Washington — The structure of the U.S. Congress and its leadership are designed to give everyone equal representation and involvement in the operation of a democratic federal government.
The U.S. Congress is the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government and has two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Each of the 50 U.S. states elects two senators to represent them in the U.S. Senate for a six-year term. This allows all states — no matter their size or population — to have equal representation in legislative matters. Among the exclusive powers of the Senate are consenting to treaties and confirming appointments of Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, ambassadors and other high-level officials.
In the Senate, the leadership positions are:
• The president of the Senate. The president of the Senate is the vice president of the United States, currently Joseph Biden (Democrat). He does not vote in the Senate except to break a tie or to achieve or prevent a "supermajority," meaning a required level of support of more than 50 percent.
• The president pro tempore of the Senate. In the absence of the president of the Senate, the president pro tempore presides over the Senate. Typically the most senior member of the majority party holds this post. The president pro tempore is third in the presidential line of succession. Currently, the president pro tempore of the Senate is Patrick Leahy (Democrat from Vermont).
• Senate majority leader. The party that holds the majority in the Senate — currently, the Democrats — elects a majority leader. The majority leader manages the schedule and executive and legislative business of the Senate. Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat from Nevada) is responsible for the day-to-day management of business on the Senate floor, including working with each committee on legislation and scheduling debate on all legislation.
• Senate minority leader. The leader of the minority party in the Senate — currently, the Republicans — is also elected by senators from his party and helps set the party’s agenda. This position is held by Mitch McConnell (Republican from Kentucky).
• Senate party whips. As the name may imply, “whips” — essentially, assistant floor leaders — are responsible for rounding up party members for votes and quorum calls and persuading them to vote in support of the party’s position. For the Democratic Party, the whip is Richard J. Durbin (Democrat from Illinois); for the Republican Party, the whip is John Cornyn (Republican from Texas).
In the House of Representatives, each state is represented by a number of elected officials based on the state’s population. California, the most populous state, has 53 representatives. The smallest states are entitled to at least one representative. There are 435 members of the House; each is elected to serve a two-year term.
The House of Representatives has exclusive power to initiate legislation for spending and to initiate impeachment — removal from office — of high federal officials. In impeachment, the Senate adjudicates the impeachment charges approved by the House and alone votes for or against removal from office.
In the House of Representatives, the leadership positions are:
• Speaker of the House. Elected, in effect, by members of the majority party in the chamber — currently, the Republicans — the speaker, among other duties, administers the proceedings of the floor and appoints members to conference committees that iron out differences when the House and Senate pass differing versions of legislation. The speaker also is second in the line of succession to the presidency (behind the vice president). The current speaker is John Boehner (Republican from Ohio).
• House majority and minority leaders. Elected by their parties as floor leaders, they decide what legislation their party should support and help choose committee leadership. The majority leader for the House is Eric Cantor (Republican from Virginia); the minority leader is Nancy Pelosi (Democrat from California).
• House party whips. Elected by their party members serving in the House, whips are deputies to the party leaders and work to ensure party members vote to support their party’s goals. The majority whip in the House is Kevin McCarthy (Republican from California); House minority whip is Steny Hoyer (Democrat from Maryland).
Federal legislation passed by either chamber must be passed by the other and approved by the president before becoming law.
The leadership in the 113 Congress, which began January 3, is largely unchanged from that of the 112th Congress, mostly because the political control of each chamber is unchanged.