Legislative Bodies

SIC 9121

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This category covers legislative bodies and their advisory and interdepartmental committees and commissions at the local, state, and national level.

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Legislative bodies (from the Latin lex, "law," and latio, "a bringing") include the U.S. Congress, state legislative assemblies, and local commissions and boards. These entities are responsible for proposing, selecting, and amending the laws that govern all Americans. They have the authority to levy taxes, regulate commerce, borrow money, and exercise a number of additional powers.

Although it has been amended to alter the function of the legislature, the U.S. Constitution that became effective in 1789 defines the federal legislative branch. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution expressly reserves to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution. State legislative bodies have been likewise organized under state constitutions. The conceptual structure of most U.S. legislative bodies largely reflects European initiatives, such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689).

The authoritative purview of U.S. legislative bodies is often challenged in legal efforts to clarify the scope, limits, and respective balancing of federal versus state power. This helps to maintain the vitality and viability of the Constitution when applied to contemporary issues and crises. Accordingly, the U.S. legislative system has remained a healthy model for democracies around the globe.

Following the elections of 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives seated 258 Democrats and 177 Republicans, and the U.S. Senate seated 58 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and 2 Independents. Looking at control of state legislatures, following the 2008 elections, Democrats controlled both the house and the senate in 23 state legislatures, Republicans controlled 14 states, and 12 states had split control between the two legislative chambers. Nebraska has a unicameral that is not elected on a partisan basis.

Organization and Structure

All U.S. governing bodies at the national and state levels--and most local governments--are distinguished by the fact that their executive, legislative, and judicial branches are practically independent of one another. This portentous difference contrasts with cabinet governments, utilized in many European nations, in which the executive body is drawn from and responsible to the legislative arm. As a result, the president is solely responsible to the voters and is theoretically free from direct legislative control. Likewise, legislative bodies are relatively unfettered by the executive branch. This separation of powers, combined with a system of checks and balances, serves to reduce the potential power of the government to domineer U.S. citizens. For example, chief executives can veto legislative initiatives, but legislators can override their vetoes.

State legislators initiate, draft, and vote on proposed state laws. Each state has two legislative bodies, an upper house (Senate) and a lower house. Nebraska, which has only one house, is the exception. The lower house is usually called the House of Representatives or, in some states, the Assembly or the House of Delegates. The size of legislatures varies. For example, in the late 2000s, Georgia had 236 legislators (56 senators and 180 representatives) whereas Nevada had only 63 (21 senators and 42 assembly members). However, within each state, all representatives are elected from districts with an almost equal number of citizens. About half of the legislators meet annually to vote on laws, and the other half meet twice each year. Upper house members are customarily elected for a term of four years and lower house members for a term of two years.

Most community legislative bodies exist under one of three types of government. Under mayor and council systems--the most common type of local governing body in the United States--an elected council acts as the legislative body. Its ordinances are typically subject to confirmation by the mayor, who is the head of the executive branch. Conversely, in the commission form of government, the elected commission essentially serves as both the legislative and executive body. The third type of system, council-manager government, operates similarly to the commission arrangement, the primary difference being that the council appoints a manager to oversee governmental departments rather than running the departments itself. Also at the local level are a variety of county legislators, who also receive their lawmaking authority from the state.

Congress constitutes the legislative branch of the federal government. It is the responsibility of Congress to develop, draft, amend, and vote on laws and proposed legislation that applies to the entire nation. In addition to their legislative duties, members of Congress also spend much of their time representing constituents in grievances against the federal bureaucracy. Congress convenes once each year, beginning on January 3, for a few months. It also holds special hearings on important public issues. In addition, the president may call special sessions of Congress.

Under the original U.S. Constitution, Congress is vested with the "Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the Common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." Some of the powers specifically outlined in Section 8, Powers of Congress, include the authority to: borrow money, regulate cross-border and interstate commerce, coin money, establish post offices and roads, grant creative (patent) rights, declare war, and "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers."

Congress is comprised of the Senate (upper house) and the House of Representatives (lower house). Both houses can introduce and amend bills. However, many of the laws on which Congress votes are written or proposed by the executive branch. To become law, bills must receive a majority vote from both houses and be signed by the president. If the president refuses to sign a bill, Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote from both houses.

The Senate was originally formed to represent the states and the upper class of society. Although its role has changed, it still retains some privileges, such as the power to approve or reject some presidential appointments, to try officials impeached by the House of Representatives, and to ratify or reject treaties. The Constitution allows each state two Senators. Senators are directly elected by the people of the state they represent and serve a term of six years. Senate elections are staggered so that no more than one-third of all Senate seats are up for election during any year. Although the vice president serves as the Senate president, the strongest Senate leaders are the majority floor leader and the minority floor leader, who are elected by caucuses of their respective political parties.

The House of Representatives was originally designed to represent the people. The proxies in this legislative body are elected from districts of approximately equal size in states throughout the United States. Each state gets at least one representative, and the total number of U.S. districts is limited to 435. "Apportionment" of House seats among the states is predicated on U.S. Census results. Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, as well as American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico each had only one representative in 2009, whereas California, for example, had 53 House members. The House is led by the speaker, who is selected by the majority party. Among other duties, the speaker presides over debates and appoints some committee members.

Bills introduced by either Senate or House members are sent to standing--or permanent--committees. Committees meet in private to amend, hasten, delay, or kill the bills. There were 19 standing committees in the House and 16 in the Senate in 2009, each of which was concerned with a special subject, such as public works and transportation, foreign affairs, or agriculture. Committee chairpersons, who often possess significant power, are usually members of the majority party that have served the longest on their committee. In addition to standing committees, there are several special and select committees. In 2009, the Senate had four select committees: aging, ethics, intelligence, and Indian affairs. The House had three: intelligence, homeland security, and energy independence and global warming. Finally, joint committees unite members from both houses to draft compromises of conflicting bills that each house has passed. In 2009, there were four joint committees: economic, library, printing, and taxation.

After a bill is passed by a committee, the house votes on it. In the House of Representatives, the bill must also pass through the Rules Committee before it is put to a vote. If the bill passes, it is sent to the other house where it is again subjected to a committee. If changes are made, a joint committee develops a compromise bill that each house must accept. The final bill is sent to the president. If the president does not sign or veto the bill within 10 days, it becomes a law. On the other hand, if Congress adjourns before the 10-day period expires, the bill is effectively vetoed, or "pocket vetoed."

Background and Development

The first Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia in 1774. Representatives of all states except Georgia attended. The group passed intercolonial resolutions calling for a boycott of British trade. The Constitution of the United States of America was created between May and September of 1787, in Philadelphia, by a group of delegates from 12 of the original 13 states. That document, which became effective in 1789, outlined the structure of the legislative as well as the executive and judicial branches of the federal government.

The Constitution reflected a blend of British law, a general distrust of government, Pilgrim political heritage, and European political philosophy from authors like John Locke and Montesquieu. Manifest in the Constitution was the concept of legislative supremacy by a representative body, particularly in matters of economics. Legislative dominance related to taxes and other laws was tempered by the separation of powers and an innovative system of checks and balances. In addition, the framers of the Constitution were careful to retain independence of state and local legislative bodies.

The Constitution was also unique in that it established a system whereby lawmakers could amend the document. Amendments could be passed by a consensus of two-thirds of both houses, or by a state-supported national convention. By 1999, the Constitution had 27 additional amendments (the last in 1992). In addition, as the role of the United States in world politics expanded, particularly following World War II, the function of Congress changed. While the powers of the federal executive branch increased, legislative dominance diminished in some areas, including fiscal control. However, Congress remains the primary force in U.S. government.

As the federal legislative branch changed during the twentieth century, so did the role of state and local legislative bodies. Early in the nation's history, federal and state powers were succinctly delineated. The Constitution assigned exclusive powers to both state and federal legislatures and provided for concurrent powers to be exercised by both levels of government. Federal courts, independent of Congress, mediated disputes and helped to determine spheres of state and federal influence. States, meanwhile, delegated legislative authority to local governments.

But the autonomy of state legislatures declined between 1900 and 1950 as the federal government ballooned in massive proportions, particularly after World War II. After giving itself the power to tax the income of U.S. citizens in 1913 (the 16th amendment to the Constitution), Congress swelled its income tax revenues from $5.4 billion in 1920 to $360 billion by 1980, and then an estimated $1.9 trillion (individual and corporate income taxes, along with excise taxes, and social insurance and retirement receipts) by 2002. As a result, states became increasingly dependent on federal government resources, and state and federal legislative bodies formed closer relationships.

Although they have evolved to meet the demands of a changing world, U.S. legislative bodies have remained relatively intact, from a Constitutional perspective. Besides a greater concentration of power at the federal level, several trends have characterized the legislative process. One of the most dominant is an emphasis on legislative oversight. This entails the responsibility of state and national legislators to continually review, investigate, and evaluate how well the policies and programs of the government are being executed. The purpose of legislative oversight is to reduce excessive and inefficient laws and bureaucracy.

A primary oversight tool developed during the latter decades of the century was "sunset legislation," which established a means of automatically terminating agencies, boards, and committees that are not specifically reauthorized by the legislature. Sunset laws had been adopted in 36 states by the mid-1980s. By the 1990s, however, several states had ceased using the sunset laws because of various logistical and political hindrances. The focus shifted to term limits and balanced-budget laws.

Congress entered the millennium with a balanced budget for the first time in decades. Several major pieces of legislation of global import were on the verge of final vote. The issues reflected the times: Year 2000 ("Y2K") computer glitches, gun control, and interest rates. One of the most sensitive and politically charged issues for legislators was allocating funds for military efforts overseas, such as in peacekeeping missions, or in assisting new democracies rising from volatile beginnings.

By the early 2000s, security issues--both at home and abroad--were of great concern to members of Congress. In response to increased terrorist threats, which included attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, as well as mail tainted with anthrax, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was formed. The Senate approved the new agency in November 2002 as the 107th Congress came to a close. The Associated Press dubbed the approval as "the largest government reorganization since World War II." A month earlier, Congress also passed a resolution that gave President George W. Bush the power to use military force against Saddam Hussein, who had been ordered to dispose of weapons of mass destruction by the United Nations. The Senate voted 77 to 23 in favor of this issue, and the House voted 296 to 133. In spring 2003, Bush used the powers granted by Congress, as the United States invaded Iraq in an effort to destroy Hussein's regime.

Another major initiative affecting Congress was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). Effective on November 6, 2002, this legislation resulted in significant changes to federal campaign finance law. BCRA also is known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, because U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and U.S. Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) were instrumental in its development. Although many Democrats and Republicans favored the law, many were also opposed to it. These opponents filed lawsuits at the federal level calling the law unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. These lawsuits eventually were combined into one court case, McConnell v. FEC, which was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2003.

As of 2005, there were 5,466 legislative bodies and advisory/interdepartmental committees and commissions at the local, state, and national level in the United States, with a workforce of 161,083 people. On average, there were 41 employees per office. The legislative bodies sector accounted for 1,683 of the total office count (30.8 percent) and 58,047 employees. Congress represented 1,221 locations (22.3 percent) and 9,156 employees. Legislative bodies at the state and local levels employed 9,428 employees in 198 offices. Legislative bodies of the federal government numbered 51 offices with 777 employees, while legislative bodies of state governments represented 196 offices and 1,117 employees.

A poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News in September 2006 found that the majority of American voters were dissatisfied with the Republican-controlled Congress; two-thirds felt the 109th Congress achieved little during its two-year tenure. More importantly, according to the poll, the majority of respondents "could not name a single piece of legislation that cleared this Congress."

A few pieces of noteworthy legislation that passed through Congress were the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 (H.R. 3199), signed into law on March 9, 2006, to further wage the war on terror. Then, on May 17, 2006, the president signed the Tax Relief Extension Reconciliation Act of 2005, thus extending the 2003 tax reductions on capital gains and dividend income through 2010. Equally important was the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which President Bush described as "an important step in our nation's efforts to secure our borders and reform our immigration system," according to a news release issued by the White House on October 26, 2006.

Current Conditions

After eight years with relatively few changes in the leadership and make-up of the U.S. Congress, the election of Barack Obama, Democratic senator from Illinois, to the presidency created a stir in senior leadership within both the upper and lower houses. Following Obama to the Oval Office were Senators Joe Biden (Dem., Delaware), as the vice president; Hillary Clinton (Dem., New York) as the secretary of state; and Rahm Emanuel (Dem., Illinois), as the White House Chief of Staff. Other changes in the ranks included the death in 2009 of long-standing Senate member Ted Kennedy. Kennedy was first elected in 1962 by a special election to fill the seat once held by his brother John Kennedy; Kennedy served 46 years in the Senate before his death on August 25, 2009.

According to a study conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the religious makeup of the U.S. Congress roughly matched the general population of the United States. According to the study, 55 percent of congressional members were Protestant, compared to 51 percent of the U.S. population; 30 percent were Catholic, compared to 24 percent of the general population; 8 percent were Jews, compared to just under 2 percent of the general population; and 2.5 percent were Mormons, compared to just under 2 percent of the general population. Among Protestants, mainline denominations hold approximately 40 percent of the both houses: Baptists, 12 percent; United Methodists, 11 percent; Presbyterians, 8 percent; Episcopalians, 7 percent; and Lutherans, 4.5 percent. While mainline Protestant numbers had declined since the 1950s, the number of Catholic members had gradually increased since the 1960s and the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency. The 111th Congress also had two Muslims (Keith Ellison, Dem., Minnesota; Andre Carson, Dem., Indiana) and two Buddists (Hank Johnson, Dem., Georgia; Mazie Hirono, Dem., Hawaii). Only one member, Rep. Pete Stark (Dem., California) publicly professed nonbelief, and five members stated no religious preference.

The 111th Congress had a full plate of issues to address as in 2008 the U.S. economy slid into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. The bottom fell out of the residential housing market, the U.S. auto industry fell into shambles with two of the auto giants (Chrysler and General Motors) needing to be bailed out by the federal government, Wall Street suffered major shocks and credit dried up, and the national unemployment rate rose above the 10 percent level in 2009. In the midst of this financial stress, President Obama was pushing Congress to pass major health care reform.


In 2009, there were 535 congresspersons, about 7,500 state legislators, and thousands of local legislative bodies. Of the 535 U.S. Congressional members (including six that were replaced during the session, equaling 541), 448 were male and 93 female. Just one member was between 20 and 29 years old; 21 members, 30 to 39 years old; 79 members, 40 to 49 years old; 188 members, 50 to 59 years old; 175 members 60 to 69 years old; and 77 members, over the age of 70.

On a daily basis, legislators work with their voters, meet with lobbyists and special interest groups, read reports, write legislation, and meet with fellow legislators and other government workers. They may also appoint department heads and commission members, approve budgets, do research, and perform various ceremonial duties. National legislators, particularly, also spend time working to secure reelection. Local legislators often work part-time--they hold another full-time job, are retired, or run a household. State legislators usually work full-time for a few months each year and then only part-time. Congresspersons work long hours most of the year.

Eligibility requirements for local and state legislators vary, though residency is a common prerequisite. Likewise, Senators and House members in Congress must be residents of the state from which they are chosen. House members are typically residents of their districts, though that is not required by the Constitution. Senators must be 30 years old and have been U.S. residents for nine years or more, whereas House members must be 25 years of age and at least seven-year residents. Although there are many routes to becoming a legislator, it is common for state and national representatives to have law degrees, a history of public service, or a military background. But public figures from all walks of life, including astronauts, entertainers, and businessmen, are commonly elected to serve.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state legislatures can be divided into specific categories based on how much time legislators are required to work on legislative issues. Some large states are considered Red States (including California, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania) and Light Red States (including Illinois, Florida, and Ohio). These states are run more like Congress, as full- or nearly full-time legislatures. These legislators have large staffs and were paid an estimated average annual salary of $68,600 in 2009. White States (including Arizona, Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas) usually require legislators to spend about two-thirds of their time on legislative matters. Their annual average compensation is estimated at $35,325, which requires most to have an additional source of income. Finally Blue and Light Blue States, commonly the least populous states (including Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming), require the least amount of time from legislators (who commonly held another career), provide the fewest staff members, and offer the lowest level of compensation at an estimated $16,000 annually.

America and the World

Most industrialized nations have a legislative federal arm that resembles the one in the United States. They are typically bicameral, allow for some system of checks and balances with executive and judicial branches, and represent the general population to varying degrees. However, checks and balances on legislative powers vary greatly from country to country.

As of the close of the century, no global legislative body or entity yet existed. The United Nations continued to have its member nations adopt "resolutions," and envisioned enforcement power under its newly formed International Court of Justice, but its jurisdiction was limited to member nations only.

Of significance to the development of a global economy was the proliferation of multinational corporations, organized under the laws of one country but doing business worldwide. In the late 2000s, Internet business continued to usurp conventional marketing strategies, raising new issues about the scope of intellectual property law (rights to Web sites, trademarks and service marks, computer software, and so on) and the ability to enforce such laws in other countries. The need for a global legislative body, in conjunction with a global enforcement entity, became a topic of discussion. However, resistance to such a global body with authoritative power over U.S. policy remained highly suspect in the late 2000s among a majority of Americans.

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