This article is written by Gautam Badlani, a student at Chanakya National Law University, Patna. This article examines the functions and structure of Congress. It highlights the composition and role of each chamber of Congress and the rights, powers, and privileges of the Congressmen. Moreover, the article examines the implied, specific, and inherent powers of the Congress and also draws out the constitutional limitations of the powers of the Congress.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
The US Congress is a unique and powerful legislative body that plays a major role in the functioning of the United States. It is composed of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and has exclusive powers to make laws, confirm executive appointments, and set the budget. This article will explore the history of the US Congress, its powers, and its role in the American political system. It covers the qualifications and functions of the members of the Congress and analyzes landmark judgments relating to the privileges of the Congressmen. The article further comprehensively analyzes the different powers of the Congress.
The Congress : an overview
The US Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government of the United States. It is bicameral, meaning it is composed of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Congress is responsible for making laws, confirming executive appointments, setting the budget, and declaring war. The US Congress has a long and rich history, stretching back to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Article 1 of the Constitution stipulates the composition of Congress. The Article states that all legislative powers shall be vested in Congress. The total number of voting members in Congress is 535. 435 members belong to the House of Representatives and 100 members belong to the Senate.
The United States Congress is responsible for making laws that govern the United States and its citizens. It is the only branch of government with the power to pass laws, and it must do so with a majority vote. Congress can also confirm executive appointments and set the budget for the federal government. It is also responsible for declaring war, although, in recent years, this power has been delegated to the executive branch.
The US Congress is also a unique body and is composed of two chambers. The House of Representatives is the lower chamber and is composed of 435 members who are elected every two years by the citizens of the United States. The Senate is the upper chamber and is composed of 100 members who are elected to six-year terms.
House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the US Congress and is composed of 435 members. These members are elected by the citizens of the United States every two years. It is pertinent to note that the Congress has six non-voting members who represent the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.
The number of Representatives from each state is determined by its population; the more populous a state is, the more Representatives it has. Each state is guaranteed at least one representative. The seat allocation among the states is reapportioned after every decennial census based on the population of the states.
When any vacancy arises in the House of Representatives, the executive issues the Writs of Election to fill the vacancies. The members of the House chose the Speaker and other officers of the House. The Speaker is chosen from among the 435 members of the House. The speaker and minority and majority leaders play a vital role in the functioning of the House.
In order to be eligible to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives, a person:
- must be at least 25 years of age,
- must be an inhabitant of the state which he represents,
- must be a citizen of the United States for at least 7 years.
The House of Representatives is responsible for introducing and passing bills, which are then sent to the Senate for consideration. The House of Representatives has the power to impeach federal officials, including the President. It is also responsible for electing the Speaker of the House, who is the leader of the House of Representatives and third in line to the presidency.
The House of Representatives is divided into several committees or groups, and such committees are responsible for performing specialized functions. They perform tasks such as holding hearings, regulating the procedure of the House, etc.
Moreover, most of the bills are first referred to a committee, which prepares a report on the bill. Thereafter, the bills are presented before the full House for voting. The committees may also propose legislation that has not been formally introduced as a bill before the House. This happens when the committee is of the opinion that the legislation would be in the public interest. Every committee has its own budget and procedures. These committees are constituted for a special purpose and for a limited period.
Need for reforms
With respect to the size of the House, the Constitution only dictates that the total number of seats should not be less than 65, and each state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House. The Constitution also suggests that the intention of the makers was that the number of Representatives from each state should be determined on the basis of the population of the state.
Thus, it is necessary that the total membership of the house be routinely revised on the basis of the populations of the various states. However, the last revision took place in the year 1929, when the size of the House was fixed at 435. The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 froze the House membership as determined by the 1910 census.
It is often argued that there is a need to reform the size of the House on the basis of the current population of the various states. The 435-member cap causes many problems. The Representatives are more burdened as they represent more people than in 1929. Moreover, as the members of the House represent a large number of people, they have to prioritize the interests of certain sections of their constituency over those of other sections. They are unable to give adequate time to the demands of all the people they represent. If the total number of seats is increased, more people can present their grievances before the Representatives.
The Senate is the upper chamber of the US Congress and is composed of 100 members. These members are elected to six-year terms by the citizens of the United States. Every senator has one vote.
One-third of the total members of the Senate are elected every year. The total membership of the Senate is divided into 3 classes, and the seats in one of the classes fall vacant every 2 years. Where any vacancy arises due to the resignation or death of the senator, the vacancy is filled by means of temporary appointments made by the executive. The vacancy is then filled at the next meeting of the legislature.
As per the US Constitution, each state, irrespective of its size or population, will be represented by two senators. Senate membership is based on the principle of equal representation for all states. All 50 states are represented by two senators each in the Senate.
The Vice President of the United States serves as the President of the Senate but does not enjoy any voting rights. The Vice President will only vote where the Senate is equally divided on any issue and is unable to reach a decision.
In order to be eligible to be elected as a senator, a person must fulfill the following criteria:
- The senator must be a citizen of the United States for at least 9 years.
- The senator must be at least 30 years of age.
- The senator must be a resident of the state which he represents in the Senate.
The fact that the minimum age to be elected as a senator is 30 years old ensures that the senators are mature enough to discuss the complex problems that come before them. Moreover, the requirement of being a citizen of the United States for a minimum of nine years ensures that foreign-born Senators understand the aspirations and needs of the people of the United States.
The Senate is responsible for considering and passing bills, which are then sent to the President for signature. The Senate also has the power to confirm or reject executive appointments and ratify treaties. It is also responsible for trying to impeach federal officials, including the President.
The House of Representatives and Senate hold elections every two and six years, respectively. These elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. After the elections are held, the newly elected members of Congress are sworn in and begin their terms.
The procedure for the election of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate varies from state to state. Article 1, Section 4, confers the power to the states to determine the election system by which they choose their House Representatives and Senators. The states have the power to decide on the place, time, and manner of electing the Representatives and the Senators. However, Congress can overrule the decision of the states and alter the manner and timing of the election. Congress cannot alter the place of the election.
House of Representatives
Unlike the Senate, which is a continuing body, the members of the House of Representatives contest elections every even year.
Most states elect their representatives by the plurality method. Every citizen of the state has one vote, and the candidate who receives the most votes wins the election. Hence, the candidate who secures the most votes wins the election, even though the candidate may not have been able to secure 50% of the votes.
However, certain states have their own election system. States such as Georgia and Louisiana have a two-round runoff election procedure. Under the system, if no candidate secures a simple majority in the first round, then a second round of voting is held. Generally, the 2 highest-scoring candidates, or those who secure more votes than a fixed proportion, advance to the second round. The winner is chosen after the second round of voting.
Prior to the 17th Amendment, the senators were nominated by the state legislatures. However, the 17th Amendment mandated that the Senators should be directly elected by the people of the states. Thus, senators are now directly responsible for the people in their constituency. It should be noted that in Senate elections, the constituency is the entire state, whereas the constituency for House Representatives is their individual district. As a result, Senators have a much larger constituency than House Representatives.
The direct election of the senators keeps a check on corruption. Moreover, under the previous procedure, where the Senators were nominated by the state legislatures, there was the possibility of a post lying vacant due to deadlock in the legislature. However, the introduction of direct elections left no possibility of such a deadlock.
The 17th Amendment is, however, criticized on the ground that it disincentivized the Senators from giving greater importance to foreign policy issues. When the senators were nominated by the state legislatures, their understanding of foreign affairs served as a deciding factor. However, with the introduction of direct elections, the Senators became more concerned with domestic problems, as the people were less aware of foreign affairs and focused more on domestic conditions.
The US Congress meets in session every year and is divided into two sessions: the first session begins in January and ends in August, and the second session begins in September and ends in December. During these sessions, Congress holds meetings to discuss and debate bills, confirm appointments, and conduct other business.
Article 1 Section 4 mandates that Congress has to meet at least once a year. The Article further provides that the Congress shall meet on the first Monday of December but the Congress can fix a different day by law. The provision was amended by the Twentieth Amendment, which provided that Congress shall meet at noon on 3rd January.
Article 1, Section 5 provides that the quorum of each house shall be the majority of the members. Moreover, the Section provides that the house may authorize a smaller number as the quorum to do business. Each house has the right to frame its own rules and procedures and has the power to punish the members who engage in disorderly behavior. Moreover, the house can also expel a member if two-thirds of the house support such a resolution.
The House of Representatives as well as the Senate, meet in the Capitol Building in Washington, District of Columbia. Other than the normal sessions, the Congress meets for the following sessions:
Joint sessions of both houses of the Congress take place on special occasions, such as when the President delivers the State of the Union address or when the electoral votes for the presidential elections have to be counted. A concurrent resolution is adopted by Congress for the joint sessions. The Speaker of the House of Representatives presides over the joint session. However, when the electoral votes are to be counted, the President of the Senate presides over the Session as Article 2 Section 1 provides that the electoral votes are to be transmitted to the President of the Senate and then counted.
Only members of the concerned house are allowed in these sessions. Such sessions are held to discuss matters of importance and confidentiality, such as impeachment, national security-related issues, etc. The members, as well as the staff who attend these sessions, are prohibited from divulging information about the session. Those who violate the confidentiality rules are subject to disciplinary proceedings. The transcript of these sessions is released only after the concerned house votes to release the information.
Pro forma session
A pro forma session refers to a brief session of the Congress in which no formal business is conducted. As per the Constitutional mandate, no chamber of Congress can adjourn for more than three days, during the session of the Congress, without the consent of the other chamber. To fulfill this procedural requirement, pro forma sessions are held even if the chamber does not perform any actual business. Both chambers have the authority to hold pro forma sessions. However, such sessions are generally held in the Senate, and since no debate or voting is done during these sessions, they do not last for more than a few minutes.
The President has the power to call special Congressional sessions for the purpose of discussing urgent matters such as war or economic crisis. This power of the President emanates from Article 2 Section 3, which provides that the President may convene the Congress in extraordinary situations or in case there is any disagreement between the two chambers.
The US Congress follows a set of rules and procedures when conducting its business. These rules and procedures are outlined in the US Constitution, the Rules of the House of Representatives, and the Rules of the Senate.
At the start of each session, the House of Representatives and the Senate pass a set of rules and procedures that govern the legislative process. These rules and procedures are designed to ensure that all members of Congress are treated fairly and that the legislative process runs as smoothly as possible.
The US Congress is also responsible for introducing and passing bills. A bill is a proposed law that must be passed by both chambers of Congress before it can become law. A bill is introduced by a member of either House of Congress. Bills are introduced by members of Congress and are debated and amended in both chambers. In order to become law, a bill must be approved by the majority of the members of both Houses. In the event that one House passes the bill but the other House does not approve it, the bill is sent to a committee comprising the members of both Houses. The committee makes certain changes, and the bill is once again presented before both Houses for approval.
Once a bill has been passed by both chambers, it is sent to the President for signature. The bill becomes law only after the President gives his assent to it. The President may refuse to sign the bill and exercise his veto power even if the bill has been passed by both Houses of Congress. However, the President cannot veto the bill if it has been passed by a two-thirds majority of both Houses.
Rights of Members
Members of Congress have certain rights and privileges that are outlined in the US Constitution and in the rules and procedures they pass at the start of each session. These rights and privileges include the right to speak and debate on the floor of Congress, the right to vote on bills and resolutions, and the right to participate in committee hearings.
Members of Congress also have the right to be compensated for their service. They receive a salary, health insurance, and other benefits. By virtue of Article 1, Section 6, members of Congress receive compensation for the services rendered by them and the compensation, as determined by law, is paid from the United States Treasury.
Additionally, members of Congress are immune from criminal prosecution for their actions on the floor of Congress. The Congressmen are immune from arrest while attending the sessions of their respective chambers. They cannot be arrested while going to and returning from the Congress session. However, there are three exceptions to this immunity from arrest. The 3 exceptions are felony, treason and breach of peace. Moreover, the congressmen cannot be questioned in respect of any speech made by them on the floor of their respective chamber.
Coffin v. Coffin (1803)
It is pertinent to note that even the members of state legislatures enjoy immunity from prosecution for the speeches made by them in the house of the legislature. In the case of Coffin v. Coffin (1803), the plaintiff brought a suit against the defendant for slander on the basis of certain statements made by the plaintiff in the house of the legislature. The plaintiff was a member of the house.
The Court referred to Article 21 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which provides that any deliberation, speech or debate in any house of the legislature, cannot give rise to any accusation or prosecution. The Court pointed out that the privilege conferred by this Article is not the privilege of the house; rather, it is the privilege of the individual members. The Court substantially expanded the scope of the privilege and interpreted that the immunity extended to everything said or done by the member while acting as a representative of the people. Even if the member is outside the house but is discharging his functions in executing the commission of the house, then he would be entitled to immunity from prosecution.
The court noted that the injury to the reputation of a private citizen is of less importance as compared to the need to enable the people’s representatives to discharge their duties without the fear of criminal or civil prosecution.
Kilbourn v. Thompson (1880)
In the case of Kilbourn v. Thompson (1880), Kilbourn was asked to testify before a Committee of the House of Representatives in relation to an investigation concerning a real estate partnership to which he was a member. However, Kilbourn refused to answer the questions of the Committee, and subsequently, the House ordered the arrest of Kilbourn. Kilbourn was imprisoned for 45 days on the grounds of contempt of the House. Upon his release, he filed a suit claiming damages for false imprisonment. The Supreme Court of the United States held that the House did not have the power to punish the witness for contempt.
However, with respect to the liability of the members of the Committee, the Court held that the members of the House are immune from any liability arising out of the debate or speech made by them in the House. The members cannot be held liable for any vote made by them or for any action taken by them in the House. The members of the House had only voted in favor of the resolution ordering the arrest of Kilbourn, and they could not be held liable for their vote.
United States v. Brewster (1972)
It is pertinent to note that Article 1 Section 6 provides immunity to the Congressmen only for purely legislative purposes and not for political activities. In the case of United States v. Brewster (1972), a senator was charged with the offense of accepting bribes. The District Court held that the speech or debate clause of the United States Constitution provided immunity to the Senator for the alleged offense of bribery. A direct appeal was filed against the judgment by the United States before the Supreme Court.
The Court noted that while the Constitution provided immunity to the Senators from being questioned about the legislative acts undertaken by them or the motivation for performing such acts, the constitutional privilege did not extend to all the activities relating to the legislative process. The Court pointed out that the purpose of the Speech or Debate clause was not to secure the personal benefits of the congressmen but to secure the legislative integrity and independence of the individual legislators.
The Court also observed that the privilege provided under the Speech or Debate clause of the United States Constitution deferred from the immunity provided to the Parliament under the British system. While the British system confers supremacy on the Parliament, the Speech or Debate clause of the United States Constitution is simply intended to secure legislative independence and does not aim to confer supremacy on the legislature.
Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the District Court and held that the Senator was labeled to be punished for the offense of accepting bribery to perform legislative acts.
Bills and resolutions
Bills and resolutions are the primary tools used by Congress to make laws. Bills are proposed laws that must be passed by both chambers of Congress before they can become law. Resolutions are non-binding measures that can be used to express the opinion of Congress on a particular issue.
When a bill is introduced, it is debated and amended in both chambers of Congress. If it passes both chambers, it is sent to the President for signature. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law. If the President vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress and can be overridden with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers.
A simple majority of both chambers is needed to pass a bill. It is pertinent to note that bills that are aimed at increasing revenue can only be introduced in the House of Representatives. The two types of Bills that are generally presented before Congress are:
- Public bills: Public Bills are those Bills that relate to matters affecting the general public or a large class of citizens.
- Private bills: Private Bills are those Bills that only affect certain individuals or organizations.
Three types of resolutions are passed by Congress:
- Joint resolutions: They are similar to bills and require the approval of the majority of both chambers. Once approved, they are submitted to the president and become law after the President’s signature.
It is pertinent to note that the joint resolutions, which propose constitutional amendments, have to be supported by a two-thirds majority of each chamber. Once these bills are ratified by 3/4th of the states, they become effective and are not submitted to the President for his signature.
Joint resolutions are generally passed for the purpose of emergency appropriations, amending the Constitution or terminating emergency declarations.
- Concurrent resolution: The primary purpose of concurrent resolutions is to amend such rules which are equally applicable to both chambers of Congress. These resolutions express the collective opinion of the members of both chambers. Such resolutions are neither sent to the President for his signature nor are they signed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the Vice President. These resolutions deal with matters such as setting up of Committees, the printing of documents, etc.
- Simple resolution: A simple resolution is only concerned with the operation of a single chamber. The simple resolution is passed for the purpose of regulating the internal administrative functioning of the concerned chamber or for expressing the opinion of the house on a non-legislative matter. For example, a simple resolution may be passed to express condolences on the passing of a member of the chamber.
Powers of Congress
The US Congress is the only branch of government with the power to make laws. This power is outlined in Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. Additionally, Congress has the power to confirm or reject executive appointments, set the budget for the federal government, declare war, and regulate interstate commerce.
The powers of Congress can be broadly classified into specific powers, implied powers, and inherent powers.
Article 1 Section 8 of the US Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress. Specific powers of Congress are those 21 powers that are expressly enumerated by Article 1 Section 8. Congress has the power to impose taxes, excises, and other duties. However, any such taxes and duties imposed by Congress have to be uniform across the United States.
The Congress has the power to borrow money on behalf of the United States, regulate commerce, coin money, establish posts and roads, declare war, raise and support armies, build and maintain a navy, etc.
Moreover, Article 4, Section 3 confers the power on Congress to admit new states into the Union. However, no new state can be created from the territory of an existing state or by the junction of two or more states without the consent of the concerned state legislatures as well as Congress. Article 4 further provides that Congress has the power to make rules and regulations relating to the property of the United States.
By virtue of Article 5, Congress can propose amendments to the Constitution. So far, 33 amendments have been proposed by Congress under Article 5.
Implied powers refer to those powers which are not expressly conferred on the Congress by Article 1 Section 8 but have been held to be necessary to enable the Congress to perform its functions effectively. The reasoning behind this ‘elasticity clause’ is that the framers knew that the 21 powers enumerated under Section 8 would not be sufficient to enable Congress to address the unforeseen circumstances that it might face in the future.
The implied powers of Congress emanate from the last paragraph of Article 1, Section 8, which is also known as the ‘elastic’ clause of the Constitution. This clause provides that the Congress shall have the authority to enact all laws that are necessary and proper for the efficient execution of all other powers conferred on the Congress by this Section. This clause thus substantially increases the scope of the subjects on which Congress can enact laws.
The expression ‘necessary and proper’ is highly subjective in nature and has led to many debates and judicial pronouncements. The clause substantially expands the Constitutional powers of Congress. The elasticity clause can also be used to bypass the mandate of the Tenth Amendment, which states that powers that have neither been Constitutionally delegated to the United States nor denied to the States, would be deemed to be reserved for the respective States. However, the elasticity clause makes it difficult to determine the exact measure of powers that the Constitution vests in Congress.
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
In the landmark case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the United States Supreme Court affirmed the doctrine of implied powers and held that Congress does not merely enjoy the power that the Constitution expressly confers on it. The Congress has all the authority it needs to execute the powers conferred on it by the Constitution effectively.
In this case, Congress had incorporated a national bank. The issue arose as to whether Congress had the power to do so since the Constitution is silent on the creation of corporations as well as the chartering of banks.
The Court noted that since the elasticity clause was not placed among the limitations of Congress, it should be interpreted to have the effect of expanding the powers of Congress. The elasticity clause confers all such powers on the Congress that are ‘appropriate and legitimate’ to the specific powers of the Congress. It is the people of the country who have conferred sovereignty on the federal government, not the states.
The Court noted that if the end goal is legitimate and within the bounds of the Constitution, then Congress can use appropriate means, which are not prohibited by the Constitution, to give effect to the end objective. Nothing in the constitution excludes the implicit, incidental, or implied powers of Congress.
The Congress has the right to control commerce and borrow money, and the power to establish the National Bank is an implied power and not a distinct sovereign power. The Court thus concluded that the federal government has the power to establish a national bank. The decision, in this case, substantially increased the scope of the elasticity clause and continues to be the law of the land.
Inherent powers are those powers that are deemed to be inherent to Congress in its sovereign functions. Inherent powers are not expressly mentioned in the Constitution but are considered to be of such a nature that every sovereign nation in the world is deemed to possess such powers. Since the United States is a sovereign nation, these powers are regarded as inherent to the United States. Examples of inherent powers are the power to regulate the nation’s borders, establish diplomatic relations with other countries, etc.
Implied and specific powers can be regarded as those powers which the states have ceded to the federal government. Inherent powers, on the other hand, can be regarded as those powers which originated when the external sovereignty was transferred by the Britishers to the United States.
The power to regulate immigration can also be regarded as an inherent power of Congress. While the power to regulate immigration is not expressly provided in the constitution, the courts have held that every sovereign nation has the power to regulate immigration. In the case of Martin v. Griffin (1977), certain sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 were challenged as being unconstitutional. The Act excluded the relationship of an illegitimate child with his natural father from the special preference immigration status. While upholding the constitutionality of the Act, the court held that the power to remove aliens is a fundamental sovereign authority of the government. This power can be recorded as an incident of sovereignty.
Article 1 Section 2 confers the power of impeachment on Congress. Congress has the power to impeach the President, Vice-President, federal judges, etc. Some of the reasons for impeachment are treason, bribery, etc. This power has been conferred on Congress to formulate a mechanism for holding the President, Vice-President, and other officers accountable while, at the same time, preventing the courts from deciding on the impeachment of the executive authorities.
The House of Representatives has the authority to decide whether impeachment proceedings should be initiated. Thus, the House of Representatives enjoys the sole power of impeachment, and it has the discretion to decide when it is appropriate to initiate impeachment proceedings for bribery, treason, or other crimes. If the House is of the opinion that impeachment is called for, then the Senate will decide on the conviction and subsequent removal.
By virtue of Article 1 Section 3, the Senate enjoys the sole power of impeachment conviction, and the Senators take an oath or affirmation for the purpose of impeachment proceedings. A conviction for impeachment will require the support of two-thirds of the Senators, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the impeachment proceedings against the President.
It is pertinent to note that the power of impeachment that is conferred on Congress is largely free from checks by any other branch of the government. Thus, the Constitution leaves it at the discretion and judgment of the members of Congress to decide on impeachment issues. The members have the right to voice their opposition to an impeachment resolution.
Congressional Authority over Federal Courts
Congress has the power to regulate the rules and procedures of the federal court system. This power is outlined in Article III, Section 2 of the US Constitution. Section 2 provided that the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in matters affecting Ambassadors, public Ministers, and Consuls and in those cases where one or more states are parties. However, in respect to all other matters, the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is subject to the exceptions and regulations made by Congress.
Congress can also pass laws that affect the jurisdiction of the federal courts and can impeach federal judges. Congress enjoys the power to determine the jurisdiction of the Federal Courts. Congress can also reduce or expand the jurisdiction of the federal courts by enacting appropriate statutes.
Congress can also create or dissolve federal courts. This power is outlined in Article III, Section 1 of the United States Constitution. This Section provides that Congress shall have the authority to establish federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court. If a court is deemed unnecessary or if the jurisdiction of a court is no longer needed, Congress can dissolve the court. In the case of Daniels v. Railroad Company (1865), the Supreme Court held that its appellate jurisdiction was limited to the extent determined by Congress. Congress gives the Court the authority to exercise appellate jurisdiction.
Ex parte McCardle (1868)
In the case of Ex parte McCardle (1868), the petitioner was convicted by a military commission for the offense of publishing incendiary and libelous articles. The commission had found him guilty of committing acts that obstructed reconstruction.
The petitioner preferred a petition for the writ of habeas corpus before the Circuit Court. However, his petition was dismissed. Thereafter, he filed a review petition before the Supreme Court under the Judiciary Act of 1789, and pleaded that the Reconstruction Act of 1867 was unconstitutional. The Judiciary Act enabled the Supreme Court to hear habeas corpus petitions filed by federal prisoners. The Congress expanded this jurisdiction of the Supreme Court by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867
The Congress feared that the Court might hold the Reconstruction Act unconstitutional and thus repealed the 1867 Act, which empowered the Supreme Court to hear appeals from the decisions of the Circuit Courts. The Court held that since Congress repealed the 1867 Act, it lacked the appellate jurisdiction to decide the appeal and thus dismissed the petition.
Powers denied to Congress
The US Constitution outlines certain powers that are denied to Congress. These powers include the power to pass ex post facto laws, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and pass bills of attainder by virtue of Section 9. Congress is not allowed to pass laws that infringe on the rights of the states.
Section 9 provides that Congress shall not have the following powers:
- To suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. However, Congress can suspend this privilege to safeguard public safety in the case of rebellion and invasion.
- The Congress cannot pass any Bill of Attainder or enact any ex post facto law. Ex post facto laws are those acts which create offenses retrospectively. Thus, Congress cannot pass any laws which make actions unlawful retrospectively.
- Capitation or any direct tax can be levied by Congress only in proportion to the Census or enumeration that the Constitution directs. Moreover, Article 1 Section 2 provides that any direct tax levied by Congress has to be apportioned among the states. Direct tax includes capitation taxes and taxes imposed on real estate and personal property.
However, the Sixteenth Amendment provided that Congress could impose a tax on income without any apportionment among the states. Moreover, such taxes are not affected by any Census or enumeration. Thus, even though incomes may qualify as a direct tax, it does not fall under the limitation imposed by Article 1 Section 9.
- Congress cannot impose any tax or duty on the export of any articles from the states.
- The Congress cannot give preference to the ports of one state over the ports of other states by enacting any commercial or revenue-based regulation.
- The Congress cannot grant any title of nobility to any person. Titles of nobility are titles such as King, Queen, etc.
The Constitution also puts certain limitations on the powers of Congress. Congress cannot pass any law that infringes on the rights of the people, as enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Thus, the Constitution prevents Congress from infringing on certain individual liberties. Moreover, the Constitution also envisages a system of checks and balances that limits the authority of Congress. The President has the authority to veto any law that has been passed by Congress. The Supreme Court of the United States has the authority to strike down any law passed by Congress that contravenes the provisions of the Constitution.
In the case of Eisner v. Macomber (1920), Congress had imposed a tax on the stock dividend without apportioning the tax among the states. The Supreme Court had to determine whether such a tax would qualify as a tax on income and thus fall under the scope of the Sixteenth Amendment. The United States Supreme Court defined income as a gain from labor or capital, or both, and profit from the proceeds from the sale or conversion of capital. The Court noted that the tax on stock dividends would be in the nature of a tax on capital gain and thus would not fall within the scope of the Sixteenth Amendment. The Court thus held the taxation of stock dividends without any apportionment among the states to be unconstitutional.
Powers denied to the States
The US Constitution also outlines certain powers that are denied to the states. These powers include the power to enter into treaties, coin money, declare war, and pass laws that infringe on the rights of the federal government.
Additionally, states are not allowed to pass laws that interfere with interstate commerce or that interfere with the federal court system. Such powers are mostly vested with the US Congress.
Article 1 Section 10, provides a list of the powers which are denied to the states. These powers are as follows:
- The states cannot enter into treaties or alliances
- They cannot coin money or emit credit bills
- The states cannot enact ex post facto laws or Attainder Bills. Moreover, the states cannot confer titles of nobility on any person.
- The states do not have the power to impose any duty on imports or exports without the consent of Congress. Moreover, the proceeds of all the duties imposed by the states on imports or exports will go to the treasury of the United States, and all such duties will be subject to the control of Congress.
- The states cannot keep troops or warships during peace times. Moreover, a state cannot declare war unless it is invaded or is in imminent danger of invasion.
The 13th Amendment, prohibited slavery, the 14th Amendment, provided that no state can enact a law that deprives any person of his life, liberty, or property without the due process of law and the 15th Amendment, provided the right to vote to the African American men, and can also be regarded as limitations on the powers of the states.
The US Congress is a powerful and unique legislative body that plays a major role in the functioning of the United States. It is composed of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and has exclusive powers to make laws, confirm executive appointments, and set the budget. This article has explored the history of the US Congress, its powers, and its role in the American political system. Understanding the US Congress and its powers is essential for citizens to engage in informed political discourse and to exercise their rights as citizens of the United States.
The members of Congress enjoy constitutional immunity from being prosecuted for any act done by them while discharging their duty as legislators. However, it is essential to distinguish the acts of the legislators which form a part of the legislative process from those activities which are merely aimed at securing some private benefit or political agenda. The Constitution does not provide absolute immunity to the members of Congress and is aimed at protecting the rights of the citizens by ensuring the independence of the legislature.
The powers of Congress are certainly not confined within what has been expressly provided in the Constitution. The Congress enjoys several ancillary and inherent powers which enable it to discharge its sovereign and constitutional functions and duties. Congress plays a central role in preventing the concentration of power in the hands of the President. The concept of equal representation for each state in the Senate ensures that the less populated states are not overshadowed by the more populous states.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the importance of Congress?
The Congress is one of the three branches of the government, and all the federal law-making powers are vested in the Congress. Thus, Congress alone is empowered to enact federal laws. It is composed of the representatives of the people, and thus, its decisions reflect the collective will of the people. Congress ensures that the laws are in line with the needs and expectations of the people.
What is the incompatibility clause in Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States?
The incompatibility clause is contained in Article 1 Section 6 of the United States Constitution. The Section provides that no person shall be a member of the executive and legislative branches at the same time. Moreover, no member of the Senate or House of Representatives can be appointed to any civil office under the authority of the United States during the term of his office. This clause is aimed at promoting the principle of separation of powers. Thus, any person holding Office in the United States cannot become a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate at the same time. However, a person may choose to shift from one branch of the government to another.
Does the President enjoy any implied powers?
The President of the United States has certain implied powers, such as the power to expand foreign policy and enter into executive treaties with other nations. Moreover, the President has certain enhanced powers during crises. For example, the War Powers Act, 1973, conferred significant powers on the President, such as the authority to escalate military actions abroad, etc.
What is the Tenth Amendment?
The Tenth Amendment provides that all such powers which have not been conferred on the national government and which have not been expressly denied to the states would be deemed to be reserved for the states. Thus, the Tenth Amendment confers all the untapped powers on the states. This Amendment is central to the right of the different states to enact their own constitutions. The Tenth Amendment thus protects the state power.
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