Since the founding of the Republic, members of Congress have been considered fair game for every type of jibe, innuendo, and cartoon which could be devised by human minds. Every trip to a foreign nation is referred to as a junket; every investigation is presumably politically inspired; every speech in opposition to a proposal is considered a harangue; and somewhere in our history the word “statesman” has disappeared and the word “politician,” in its uncomplimentary sense, has been substituted. And yet these men and women collectively hold the most important positions in the world. Upon their judgment may rest the future course of world events for generations to come. They do not have to be defended—for the very obvious fact that our nation has prospered under this system of representative government is answer enough. But perhaps an explanation of their powers, limitations, and duties will clarify some misunderstandings that have arisen.
These men and women hold their office under the most valuable document in American history—the Constitution. They take an oath to support the Constitution. Their powers are derived directly from the Constitution.
Contrary to popular belief, both Senators and members of the House of Representatives are Congressmen. For some reason or other, a nomenclature has been devised which limits the name “Congressman” to a member of the House of Representatives, but there actually are 531 Congressmen in the Congress of the United States—96 in the Senate, and 435 in the House of Representatives. In addition, Hawaii and Alaska are each represented by a delegate, while the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is represented by a Resident Commissioner, each of whom may introduce bills, but may not vote.
How They Are Apportioned
Each State, under the Constitution, is entitled to two Senators, regardless of population; Representatives are apportioned among the States according to population. Likewise, under the Constitution, a national census must be conducted every ten years (the next one will be in 1960) in order to determine the number of Representatives each State may send to the Congress of the United States.
The only restriction contained in the Constitution with regard to the number of Representatives who may serve in the Congress is contained in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution which provides that “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten Years, in such manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each State shall have at least one Representative.”
In spite of an ever-increasing population, the Congress has not authorized an increase in the number of Representatives since 1913 even though the population has almost doubled since that date. However, under the 1929 Apportionment Act, an automatic reapportionment is authorized on the basis of each decennial census. Under this Act, the Clerk of the House must certify to each State the number of Representatives to which each State is entitled. And as a result of this Act, at the end of each decade, the number of Representatives of some States is invariably increased, at the expense of States that have experienced a loss of population or have not increased as rapidly as States that gain added Representatives. The number of Representatives, however, under the 1929 Act, remains at 435. Congress, of course, always retains the right to authorize additional representatives, or enact new apportionment legislation.
To take office as a Representative, an individual must be not less than twenty-five years of age; he must have been a citizen of the United States for seven years; and he must, when elected, live in the State in which he is elected.
To take office as a Senator, an individual must be not less than thirty years of age; he must have been a citizen of the United States for nine years, and he must, when elected, live in the State in which he is elected.
However, in the early history of the nation, several members of Congress were elected and took office even though they were under the minimum ages established by the Constitution, since no member raised a question concerning their age. For example, Henry Clay of Kentucky served as a Senator in 1806 at the age of 29. William Charles C. Clair- borne of Tennessee served in the House of Representatives in 1797 at the age of 23. Had any one raised their age disqualification, however, they undoubtedly could not have taken their seats in the House or the Senate because of the constitutional minimum age requirement which the Congress cannot alter.
Term of Office
Members of the House are elected for two years, while members of the Senate are elected for six years. Only one-third of the Senate stands for election every two years; whereas the entire House membership must be elected every two years.
Who Determines the Right to Take Office
Each House is the sole judge of whether or not a person claiming election to that House shall be allowed to serve. Thus, on the basis of a majority vote, Representatives alone may determine the qualifications of Representatives; on the other hand, only Senators, on the basis of a majority vote, may judge the qualifications of Senators. However, the constitutional right to determine the qualifications of members of either House must necessarily be limited by explicit constitutional restrictions, such as age, which leave no room for interpretation if a Member’s qualification is challenged.
To expel a member of either House after he has been sworn in requires a vote of two- thirds of the members of the House concerned. Thus, if a member’s qualifications are challenged before being seated, the question is determined by a majority vote; but after a member has been seated, he may only be expelled by a two-thirds vote of the House involved.
How They Are Elected
Insofar as election to the Congress is concerned, the Constitution provides that “The Times, Places, and Manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature therein; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of Chusing Senators.” The reference to the “Places of Chusing Senators” was inserted to protect the State legislatures who, until the adoption of the 17th Amendment, chose United States Senators.
In each State, except Maine, elections for Representatives and Senators are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even years. All Congressmen are elected by popular vote—-state-wide in the case of Senators, and by district in the case of most Representatives. A few Representatives are elected-at-large, that is, by a state-wide vote.
When Congress Meets
Under the Constitution, the Congress must meet at least once each year, and after the Congress has met, neither House can adjourn for more than three days, nor meet at “any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting,” without the Consent of the other House.
The Congress is required to meet at noon on the third day of January, unless another date is fixed by law.
Members of Congress enjoy a unique immunity for “They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breech of the Peace, be privileged from arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.” (Article I, Section 6.)
It is the latter provision that is referred to as “Congressional immunity,” for no member may be sued for libel or slander for anything he may say on the Floor or insert in the Congressional Record, of either House. The immunity also applies to Congressional Committee meetings. The protection against arrest is limited to arrests in civil suits, and affords no protection against arrest for a criminal offense. Likewise, the privilege does not protect a Congressman from service of process in civil or criminal actions. However, since a Congressman’s duty and responsibility is to serve the Congress, he may not be required to appear in either a Federal or State court while the Congress is in session, without the consent of the House involved. This is a simple extension of the theory of separation of powers (separate and independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government), for otherwise any court in the nation could conceivably prevent the Congress from meeting or conducting the legislative process.
Members of Congress are also faced with certain restrictions. Thus “No Senator or Representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the. Emoluments whereof shall have been increased during Such time; and no Person holding any office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in office.” (Article I, Section 6.)
As a result, no present Member of either House may hereafter be appointed, for example, to a Federal judgeship, until the member’s term of office expires, since the salaries of all Federal judges were increased in the First Session of the 84th Congress. However, if the Congress were to pass a law repealing the previous law that had granted the increase, so that the salary reverted to the original amount, the appointment would probably be constitutional. As a matter of fact, a member of the Senate, Philander C. Knox, in 1907, was appointed Secretary of State after the salary of that office had been increased while he was a member of the Senate. Prior to his accepting the appointment, the Congress enacted a law reducing the salary to its former amount so that the appointment could be made.
Retired and Reserve Officers of the Armed Services
The situation with regard to retired officers of the Armed Services serving as members of Congress raises an interesting point. It has long been held that for the purposes of many laws retired officers of the Military Services hold an office under the United States. Therefore, at first glance it would appear that a retired officer might well be barred from serving as a member of Congress. However, this matter was considered at length by the House Judiciary Committee which rendered a report on February 21, 1899, which stated, among other things:
“It may be suggested that military officers after being retired and placed on the retired list have been members of Congress.
“This is true; but it is settled law that persons on the retired list of the Army do not hold office under the United States in the constitutional sense. (People v. Duane, 121 N. Y., 367; In re Hathaway, 71 N. Y., 238; U. S. v. Hartwell, 6 Wall., 385; U. S. v. Germaine, 99 U. S., 508; U. S. v. Tyler, 105 U. S., 244.)
“It may be contended that persons on the retired list of the Army do hold office under the United States, citing Badeau v. United States (130 U. S., 439), but this authority does not so hold. That case simply relates to salary under particular statutes.
“These persons are still in the service, but hold no office unless assigned to duty.
“To hold an office under the United States the person must occupy a public station or unemployment conferred by the appointment of government; and it embraces tenure, duration, emoluments, and duties.
“Says the court in 212 New York, page 373:
“ ‘It is difficult to conceive of the existence in this country of a military office without the power of command, the right of promotion, or the obligation to perform some duty’.”
“And for the reason that retired army officers are not entitled to promotion, do not perform duty, and exercise no command, it is held that when retired they cease to be officers.”
In this report, however, it seems to be equally clear that a member of Congress who accepts a commission in the Armed Forces and enters on active duty must relinquish his membership in either House. The report in this respect stated:
“Clearly one accepting an office under the United States, he having previously qualified as a Member of Congress, vacates his seat by such acceptance, and there is no way that he can again hold a seat in Congress but through reelection by the people and then again becoming qualified as a Member of Congress without the disqualification of holding another office under the United States.”
In an opinion rendered to the President on December 23, 1943, with respect to members of Congress entering the Armed Forces, the Attorney General held that—
“The required conclusion is that under the practice (which appears to have long prevailed and which I see no occasion to disturb) members of Congress may enter the armed forces by enlistment, commission or otherwise. Upon entry into such service the individual ceases to be a member of the Congress provided the House or the Senate, as the case may be, chooses to act. There have, of course, been cases in which the congressional body affected did not choose to raise the question.” (40 Op. Atty Gen. 30.)
Retired officers of the military services have on many occasions served as members of Congress. The apparent theory of the Congress is that a status as a retired officer of a military service is not incompatible with the office of member of Congress and consequently it does not choose to act in such cases. Since Article I, Section 5, Clause 1 of the Constitution provides that “each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members” and since Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 relates to qualification as a member of Congress and does not relate to retired status, the only status at issue would be that of member of Congress. If the House or Senate chooses not to act in any case, then no question remains for any other agency to determine.
It would appear, therefore, that a retired officer of the Armed Forces may serve as a member of Congress without surrendering his status as a retired officer.
Likewise, it would appear that a member of Congress can, without question, retain a reserve commission without disqualifying himself as a member of Congress. However, should a member of Congress enter on extended active duty, he would undoubtedly disqualify himself as a member of Congress.
Other Exclusive Powers
In addition to being the sole judge of their own qualifications as members, certain other exclusive powers are prescribed by the Constitution for each House. Thus, the House has the sole power of impeachment, while the Senate has the sole power to conduct the trial of all impeachments. In effect, this means that the House must act as a grand jury and vote in favor of an indictment; but after the individual has been indicted by the House, he can only be tried in the Senate, and then can only be convicted by a two- thirds vote of the Senators present.
During the trial in the Senate, House Managers are appointed by the House, usually ranking members of the House Judiciary Committee, who act as prosecuting attorneys. The impeachment power of the Congress has been rarely used. As a matter of fact, the Senate has only sat as a court of impeachment in 12 cases since the adoption of the Constitution. Four United States Judges have been removed from offices, four United States Judges have been acquitted, one President of the United States (Andrew Johnson) was tried and acquitted, one Secretary of War was tried and acquitted, the impeachment proceedings against one Federal Judge, at the request of the House, were dismissed because the judge involved resigned from office, and charges against one United States Senator were dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Members of Congress, of course, are not subject to impeachment since each House is the sole judge of the qualifications of its members. But, as previously indicated, members may be expelled by a two-thirds vote.
The House possesses one extremely important exclusive power, in that all bills for raising revenue must originate in the House. Thus, all tax measures must have their genesis in the House of Representatives. However, the Senate can freely amend any such revenue measures that pass the House.
By custom and tradition, which has now attained the status of an unwritten law, general appropriation measures must also originate in the House, and the House will invariably refuse to act upon, or will return to the Senate as an invasion of the rights of the House any general appropriation bill which originates in the Senate.
On the other hand, the Senate possesses two exclusive powers. Treaties must be ratified by the Senate, acting independently, and require a two-thirds vote of the Senators present. Furthermore, Senate confirmation is required for the appointment of many Federal officers appointed by the President.
The powers of the Congress are many and varied. The responsibilities of this great legislative body are tremendous and the decisions that must be made, almost daily, are staggering.
Pay, Assistance, Perquisites, etc.
What kind of aid and assistance is available for these men and women who truly carry the weight of the world on their shoulders?
In the House, each member is limited to not to exceed eight employees, with an overall limitation in base pay for the office force of $17,500 per year. This limitation, translated into net salaries, results in varying payments to office assistants. Only one employee in the office of a House member may receive a base pay of $7000, which amounts to a net pay of $12,131.47, annually. The remaining salaries of other employees would be limited by the balance of the total $17,500 restriction in base pay.
In the Senate, there is no fixed limit on the number of employees who may be hired by each Senator, but the maximum salary that any employee of a Senator may receive is $14,800. The overall limitation on salaries for all employees of Senators for this fiscal year is $6,247,000, and this amount is apportioned among the various Senators according to the population of the States they represent.
In addition, under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, each standing committee of the House of Representatives and the Senate is authorized four professional staff members, without regard to political affiliations and solely on the basis of fitness to perform the duties of the office, and not to exceed six clerks.
Under this same Act, the Library of Congress was directed to establish a Legislative Reference Service to advise and assist Committees of the Congress and members of Congress in the “analysis, appraisal, and evaluation of legislative proposals,” and to “gather, classify, analyze, and make available, in translations, indexes, digests, compilations and bulletins, and otherwise, data for a bearing upon legislation and to render such data serviceable to Congress, and Committees and members thereof, without partisan bias, in selection or presentation.”
In addition, the members have available to them the office of the Legislative Counsel to assist in the preparation of bills, resolutions, amendments, and other legislative matters, as well as the office of the Coordinator of Information.
The total number of employees in the Capitol itself numbers approximately 6000, which includes secretaries, typists, clerks, attorneys, mailmen, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, elevator operators, janitors, refrigeration experts, architects, pages, doorkeepers, Capitol police, gardeners, et cetera.
For the magnitude of the job involved— the task of legislating for the benefit and welfare of nearly 170,000,030 people in this nation, as well as countless others who are citizens of other nations—the overall expenditure for the legislative branch of the government is infinitesimally small. The proof that the job has been done well since the founding of the Republic is self-apparent.
The average Representative or Senator is, without doubt, one of the busiest persons in the nation. Daily correspondence is staggering; personal requests for everything from hotel reservations to Army-Navy football tickets are common. And in that connection, it should be noted that members of Congress do not get free tickets to that annual classic.
The most time-consuming task, while the Congress is in session, is almost daily attendance at Committee and Subcommittee meetings. For example, in the first session of the 84th Congress, the House Committee on Armed Services, from the period January 26, 1955, to July 27, 1955, held 76 Full Committee meetings, 99 Subcommittee meetings, and 34 Special Subcommittee meetings, for a total of 209 meetings.
During this period of time this Committee alone considered more than 100 bills and resolutions, which resulted in 43 public laws, and three private laws. More than 4700 pages of testimony was presented during this session for the House Armed Services Committee alone.
During the first session of the 84th Congress, the House was in session for 112 days and the Senate for 105 days. 390 Public Laws, and 490 Private Laws were enacted. There were 74 quorum calls in the House and 62 in the Senate. The Senate had 88 yea and nay votes, and the House 73.
All told, 11,914 measures were introduced in both Houses, of which 1,426 were reported in the Senate and 1,528 in the House (obviously many of these were the same or similar bills, since both Houses must act).
To all this must be added the personal calls that each member receives either by telephone or by personal visit.
And, of course, these statistics do not reflect the speeches, radio and television appearances, and countless other demands upon a member’s time that must be cheerfully met.
When a member is in Washington, he can refer many of the inquiries he receives to the proper government agencies. To assist in this type of work, many government agencies have Congressional Liaison offices in the Capitol, or liaison employees who are available to the members to aid them in their problems.
However, when a member returns to his home state or district, he must be reasonably prepared to answer hundreds of questions on all phases of the government. He is logically expected to be an expert on that phase of government with which he works daily in his Committee activities. (He frequently is assigned to a Committee because his profession or vocational background makes him particularly well qualified for that Committee. For example, all members of the House Judiciary Committee are attorneys.) But beyond that, he is also supposed to know, or be familiar with, all other federal matters.
Thus, a member of the Armed Services Committee, for example, while having considerable first-hand information with regard to our National Defense, is also expected by his constituents to be able to answer questions concerning parity prices, veterans benefits, corporation taxes, public lands, tariffs, inland waterways, social security benefits, international affairs, atomic energy, freight rates, Indian reservations, public power projects, anti-trust violations, government aid to education, health insurance, and public highways—to name but a few.
It is obviously impossible for each member to be thoroughly familiar with all of these legislative subjects, but it borders on the miraculous how many of them can carry such a vast store of unrelated items in their minds and can express intelligent opinions on practically all subjects that are debated in either House.
And, the only way that a member can acquire a working knowledge of all of these items is by faithfully reading the Congressional Record which is published each day the Congress is in session. Thus, a member, after dictating replies to his correspondence, preparing a radio speech, answering several telephone calls, conversing with constituents from his district, organizing his thoughts for remarks he wishes to make on the Floor during that day’s debate, reading the testimony of a previous hearing to refresh his memory on a bill in which he must play an active part, must also find time to read the Congressional Record of the preceding day in order that he may keep ahead of the legislative flood. And, if he wishes to further acquaint himself with a pending bill that has been reported to the House, he will send for the report and the hearings.
It’s a tall order for any person—and the amount of work performed by an average Congressman is fantastic.
And, after all the preliminaries are completed, after all the speeches have been made, the interminable banquets attended, the questions asked, the reports and the hearings read, and the debates concluded— the Congressman must then make the most important decision of all—how he will vote on legislation that affects him, his family, his neighbors, his constituents, his State, his nation, and frequently, the world. To add to this burden, each House member faces the expensive and time-consuming chore of running for re-election every two years. Indeed, some House members, because of this short term of office, must inevitably participate in a perpetual campaign for re-election.
For all of this, he receives a salary of $22,500 a year; one round-trip a year to his home at 20 cents a mile; a stationery allowance of $1200 ($1800 in the Senate); a stamp allowance of $200 per year for air mail and special delivery official mail ($300 in the Senate); free franking privileges for official mail; 2,700 minutes of telephone toll calls per year (450 minutes, or 90 calls per month, whichever is first reached, plus a $1,200 credit plan for calls made outside of Washington, for Senators); 12,000 telegraph words per year (Senators are authorized telegrams on a distance and population quota basis); a $600 per year allowance for office expenses; a $900 allowance for office rent in his district or State—if no federally-owned office space is furnished; free haircuts if he is a Senator (but the tip usually equals the prevailing cost); several snuff boxes with snuff, on the Senate Floor; and spring water, but for the Senators only.
Contrary to public opinion, no free meals are provided for anyone in the House or Senate restaurants.
Probably no single group of individuals in the world today is called upon to assume responsibilities as grave as those inherent in the duties of a member of Congress.
He is quite acclimated to the ever-present criticism that now appears to be an inherent burden of his office; and he fully realizes that by accepting public office he has exposed himself to a fish-bowl existence.
But, as a member of the House, he is representing, on the average, in excess of 350,000 American citizens; as a Senator, he is one of two representing a sovereign State of the Union.
Undoubtedly, no person in the world more fully earns his modest salary than your Congressman.
The ramifications and procedures of the legislative process are many and varied. What you have read is only a bird’s eye view. The system is complex, but orderly. It’s a system that works, and works well. Perhaps the information presented here may help you to better understand, and appreciate, your Congress.
1. This gentleman had a remarkable, though short, career. He became Governor of the Territory of Mississippi in 1801 at the age of 26; Governor of Louisiana in 1812; and a United States Senator from Louisiana in 1817. He died the same year.
2. Hinds’ Precedents of the House of Representatives, 1907, Ch. 494, p. 617.