Powers of the House and Senate
Each house of Congress has the power to introduce legislation on any subject except revenue bills, which must originate in the House of Representatives. The large states may thus appear to have more influence over the public purse than the small states. In practice, however, each house can vote against legislation passed by the other house. The Senate may disapprove a House revenue bill -- or any bill, for that matter -- or add amendments which change its nature. In that event, a conference committee made up of members from both houses must work out a compromise acceptable to both sides before the bill becomes law.
The Senate also has certain powers especially reserved to that body, including the authority to confirm presidential appointments of high officials and ambassadors of the federal government as well as authority to ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote. Unfavorable action in either instance nullifies executive action.
In the case of impeachment of federal officials, the House has the sole right to bring charges of misconduct that can lead to an impeachment trial. The Senate has the sole power to try impeachment cases and to find officials guilty or not guilty. A finding of guilt results in the removal of the federal official from public office.
The broad powers of the whole Congress are spelled out in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution:
- to levy and collect taxes;
- to borrow money for the public treasury;
- to make rules and regulations governing commerce among the states and with foreign countries;
- to make uniform rules for the naturalization of foreign citizens;
- to coin money, state its value, and provide for the punishment of counterfeiters;
- to set the standards for weights and measures;
- to establish bankruptcy laws for the country as a whole;
- to establish post offices and post roads;
- to issue patents and copyrights;
- to set up a system of federal courts;
- to punish piracy;
- to declare war;
- to raise and support armies;
- to provide for a navy;
- to call out the militia to enforce federal laws, suppress lawlessness or repel invasions by foreign powers;
- to make all laws for the District of Columbia; and
- to make all laws necessary to enforce the Constitution.
A few of these powers are now outdated -- the District of Columbia today is largely self-governing -- but they remain in effect. The 10th Amendment sets definite limits on congressional authority, by providing that powers not delegated to the national government are reserved to the states or to the people. In addition, the Constitution specifically forbids certain acts by Congress. It may not:
- suspend the writ of habeas corpus, unless necessary in time of rebellion or invasion;
- pass laws which condemn persons for crimes or unlawful acts without a trial;
- pass any law which retroactively makes a specific act a crime;
- levy direct taxes on citizens, except on the basis of a census already taken;
- tax exports from any one state;
- give specially favorable treatment in commerce or taxation to the seaports of any state or to the vessels using them; and
- authorize any titles of nobility.