What party controls the Congress today? Which political party has most often been in the majority in Congress?
The Democratic party controls both the House and Senate in the current Congress. The Democrats control a majority in both chambers for the first time since the end of the 103rd Congress in 1995. Since 1857, Democrats have held the majority in the House of Representatives 55% of the time, and Republicans 45%. In the Senate, Republicans have held the majority since 1857 for 56% of the time and Democrats, 44%. Prior to 1857, the Republican and Democratic parties were not the dominant political parties in Congress. If you would like to see party divisions for the Senate, going back to the First Congress, visit:
What is the committee structure in the House and Senate?
The House and Senate are each free to create or abolish committees as they see fit to do the important preliminary work of reviewing legislation, conducting hearings and investigations, and supervising the work of the federal government. As a result of their individual authority, the committee lineup of the House and Senate is not exactly parallel. They each have split up the subject matter workload - known as jurisdiction - in slightly different ways. However, both chambers have the same three types of categories of committees: standing, special or select, and joint.
Standing committees are considered permanent, with jurisdictions established in the House and Senate rules. The rules also assign them oversight responsibilities - to supervise the programs, agencies, and departments of the executive branch that fall under their jurisdiction.
Special [or Select] committees may be permanent with legislative authority, or they may be temporary. Some have legislative authority and consider bills and resolutions; some do not. Some are created for a singular special purpose [e.g. the House Select Committee on Homeland Security] that otherwise would cut across jurisdiction lines of several committees.
Joint committees are not legislative but rather administrative or analytical. The Joint Committee on Printing oversees and sets policies for the Government Printing Office, while the Joint Committee on the Library does so for the Library of Congress. The Joint Committee on Taxation provides expert research, analysis and support for the two revenue committees of the Congress: House Ways and Means and Senate Finance. The Joint Economic Committee conducts research and issues reports and studies on economic conditions and forecasts and recommends changes in economic policy.
Following is a list of the 16 Senate and 19 House standing committees; the 4 Senate and 2 House special/select committees; and the 4 joint committees. More information about each committee and the subjects it handles can be found on its website. Click on either Senate Committees or House Committees for links to those sites.
Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Energy and Natural Resources
Environment and Public Works
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Rules and Administration
Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Special, Select, and Other
Joint Committee on the Library
Joint Economic Committee
Education and Labor
Energy and Commerce
Oversight and Government Reform
Science and Technology
Standards of Official Conduct
Transportation and infrastructure
Ways and Means
Joint Economic Committee
Joint Committee on Printing
Joint Committee on Taxation
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
How is it that conference committees can meet behind closed doors?
The conference stage is the last word on a bill's content. It can -- and usually does -- have far more influence on the final text of legislation than do the earlier hearings or floor debate. Yet, this last all-important stage of the legislative process remains the least visible part.
Since 1975, House rules have required all conference meetings be open to the public and press unless the full House determines otherwise by adopting a "motion to close." This rule is followed primarily when issues of national security or defense are involved. The Senate's rules are different. They allow their conferees wide latitude to meet in open or closed session as they see fit, without requiring permission of their chamber.
Once a conference report is issued, House rules permit a point of order striking it down if House conferees failed to meet in open session. However, that has been interpreted by past precedent to mean "meet in open session at least once." Conferees are careful to have at least one formal meeting in open session so that their conference report cannot be challenged in the House on grounds of openness. The Senate has no such point of order.
While total openness has great political appeal, it has presented challenges to the process of negotiating a compromise. Most Members would acknowledge that negotiating is easier in private than when myriad lobbyists who want conflicting results are watching in the same room. Members are also aware that constituents respect firm commitment to a principle more than they do the act of compromise and horse-trading for votes, which are the necessary dynamics at work during a negotiating session.
How is the membership of a House/Senate conference committee determined?
Conference committees are temporary panels whose purpose is to reconcile the differences between the final House and Senate versions of a bill. Conference committees are made up of House and Senate Members known informally as "conferees." The final compromise text they produce, called a "conference report," must be adopted by a majority vote in both chambers before it can proceed to the President and then, perhaps, become law.
In the House, the Speaker appoints the conferees based on a list of names proposed by the chairman and ranking minority Member of the committee which reported the bill under consideration. Conferees are usually the bipartisanship leadership of the committee and subcommittees involved and a few other members of the committee of jurisdiction. However, House rules give the Speaker broad discretion in conference appointments, and Speakers have appointed Members not on the committee leaders' lists -- primarily those who offered successful floor amendments to the bill which may have been opposed by the committee's members. These limited appointments are sometimes made in order to ensure defense of the bill in the version adopted by the entire House.
The rules of the House advise the Speaker to appoint conferees based on the overall party ratios in the chamber and to choose Members who support the prevailing position of the entire House. However, this practice is not always followed. Both the Speaker of the House and the leaders of House committees have used the competitive appointment of conferees to reward or to punish Members. The conference stage is often the most significant phase of the legislative process. To be a conferee is to gain influence over the most important version of legislation: the final text.
The Senate's conferees are appointed by the presiding officer based on the list of names recommended by the bipartisanship leadership of the committee involved. The Senate tradition differs from the House: the committee's decision is rarely challenged, and the Majority Leader of the Senate, unlike the Speaker of the House, does not intervene in conference appointments.
There is no set number of conferees. The size of each conference delegation varies depending on how many committees were involved in reporting the measure in question. Conference committees have grown steadily in size over the last decade as legislation has become more complex and committee jurisdictions have overlapped. Given the obvious size difference between the chambers, the House always has more conferees than the Senate. However, because each chamber's delegation may vote only as a unit, the two delegations have equal weight at the table, regardless of size.
What rules of procedure are used in a House/Senate conference committee, that of the House or the Senate?
There are no formal rules governing conference committee procedures. Because they are intended to be flexible negotiating sessions, conferences may adopt any rules they wish or none at all. Each conference has a different "climate" depending on the politics and the personalities involved in the particular issue on the table. Some conferences formally trade proposals in structured debate with votes on each proposal, while others engage in free-form discussions ending with someone stating a consensus proposition.
Conferees must decide first who will chair the conference: the head of the House delegation or the Senate delegation? Some decide to have co-chairs. Others who meet regularly on an annual bill, switch back and forth.
They then make either a formal decision or, more typically, an informal agreement about time limits for discussion and whether the entire bill will be open for discussion at once or if it will be presented for consideration section by section or title by title. In advance of a conference, the staff prepare working papers for the conferees which include a side-by-side comparison of the House and Senate bills, showing exactly where the two bills are identical and where they differ.
Although there is no mandated procedure to follow within a conference committee, the House and Senate both place some restrictions on the authority of their conferees. For example, conferees are told not to exceed the language differences between the two bills: either pick one version or the other or agree upon something inbetween. In reality, this restriction is often ignored. If the conferees believe they will have a majority vote for the conference report language back in the full House or Senate, they know they will also have a majority vote to overcome any potential point of order against the conference report for exceeding their authority under the rules.
Regardless of what procedures it follows, the ultimate challenge for every conference committee is the same: to produce a final version of a bill that satisfies a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate, and the President of the United States.
Why is the Senate called "Senate" and the House of Representatives, "House"? Why are the terms House and Congress used interchangeably? And why are Members of the House called Congressmen, but Senators aren't?
The framers of the Constitution chose "Senate" for the upper body because most of them had a classical education and were very well versed in the ways and wisdom of the Roman Republic. "Senate" was the name given the supreme council of state in ancient Rome, and its members were called "Senators." According to Donald Ritchie, U.S. Senate Historical Office, the word "Senate" comes from the Latin, "Senatus," which means council of elders. (It is also the root word for senility!) The framers were also influenced by the fact that at the time of the founding of our country, 9 of the 13 colonial legislatures had upper bodies already known as "senate."
As for the House, "house" is simply a straightforward word for referring to a legislative body or assembly of representatives. The fact that so many of the founding fathers were well acquainted with the Virginia House of Burgesses may have influenced this decision as well.
It is not accurate to use "House" and "Congress" interchangeably. Congress is both the House and Senate, or said in reverse, the House and Senate are each only 1/2 of Congress. However, this logic does not extend to the terms of address. Senators are only called Senators, while House Members may correctly be called Congressman or Representative.
Some may argue that the tradition of referring to Members of the Senate only as "Senator," is because the members of that body think of themselves as more distinguished than the Members of the House and also because they wish to evoke the aura of the solons of ancient Rome. However, there is another explanation. If we used "Congressman" for members of both bodies, we would not be able to immediately identify the Member's chamber. Using "Senator" or "Representative or Congressman" makes the distinction instantly clear.
Why is the Senate often called a "continuing body"?
The Senate is known as a "continuing body," because it never formally goes out of existence. Every two years, one-third of the Senate's members [33 or 34] are up for re- election while the others [66 or 67] remain in place. This is in contrast to the House of Representatives, which goes out of existence every two years -- because all 435 members are up for election at the same time. The entire House is reconstituted in a new Congress in January of the next year following the election.
The Founding Fathers created this difference in terms so that the House might remain acutely sensitive to the wishes of the American people, while the continuity in the Senate would bring stability to the new government.
The rotation in the elections of senators, one-third at a time, was also to protect the Senate from a rapid turnover in ideas. It was meant to encourage senators to consider the long term interests of the nation by carefully deliberating measures over time. Also, it was hoped the continuing nature of the Senate would provide leadership during any periods of national uncertainty.
Visit the Senate Glossary. This glossary provides brief definitions of terms related to Congress and the legislative process.
A good source of information on Congress and its operation is hosted and maintained by The Center on Congress at Indiana University. The information posted on this page is taken from this source.