Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONGRESS (U. S.). "The congress" is the term used in the constitution of the United States to designate the legislative body of the nation. But, in popular usage, and in the later statutes, this body is called congress without the use of the definite article. While the continental congress and the congress of the confederation had but a single chamber, a congress of two chambers, elected for various terms and by a different constituency, was provided for by the constitution of 1789. The debates in the constitutional convention upon the formation, the numbers, the modes of election and the relative powers of the two branches of congress, are full of interest; and to them the reader is referred for details. The principal difficulty that arose concerned the relative power of representation of the larger and the smaller states in congress; the less populous states claiming equal representation, while the larger states insisted on representation in proportion to numbers. This was compromised by giving to all the states equal representative power in the senate, while the representation of each state in the house was graduated strictly in proportion to the number of its inhabitants.


—This guarantee to the smaller states of a political power in the senate equal to that of the largest, is permanently fixed by the 5th article of the constitution, which provides that no state without its consent shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the senate.


—The constitution having fixed the term of two years for the duration of each congress, the times of meeting, as well as the length of the sessions, are left to the legislative body, except the requirement in the constitution that they shall assemble at least once in every year, and on the first Monday in December, "unless they shall by law appoint a different day." The fixing of the 4th of March in every second year as the period of expiration of the congressional term (as well as the 4th of March for the quadrennial term of the president, and the six years' term of the senators) has no foundation in the constitution. It originated simply in an act of the congress of the confederation (September, 1788), providing the first Wednesday in March of the ensuing year as the time for putting in operation the new government created by the constitution. This day happened to be March 4, 1789; though, in fact, there was no organization of the 1st congress until April 6, 1789, owing to lack of a quorum. The usage of December sessions closing the 4th of March following in the odd years, and some time between June and September in the even years, has become established, although frequently varied in former years by earlier, and, in later years, by extra, sessions. Its chief disadvantages are, 1, that there is an interregnum of nine months every other year, from March 4 to the first Monday in December, during which congress is unorganized; 2, that, for the same long period, there is no speaker of the house of representatives, who is by law one of the officers that may be required to assume the office of president of the United States; 3, that the whole legislative business of every alternate year is crowded, by the holiday adjournment, etc., into about 60 days, with pernicious results to the character of the legislation; 4, that the house of representatives, elected more than a year before taking their seats in congress, do not reflect the popular will as if fresh from the people. It has been suggested that all difficulty might be removed, were each congress to be organized (like most of the state legislatures) early in January following the November in which they were elected—Congress may be convened at any time when not in session by proclamation of the president "on extraordinary occasions;" and this power has been ten times exercised since 1789. (See CONGRESS, SESSIONS OF.). He has no power to adjourn or to prorogue congress, except in case of disagreement between the two houses.


—The sessions of congress are open to the public, except the executive sessions of the senate, which are secret. The senate also sat with closed doors during the first five congresses, and no report of its debates prior to 1799 has been preserved. Since that time the right of the public to witness or to report both the proceedings and the debates in congress, has been recognized; and for nearly 30 years past congress has furnished full verbatim reports by official stenographers. Moreover, the journal of the proceedings of each house is published by constitutional requirement. Though one of the rules of the house of representatives provides for secret sessions to consider confidential communications, there is no instance in which the house has excluded the public from its debates.


—Both houses of congress meet at 12 o'clock M., the sessions continuing, when business is prepared, from four to six hours. But toward the end of each session, earlier hours of meeting and much longer sessions (including evenings) are customary.


—Congress is, by the constitution, a salaried body, the present compensation of senators and representatives being $5,000 per annum, with $125 annual allowance for stationery and newspapers, and mileage allowance of 20 cents per mile of travel each way from their homes at each annual session. Absence without leave entails deduction from compensation. A majority of the whole number of members is in each house necessary to constitute a quorum to do business. The debates and proceedings may go on with a less number, but only by unanimous consent.


—The seats to be occupied by members are drawn by lot in the house of representatives at the beginning of each congress. In the senate there is no drawing for seats; but the custom prevails of individual selection or pre-emption of seats about to become vacant.


—Both houses of congress, by requirement of the constitution, meet in joint convention to count the votes for president and vice-president. There is no instance of the meeting of the senate and house in one body, except for this purpose, and for occasional ceremonial observances.


—The concurrence of a majority of both houses present and voting is necessary to pass any law, joint resolution or concurrent resolution. Special resolutions, however, are often passed by each branch separately (more frequently by the house of representatives). But these have no validity except as expressions of the sentiments of the house in question.


—Congress has a library of 400,000 volumes, and a librarian, who is also made by law register of copyrights of the United States. Each house elects a chaplain and from four to six principal officers, who have the appointment of a large staff of clerks, messengers, pages, etc. The total annual expenses of congress vary from five to six million dollars, inclusive of printing.


—The members of congress must take an oath to support the constitution, and the principal officers must take the same oath, together with one for the faithful discharge of their duties.


—Nearly all the legislative business of congress is prepared by standing committees, numbering (in 1881) 47 in the house and 32 in the senate, besides 10 select committees in the house, and 12 in the senate. The reports of committees are, in general, confirmed, but the most important measures undergo extensive amendment in both houses. The most potential committees are those on appropriations in both houses, the finance committee of the senate, and the ways and means of the house. These have the privilege of the floor to the exclusion of all other business, unless overruled by a heavy majority. All bills passing both houses must be signed by the president of the senate and the speaker of the house, and laid before the president of the United States in person, by one or more members of the joint committee on enrolled bills. If signed, they become laws, if retained by the president over 10 days (unless congress meanwhile adjourns), they are also laws, upon a note of the fact registered with the bill in the state department. If vetoed, a majority of two-thirds of both houses present and voting*64 is required to make them laws.


—Those powerful organs of congress, the standing committees, are, by a rule of the senate, required to be elected by ballot, unless otherwise ordered. In fact, however, the senate committees have long been chosen by a caucus of the party having a majority, and elected en masse by a single yea and nay vote in the senate. In the house the rules provide that the speaker shall appoint all committees, unless otherwise specially ordered. This vast power and responsible duty usually occupies the speaker long after the organization of each congress.


—Each house of congress acts under a system of rules, the original basis of which was Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice. But the present rules—numbering 78 in the senate, adopted in 1877, and 45 in the house, adopted 1880—enforce a multitude of regulations as to the conduct of business, differing widely in either house. Thus: 1. Petitions and memorials are presented in open senate, and referred to committees; in the house, they are not publicly presented, but handed to the clerk for such reference as the member endorses thereon. 2. In the senate one day's notice must be given of a bill before it can be offered, unless by unanimous consent; in the house, any member may offer bills without limit, on every Monday. 3. In the house every Friday is set apart for private bills; but there is no such usage in the senate. 4. A house rule restricts debate within very narrow limits, first, by limiting set speeches to one hour second, by giving the motion for the "previous question" (the effect of which is to close debate) precedence over all others. In the senate there is no one-hour rule, no previous question, and no limitation of debate, except that no senator can speak more than twice on the same question the same day without leave of the senate. 5. Both houses have very stringent rules excluding from the floor all but certain privileged persons. In the senate, however, this rule is systematically disregarded; while in the house, it is of late years enforced with exemplary rigor.


—The joint rules of the two houses, 22 in number, which were in force at the end of the 43d congress (1875), were pronounced, by a resolution of the senate, Aug. 14, 1876, to be no longer in force. The last of these rules provided a method of proceeding in counting the electoral vote for president.


—Disagreement between the two houses on details of legislation is a constant occurrence, sometimes involving political questions, when the majority in each house represents a different party, and leading to a protracted dead-lock; more frequently the differences relate to new legislation, increased appropriations, etc, the senate being usually for larger, and the house for diminished expenditure. These differences are compromised by committees of conference (composed of three senators and three representatives), who exercise enormous powers, keeping in and thrusting out bills, vital measures of legislation, or appropriations amounting to millions. These conference reports, agreed to without amendment or discussion, under high pressure, in the expiring hours of the session, through fear of losing the important bills needed to carry on the government, virtually suspend some of the most important functions of the members of congress considered as a deliberative body.


—The senate was designed, by the framers of the constitution, not only to secure to each state an equal voice in legislation in the body constituting half of the law-making power, but also, by the greater length of the term of service, to afford a check upon hasty legislation by a popular body subject to biennial changes. A persistent attempt to give the senate a life tenure of office was defeated in the constitutional convention. It consists (1881) of 76 senators, being two from each of the 38 states of the Union. Elected for six years, and endowed, in addition to the law-making power which they share with the house of representatives, with the sole power over treaties with foreign nations, and all the more important nominations to office, the senate holds the highest and most responsible rank in the national legislature. Constitutionally elected by the legislatures of the states, instead of directly by the people, the choice of senators is frequently effected or retarded by party controversies and intrigue. Notable instances of partisan unfairness have occurred in various states, where a democratic senate has refused to meet a whig house, and a republican senate has refused to meet a democratic house, thus defeating a senatorial election. This led to the enactment of the law of July 2, 1866, which first prescribed the manner and time of electing senators, by a uniform rule in all the states.


—The vice-president of the United States is the presiding officer of the senate (having no vote, however, except in the case of a tie), and he is charged with no other duties. (For list of vice-presidents, see ADMINISTRATIONS.) The senate elects (usually at the beginning of each session) a president pro tempore (though this office has frequently been left vacant for some time), who presides in the absence of the vice-president. The presiding officer may name any senator to perform the duties of the chair, but such substitution must not extend beyond an adjournment for the day. (For the powers of the senate as a separate body, see CONSTITUTION.)


—The house of representatives has as its presiding officer a speaker, elected at the beginning of each congress, for two years, by viva voce vote. This is the first business in order, presenting a question of the highest privilege, and is proceeded with immediately upon the roll of members having been called by the clerk of the last house of representatives, who is charged with the duty of calling the unorganized house of representatives to order, and of deciding all questions of order, preceding the election of a speaker. The title and many of the functions of the latter officer are borrowed from the usage of the house of commons. Several instances of protracted parliamentary "dead-lock" through the inability of the house to elect a speaker, owing to a peculiar distribution of parties, have occurred; the most notable having been in 1857 and in 1859, when the house remained for weeks unorganized, the clerk presiding. The speaker of the house possesses unprecedented and enormous powers, not only in wielding the sole authority to appoint all standing and select committees, with their chairmen, by which the whole legislation of congress is virtually shaped, but also in his ability to construe the rules, to award the right to the floor to any member, and to give the preference to this or that measure in the consideration of public business. (For list of speakers of the house, see CONGRESS, SESSIONS OF.)


—The general conviction may be said to exist, that, under the great control over legislation and current business by the speaker, and by the powerful committee on appropriations, combined with the rigor of the rules of the house of representatives, there is less and less opportunity for individual members to make any influential mark in legislation. Independence and ability are repressed under the tyranny of the rules, and the practical power of the popular branch of congress is concentrated in the speaker and a few—a very few—expert parliamentarians.


Notes for this chapter

So decided in the 1st congress, in contravention to the claim that the constitutional majority of two-thirds implies two-thirds of the whole number of members.

Footnotes for CONSULS

End of Notes

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