Understanding Congress

Before becoming involved in any political action, an understanding of how Congress is structured is important. This section will focus on the players in Congress and the role they play. Understanding Congress not only makes it easier to comprehend the process that a bill must travel before it becomes a law, but also can help you decide what type of strategy is best to execute your political action plan.


Every Member of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, plays an important role in the legislative process. The most important work of the Congress is enacting laws. To perform that function, the Congress must make judgments on countless issues, pivotal both to the nation and, more narrowly, to constituents. That’s where you come in. Volunteers hold special status as constituents and professionals. Volunteers can bring a special fire service perspective to Representatives and Senators that may be otherwise unclear.

Capitol Hill

Legislative activity in Washington, D.C. takes place on Capitol Hill. The term “Capitol Hill” is more a geographic location than anything else. Capitol Hill encompasses the U.S. Capitol building, the Senate office buildings (Russell, Dirksen and Hart), and the House office buildings (Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn), the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

The Congress itself is divided into two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Representatives are elected for two-year terms with elections held in even-numbered years. Senators serve six year terms, with elections staggered so that one-third of the Senate is up for election every two years.

Each Congress, which coincides with the term of the Representatives, is divided into two sessions. Legislation introduced in the first session of a Congress may be considered during the second session, but bills introduced in one Congress cannot be carried over to the next. If a bill fails to be enacted with in a Congress, it dies and the legislative process must be started with the re-introduction of the bill in the following Congress.

U.S. Senate

The Constitution of the United States provides that each state, regardless of size, is entitled to two Senators. Today, there are 100 United States Senators. Should another state be added to the Union, it would be entitled to two Senators and the overall size of the Senate would increase.

The presiding officer of the Senate is the Vice President of the United States, who exercises a number of administrative and ceremonial duties. He or she presides over the business sessions of the Senate and votes in cases of a tie vote. When he or she is not present, the President Pro Tempore presides. This officer is usually the most senior Senator from the majority party, who is elected by the Senate.

In the Senate, each party is headed by its leader. The Majority Leader is the spokesperson and legislative strategist for the majority party. The Minority Leader serves the same capacity for the minority party. Assisting the leaders in their responsibilities are the Majority and Minority Whips. The Whip’s job is to inform party members of upcoming votes and to keep a count as to how members of their own party plan to vote on pending legislation. Both the Majority and Minority Leaders and Whips are elected by members of their respective parties.

U.S. House of Representatives

There are 435 members of the House of Representatives, plus five non-voting delegates from American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Constitution of the United States provides that congressional districts be allocated to states based on population. The population is determined by a census taken every 10 years.