Politics 101: What does Congress have the power to do?

In America, it would be very hard for an authoritarian charlatan to rise through the ranks of business and impose his absolute will on the people of this great nation.

The trias politica doctrine ensures checks and balances that limit the powers of the Executive branch and hold both the Senate and House accountable for different lawmaking activities.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Power to Make Law

The legislative branch, comprised of 435 members in the House of Representatives and 100 senators in the U.S. Senate — two for each state, regardless of its size.Nobody, not even the president or, Supreme Court can introduce a bill in the House or Senate. That’s up to members of Congress themselves, and the various committees and subcommittees created to focus on special tasks. The vice president holds a vote in the Senate as a tiebreaker, however, and the president can veto legislation. Negotiations between the legislative and executive branches typically take place during this process to prevent a bill with bi-partisan support from being tabled.

Another thing to note: Congress can override presidential vetoes, and it can refuse to work with a president who becomes too bellicose or erratic.

Power of the Purse

Congress is granted the right to collect taxes on the American people in order to “pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” This authority is typically called the “Power of the Purse,” meaning oversight of the federal deficit and U.S. expenditures lies with members of Congress.

In 2015, the federal budget was $3.8 trillion. In terms of GDP, that’s 21 percent of our economy. The U.S. Constitution has its own section for the federal budget process, explaining appropriations bills, authorizations bills and mandatory spending.

One unique caveat is that the House is entrusted with understanding the “knowledge of the interests and feelings of the people” and therefore must generate spending bills before they get to the Senate. It stems from the framer’s exultation over “taxation without representation” following the Revolutionary War, and is supposed to ensure Washington politicians keep tabs on the needs of people in their home districts.

Power to Declare War

While the president is commander-in-chief over all the U.S. Armed Forces under Article II, it is actually Congress who has power to declare war — although, in an age of drone technology and guerrilla warfare there has been some debate over whether the president can operate outside the War Powers Authority.

Without an official Declaration of War by members of Congress, who must ultimately raise money for war with the power of the purse, the president cannot deploy ground troops or military forces in a stated expedition of warfare. Congress alone can provide or cancel funding for the strategy, and new weapons systems must also be regulated by authorization bills for defense spending.

Investigations & Oversight

According to Article I, the members of Congress possess “all legislative powers” but also hold the responsibility for launching investigations into the Executive branch and also holding hearings by subpoena over wide-ranging issues of public interest. According to the founding fathers,  “in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men . . . you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Congress has a history of using this power in a variety of interesting ways. Its members were deemed responsible for rooting out communists in Hollywood during the 1940s, and forming the Watergate Committee to figure what exactly to do with the information from “Deep Throat” regarding President Nixon and his internal spying techniques. Earlier this year, even Tom Brady was subpoenaed to Washington over an investigation into the amount of air his playoff footballs carried.

 

Advice & Consent

The Senate alone is given the responsibility of “Advice and Consent” to the president, as it pertains to nominees for federal judiciaries and the executive branch. Article II declares:

The President . . . shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.

The Senate acts as an advisory, because it must confirm or reject nominees. In the case of appointments, they must also pass through a series of investigations by the FBI, IRS, the Office of Government Ethics and an ethics official from the agency to which the position is assigned.

Treaties

According to Article II, the president is also granted the authority to “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers” and “make Treaties.”

However, he must do so with the “Advice and Consent” of the Senate, meaning a two-thirds majority must approve of his diplomatic maneuvers in order to validate them. Ratification of treaties have not traditionally been challenged by the Senate, although in the case of intercontinental trade such as NAFTA, the president has not always had a clear political path to impose his agenda.

Multilateral treaties must also be approved by the Senate, such as the decision to form a NATO alliance in 1949 and its subsequent expansion in 1998.

WATCH: Classic cartoon ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ explains How a Bill Becomes a Law:

 

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