effectively conduct Senate floor action.
In both chambers, much of the policy expertise resides
in the standing committees - panels of members from both parties
that typically take the lead in developing
and assessing legislation.
Members typically serve on a small number of committees,
often for many years, allowing them
to become highly knowledgeable in certain policy areas.
All committees are chaired by a member of the majority party,
though chairs often work closely with the committee's ranking member,
the most senior member of the minority party on the committee.
In almost all cases, the ratio of majority party
to minority party members
on a committee roughly reflects the overall partisan ratio
in the congressional chamber.
Committee members and staff focus much of their time on drafting
and considering legislative proposals, but committees engage
in other activities, as well.
Once law is enacted, Congress has the prerogative and responsibility
to provide oversight of policy implementation,
and its committees take the lead in this effort.
Both chambers provide their committees with significant powers
and latitude for oversight and investigations into questions
of public policy and its effects.
While the engine of legislative ideas and action is Congress itself,
the President has influence in the legislative process, as well.
The President recommends an annual budget for federal agencies
and often suggests legislation.
Perhaps more significantly,
the power to veto legislation can affect the content
of bills passed by Congress.
Since it is quite unusual for law to be enacted over a presidential veto,
Congress typically must accommodate the president's position
on proposed policies.
The process by which a bill becomes law is rarely predictable
and can vary significantly from bill to bill.
In fact, for many bills, the process will not follow the sequence
of congressional stages that are often understood to make
up the legislative process.
The presentations on specific topics
that follow present a more detailed look at each of the common stages
through which a bill may move, but keep in mind that complications
and variations abound in practice.