The 113th Congress Opens for Business
Just What is a “Congress” Anyway?
This is your government. If you don’t take the time to use the resources available, don’t complain that you don’t know what’s going on. Use the links below to find the names of your representatives. Then write a letter about something that’s important to you.
Every two years, Congress reboots. Like a bright New Year’s Day, it’s fresh, and clean, and brief. The 113th Congress assembled on Thursday, January 3 – a day for family and tradition, smiles and handshakes. They’ll return to the backstabbing soon enough.
For some reason, many Americans think that “Congress” is only the House of Representatives. It is not. Article I, Section 1 of the United States Constitution says:
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
That means that Congress makes the national laws and authorizes all federal spending. Yes, that’s right. The president can’t spend a dime without Congressional approval.
The Constitution requires that a new “Congress” convene every two years. In even-numbered years, every one of the 435 House seats and one-third of the 100 Senate seats, called a “class”, are up for election in November. The new Congress opens early in the following January. There are two sessions of each Congress; each lasts one year. The first Congress was elected in 1788 and assembled in 1789. The 112th Congress officially closed at noon on Thursday, January 3, 2013 and the 113th Congress opened moments later. The second session of the 113th will open in January 2014.
The Constitution requires only the House Speaker, Vice President as President of the Senate, and Senate President Pro Tempore as Congressional officers, but it gives the members authority to elect any additional members they choose. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) was narrowly re-elected as Speaker of the House. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) remain as House Majority and Minority Leaders, respectively. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) replaced the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) as president pro tempore. Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are still the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders.
The new Congress has 13 new senators and 81 new representatives. The Democrats added two senators and nine representatives in November’s election. There are now 53 Democrats, with two Independents in their caucus, and 45 Republicans in the Senate. The House includes 200 Democrats, 233 Republicans, and two vacancies. Since the election, new members have attended various orientation sessions in Washington to acquaint them with the buildings, their offices, government employment policies, and routine procedures. Each member’s individual website is up and running.
While still largely composed of upper-middle class white men, the 113th is the most diverse in history. It includes 97 women, 16 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, 43 African Americans, 31 Latinos, 12 Asians, 1 Hindu, 1 open atheist, and 7 openly gay members.
All of the bills that were pending before Congress, but not passed, at the end of 2012 have expired. Congress will consider only new legislation from this point forward. Anything that didn’t pass last year can be re-introduced. The House and Senate clerks number the bills in the order in which they are introduced – HR 1, S1, and so on. Laws adopted by Congress and signed by the president are called “Public Laws” and are numbered consecutively. The first law passed by the 113th Congress will be P.L. 113-1. You can see all Congressional activity at the Library of Congress website.
While the actual bills have died, many important issues remain unresolved. Congress will still attempt to tackle federal spending, the budget, gun control, immigration, climate change, and other matters. The Senate might even get around to confirming some of President Obama’s cabinet and judicial nominees this time.
Congress does most of its work through committees, which are very powerful. The committees are organized by subject matter, such as Defense, Agriculture, Budget, Judiciary, etc. Look at the House and Senate websites for complete committee lists. All committee chairs are members of the majority party. The “ranking member” is the most senior member of the minority party in each committee.
The first day is, by tradition, a family day. Members’ families visit their offices, and the House and Senate Chambers, and attend the swearing-in. Contrary to common belief, the swearing-in takes place in a group, not individually. Members may hold bibles or other documents if they wish, but are not required to do so.
The Constitution requires that members take an oath before starting their terms, but does not specify what the oath should be. However, the Constitution does give each Congressional chamber the power to write its own rules of procedure. So the oath has evolved over the years, and is the same for House and Senate:
“I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
When the 112th Congress opened in 2011, Speaker John Boehner demanded that the House read the entire U.S. Constitution, on the House floor, as its first order of business. It was quite a spectacle as dozens of members took turns reading passages. It would have been nice if anyone had bothered to stick around to listen to the entire reading. Not one member did so. This year, they didn’t even bother to pretend.
However, it’s a good idea for all Americans to read the Constitution occasionally. Take the time to read it now. The original text, without signatures, contains only 4,400 words. The full text, including all 27 amendments, has 7,591 words. It only takes about an hour.
You can watch live Congressional proceedings on C-SPAN TV. The House and Senate each have their own channels. Check your listings for the channel numbers. You can also get it on c-span.org. All Congressional activity – bills introduced, laws passed, committee reports, treaties, hearings, etc. – is available on the Library of Congress website. The Congressional Record contains a daily journal of all speeches, remarks, and documents submitted to Congress.
WHY DON’T AMERICANS KNOW THIS STUFF?
For more information:
Congress by the Numbers
U.S. House of Representatives
Library of Congress
USA.gov: Reference Center and General Government