Congress, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives, form the legislative branch of the United States government. Both senators and members of the House of Representatives can be called congressmen.
Differences in Composition
The Senate consists of 100 members. Each state elects two senators regardless of population size. The House has 435 members proportioned in accordance with population. Senators are elected every six years and representatives every two. These elections are staggered to prevent complete turnover each election cycle. Senators must be at least 30 years old and have been U.S. citizens for at least nine years. House members must be at least 25 years of age and citizens of the United States for at least seven years. Both senators and House members must be official residents of the states they represent, though representatives need not live in the district that elected them. While the Senate includes only representatives of the 50 states, the House also contains non-voting members from Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and four other U.S. territories. The vice president serves as president of the Senate while the House elects the speaker as its presiding member.
Differences in Duty
Both bodies share important duties involved in enacting laws and interacting with the other two branches of government. However, each has unique powers. Only the Senate can confirm presidential appointments and ratify treaties. This has two exceptions: appointments to the vice presidency and the ratification of treaties on foreign trade. Only the House can impeach federal officials including the President, initiate revenue bills or elect the president in the case of a tie in the electoral college.
Differences in Operation
There are also differences in the internal structure and operation between the House and Senate. During debates individual senators may speak as long as they like and can address topics not under consideration, leading to the possibility of a filibuster. Further, senators have great discretion in introducing an amendment to a bill under consideration. Debate in the House is more rigidly structured. Members are limited in speaking time and constrained in adding amendments.
Similarities and Function
The importance of the role of the House and Senate combined far outweighs the differences between them. They enact and oversee the laws and regulations necessary for the day-to-day running of the nation. They can make or change laws, levy tariffs and taxes and oversee important government bodies such as the post office, patent office, treasury and all branches of the military. Only Congress may declare war.
Together they form one of the balancing powers in the government. Congress provides a check on the executive branch through hearings, investigations and specialized committees. It must approve or reject all presidential appointments. It may also override a presidential veto by a two-thirds vote in both houses. In addition to its exclusive control of the creation and amendment of laws, Congress may accept or reject judicial appointments made by the president, thus allowing it oversight of the judicial branch.
The United States government is made up of three branches: the executive branch, legislative and judicial. The Constitution provides both the executive and judicial branches with powers over Congress to ensure a balanced government.