Part I: the ap united states government course examination

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Although the founders saw Congress as the body most directly in touch with the people, most people today have negative overall views of both houses. Approval ratings have hovered for years at about 30%, although in recent years those ratings have climbed somewhat higher. Yet the majority of voters express higher approval ratings (60 to 70%) for the members of congress from their districts. Members of Congress are seen as working for their constituents, but Congress as a whole supposedly represents the nation as a whole. These seemingly contradictory expectations create different pressures on members of Congress.

Americans elect their senators and representatives. This direct link between the legislature and the people is a very important part of our democracy. Should Congress, then, reflect the will of the people? Or should they pay attention to their own points of view, even if they disagree with their constituents? Many considerations influence the voting patterns of members of Congress, including the following:

  • Constituents’ Views. Members of congress often visit their home districts and states to keep in touch with their constituents’ views. They also read their mail, keep in touch with local and state political leaders, and meet with their constituents in Washington. Some pay more attention than others, but they all have to consider the views of the folks back home.

  • Party Views. Congress is organized primarily along party lines, so party membership is an important determinant of a member’s vote. Each party develops its own versions of many important bills, and party leaders actively pressure members to vote according to party views. It is not surprising that representatives and senators vote along party lines about three-fourths of the time.

  • Personal Views. What if a representative or senator seriously disagrees with the views of his constituents on a particular issue? How should he or she vote? Those who believe that personal views are most important argue that the people vote for candidates that they think have good judgment. Representatives should feel free to exercise their own personal views. After all, if the people don’t like it, they can always vote them out of office


At its creation in 1789 the legislative branch was a unique invention. Rule by kings and emperors was an old style of government, and the legislature in many ways represented the new. Almost certainly, the founders intended that Congress have more important powers than they granted to the president and the judiciary. However, they placed many checks and balances on the legislature that have shaped what we have today. They controlled power not only by checks from the other branches, but by creating a bicameral (two-House) Congress ö the Senate and the House of Representatives. The powers of Congress are both constitutional and evolutionary.


Originally, the Constitution provided for members of the House of Representatives to be elected directly by the people and the Senate to be chosen by the legislatures of each state. The membership of the House was based on population with larger states having more representatives, and the Senate was to have equal representation, two senators per state. In 1913 the 17th amendment provided for direct election of senators.

A representative was required to be 25 years old, seven years a citizen of the United States, and a citizen of the state represented. A representative's term was set at two years. A senator served a six year term and was to be at least 30 years old, nine years a citizen, and a citizen of the state represented. The number of terms either representatives or senators could serve was not limited. The original number of representatives was 65; in 1911, the size was limited to 435. Representatives are reapportioned among the states every ten years after the census is taken.


The powers of Congress are defined in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution:

  • To lay and collect taxes, duties, imports, and excises

  • To borrow money

  • To regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states

  • To establish rules for naturalization and bankruptcy

  • To coin money

  • To fix the standard of weights and measures

  • To establish a post office and post roads

  • To issue patents and copyrights

  • To create courts (other than the Supreme Court)

  • To define and punish piracies

  • To declare war

  • To raise and support an army and navy

  • To provide for a militia

  • To exercise exclusive legislative powers over the District of Columbia and other federal facilities

In addition the "elastic" clause (also called the ãnecessary and properä clause) allowed the government to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States."

The Constitution also gives each house of Congress some special, exclusive powers. Such powers given to the House of Representatives are:

  • Revenue bills must originate in the House of Representatives. Although this power is still honored today, it tends to have blurred over the years. Often budget bills are considered simultaneously in both houses, and tax policy has also become a major initiative of the President.

  • Impeachment power, the authority to charge the president, vice president, and other civil officers with high crimes and misdemeanors is given to the House. The Senate conducts trials for impeachment, but only the House may make the charge.

Special, exclusive powers given to the Senate are

  • Major presidential appointments must be confirmed by the Senate. The Senate offers advice and consent to the president by a majority vote regarding the appointments of federal judges, ambassadors, and Cabinet positions.

  • Treaties with other nations entered into by the President must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. This provision is an illustration of checks and balances, and it has served as a very important restriction to foreign policy powers of the American President.


Important Constitutional Differences between the House and the Senate



Initiates all revenue bills

Must confirm many major presidential appointments

Initiates impeachment procedures and passes articles of impeachment

Tries impeachment officials

Two-year terms

Six-year terms (One-third up for reelection every two years)

453 members (apportioned by population)

100 members (two from each state)

Members at least 25 years of age, 7 years a citizen

Senators at least 30 years of age, 9 years a citizen


Approves treaties
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