United States Congress in relation to the president and Supreme Court

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The U.S. Congress in relation to the president and Supreme Court has the role of chief legislative body of the United States. However, the Founding Fathers of the United States built a system in which three powerful branches of the government, using a series of checks and balances, could limit each other's power. As a result, it helps to understand how the United States Congress interacts with the presidency as well as the Supreme Court to understand how it operates as a group.

Checks and balances[edit]

Congressperson Lee Hamilton said of how Congress functions within American government:

To me the key to understanding it is balance. The founders went to great lengths to balance institutions against each other––balancing powers among the three branches: Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court; between the House of Representatives and the Senate; between the federal government and the states; among states of different sizes and regions with different interests; between the powers of government and the rights of citizens, as spelled out in the Bill of Rights ... no one part of government dominates the other.[1]

The Constitution of the United States provides checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government. The authors of the Constitution expected the greater power to lie with Congress as described in Article One.[1][2]

The influence of Congress on the presidency has varied from one period to another; the degree of power depending largely on the leadership of the Congress, political influence by the president, or other members of congress and the boldness of the president's initiatives. Under the first half-dozen presidents, power seems to have been evenly divided between the president and Congress, in part because early presidents largely restricted their vetoes to bills that were unconstitutional. In 1863, New York governor Horatio Seymour believed Congress to be the "most influential branch."[3] The impeachment of Andrew Johnson made the presidency much less powerful than Congress.[4] During the late 19th century, President Grover Cleveland aggressively attempted to restore the executive branch's power, vetoing over 400 bills during his first term,[5] although historians today view Cleveland as exhibiting merely "boring, stolid competence."[6]

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the rise of the power of the Presidency under Theodore Roosevelt (1901–09), Woodrow Wilson (1913–21), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45), Richard Nixon (1969–74), Ronald Reagan (1981–89), and George W. Bush (2001–09) (see Imperial Presidency).[7] In recent years, Congress has restricted the powers of the President with laws such as the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 and the War Powers Resolution; nevertheless, the Presidency remains considerably more powerful than during the 19th century.[1][7] Executive branch officials are often loath to reveal sensitive information to congresspersons because of possible concern that such information could not be kept secret; knowing they may be in the dark about executive branch activity, congressional officials are more likely to distrust their counterparts in executive agencies.[8] Further, many government actions require fast coordinated effort by many agencies, and this is a task that Congress is ill-suited for. Congress is slow, open, divided, and not well matched to handle more rapid executive action or do a good job of overseeing such activity.[9]

The Constitution concentrates removal powers in the Congress by empowering and obligating the House of Representatives to impeach federal officials (both executive and judicial) for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The Senate is constitutionally empowered and obligated to try all impeachments. A simple majority in the House is required to impeach an official; however, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for conviction. A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office in the future.

Impeachment proceedings may not inflict more than this; however, the party may face criminal penalties in a normal court of law. In the history of the United States, the House of Representatives has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted. (Another resigned before the Senate could complete the trial). Only three Presidents of the United States have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1999, and Donald Trump in 2019. All trials ended in acquittal; in Johnson's case, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned from office after impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee indicated he would eventually be removed from office.

The Constitution entrusts certain powers to the Senate alone. The President may only nominate for appointment Cabinet officials, judges, and other high officers "by and with the advice and consent" of the Senate. The Senate confirms most presidential nominees, but rejections are not uncommon. Furthermore, treaties negotiated by the President must be ratified by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to take effect. As a result, presidential arm-twisting of senators can happen before a key vote; for example, President Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urged her former senate colleagues to approve a nuclear arms treaty with Russia in 2010.[10] The House of Representatives has no formal role in either the ratification of treaties or the appointment of federal officials, other than filling vacancies in the office of Vice-President; a vote in each House is required to confirm a president's nomination for vice-president if a vacancy happens.[11]

In 1803, the Supreme Court established judicial review of federal legislation in Marbury v. Madison, holding, however, that Congress could not grant unconstitutional power to the Court itself. The Constitution does not explicitly state that the courts may exercise judicial review; however, the notion that courts could declare laws unconstitutional was envisioned by the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton, for example, mentioned and expounded upon the doctrine in Federalist No. 78. Originalists on the Supreme Court have argued that if the constitution doesn't say something explicitly it is unconstitutional to infer what it should, might or could have said.[12] What this means is that the Supreme Court can nullify a congressional law. It is a huge check by the courts on the legislative authority and limits congressional power. In 1851, for example, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of a congressional act of 1820 in the Dred Scott decision.[13] However, the Supreme Court can also extend congressional power through its constitutional interpretations.[citation needed]

Investigations are conducted to gather information on the need for future legislation, to test the effectiveness of laws already passed, and to inquire into the qualifications and performance of members and officials of the other branches. Committees may hold hearings, and, if necessary, compel individuals to testify when investigating issues over which it has the power to legislate by issuing subpoenas.[14][15] Witnesses who refuse to testify may be cited for contempt of Congress, and those who testify falsely may be charged with perjury. Most committee hearings are open to the public (the House and Senate intelligence committees are the exception); important hearings are widely reported in the mass media. Transcripts of most hearings are published within two months of the actual meeting.[15] Congress, in the course of studying possible laws and investigating matters, generates a large amount of information in various forms, and can be described as a publisher.[16] It publishes congressional reports of two types: House and Senate reports, and Senate Executive Reports.[16] It maintains databases which are updated irregularly with publications in a variety of electronic formats, including ASCII text and Portable Document Format (PDF) files.[16]

Congress also plays a role in presidential elections. Both Houses meet in joint session on the sixth day of January following a presidential election to count the electoral votes, and there are procedures to follow if no candidate wins a majority.[17]

The result of congressional activity is ultimately the creation of laws.[18] It is a large body of rulings contained in the United States Code, arranged by subject matter alphabetically under fifty title headings.[19] The idea of this code is to present the laws "in a concise and usable form".[19]


  1. ^ a b c Lee Hamilton (2004). "How Congress works and why you should care". Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34425-5. Retrieved 2010-09-11. James Madison, principal drafter of the Constitution, held that in a representative democracy like ours, "the legislative authority necessarily dominates."
  2. ^ "The very structure of the Constitution gives us profound insights about what the founders thought was important ... the Founders thought that the Legislative Branch was going to be the great branch of government." —Hon. John Charles Thomas [1]
  3. ^ Governor Seymour of New York State (January 8, 1863). "GOV. SEYMOUR'S MESSAGE". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-09-11. Even under our present Union, it is for the interest of the small States to centralize power in the National Government, as they enjoy a disproportionate control in the most influential branch of that Government. All now acquiesce in that compromise of the Constitution. It is the best adjustment which can be made between the larger and smaller States. So long as all the States of our present Union were represented in Congress ...
  4. ^ SUSAN SACHS (7 January 1999). "IMPEACHMENT: THE PAST; Johnson's Trial: 2 Bitter Months for a Still-Torn Nation". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-09-11. But his trial, conducted partly behind locked doors and partly in public on the stage of the Senate chamber, changed the course of reconstruction after the Civil War, held official Washington in thrall, and recalibrated the balance of power between Congress and the executive.
  5. ^ "THE PRESIDENCY: Vetoes". Time Magazine. March 9, 1931. Retrieved 2010-09-11. His friends said this was a fine demonstration of his courageous independence. His critics accused him of wilful defiance of popular sentiment as expressed by Congress, of trying to beat the veto record of Grover Cleveland.
  6. ^ Radley Balko (May 22, 2008). "Presidential Power-Tripping". Reason Magazine. Retrieved 2010-09-11. Inexplicably, the presidents who knew and understood their constitutional limits, who respected those limits and who generally took a more laissez-faire approach to government get short shrift—even derision—from historians. Men like Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland merely exhibited what Healy calls "stolid, boring competence." Historians loathe them, Healy writes, because they had the audacity to "content themselves simply with presiding over peace and prosperity" and not seek to remake the world in their own image.
  7. ^ a b Greene, Richard (2005-01-19). "Kings in the White House". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 2007-10-07.
  8. ^ Steven S. Smith; Jason M. Roberts; Ryan J. Vander Wielen (2006). "The American Congress (Fourth Edition)". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2010-09-11. ... Executive branch officials are hesitant to reveal certain information to members of Congress because they do not trust legislators to keep the information secret. For their part, legislators cannot know what information is being withheld from Congress, so secret government tends to breed distrust on Capitol Hill. (see pages 18-19)
  9. ^ Steven S. Smith; Jason M. Roberts; Ryan J. Vander Wielen (2006). "The American Congress (Fourth Edition)". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2010-09-11. ... The fight against terrorism poses special challenges for members of Congress. ... The need for quick, coordinated, multi-agency action is intensified. Congress is not capable of effectively checking such executive action. Congress is open and slow, its division of labor among committees is not well matched to the executive agencies involved, and its members are hesitant to challenge the executive branch on high-risk policies and in areas where the public is likely to defer to the president. (see page 19)
  10. ^ Charles Wolfson (August 11, 2010). "Clinton Presses Senate to Ratify Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia". CBS News. Retrieved 2010-09-11. Washington's scorching temperatures did not prevent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today from turning up the heat on her former colleagues in the United States Senate. In a statement read to journalists at the State Department, Clinton urged her former colleagues to act favorably on "new START, " a nuclear arms treaty with Russia which was signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in April, but which needs to be ratified by the Senate (and Russia's Duma) before it goes into effect.
  11. ^ John V. Sullivan (July 24, 2007). "How Our Laws Are Made". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-09-11. Under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, a vote in each House is required to confirm the President's nomination for Vice-President when there is a vacancy in that office.
  12. ^ "Constitutional Interpretation the Old Fashioned Way". Center for Individual Freedom. Retrieved 2007-09-15.
  13. ^ "Decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case". The New York Times. March 6, 1851. Retrieved 2010-09-11. Third - The provisions of the Act of 1820, commonly called the Missouri Compromise, in so far as it undertook to exclude negro slavery from, and communicate freedom and citizenship to, negroes in the northern part of the Louisiana cession, was a Legislative act exceeding the powers of Congress, and void, and of no legal effect to that end. In deciding these main points, the Supreme Court determined ...
  14. ^ Frank Askin (July 21, 2007). "Congress's Power To Compel". he Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-09-28.
  15. ^ a b Ben's Guide to US Government (2010). "Congressional Hearings: About". GPO Access. Archived from the original on 2010-08-09. Retrieved 2010-09-11. Congressional Hearings: About -- A hearing is a meeting or session of a Senate, House, joint, or special committee of Congress, usually open to the public, to obtain information and opinions on proposed legislation, conduct an investigation, or evaluate/oversee the activities of a government department or the implementation of a Federal law. In addition, hearings may also be purely exploratory in nature, providing testimony and data about topics of current interest. Most congressional hearings are published two months to two years after they are held.
  16. ^ a b c United States government (2010). "Congressional Reports: Main Page". U.S. Government Printing Office. Archived from the original on 2010-08-07. Retrieved 2010-09-11. Congressional reports originate from congressional committees and deal with proposed legislation and issues under investigation. There are two types of reports House and Senate Reports and Senate Executive Reports. The database for the current Congress is updated irregularly, as electronic versions of the documents become available. Reports are available as ASCII text and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files.
  17. ^ John V. Sullivan (July 24, 2007). "How Our Laws Are Made". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-09-11. The Congress under the Constitution and by statute also plays a role in presidential elections. Both Houses meet in joint session on the sixth day of January following a presidential election, unless by law they appoint a different day, to count the electoral votes. If no candidate receives a majority of the total electoral votes, the House of Representatives, each state delegation having one vote, chooses the President from among the three candidates having the largest number of electoral votes. The Senate, each Senator having one vote, chooses the Vice President from the two candidates having the largest number of votes for that office.
  18. ^ 111th Congress, 2nd session (2010). "Tying It All Together: Learn about the Legislative Process". United States House of Representatives. Retrieved 2010-09-11. The chief function of Congress is the making of laws.
  19. ^ a b John V. Sullivan (July 24, 2007). "How Our Laws Are Made". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-09-11. The United States Code contains a consolidation and codification of the general and permanent laws of the United States arranged according to subject matter under 50 title headings, largely in alphabetical order. It sets out the current status of the laws, as amended, without repeating all the language of the amendatory acts except where necessary. The Code is declared to be prima facie evidence of those laws. Its purpose is to present the laws in a concise and usable form without requiring recourse to the many volumes of the Statutes at Large containing the individual amendments. The Code is prepared by the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives. New editions are published every six years and cumulative supplements are published after the conclusion of each regular session of the Congress. The Code is also available in electronic format. Twenty-four of the 50 titles have been revised and enacted into positive law, and one title has been eliminated by consolidation with another title. Titles that have been revised and enacted into positive law are legal evidence of the law and may be updated by direct amendment. Eventually all the titles will be revised and enacted into positive law.

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