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The U.S. Congress has enormous power to shape our society and impact our lives. This is achieved not just through the laws Congress passes, but also by controlling government spending and levels of taxation. Through its advice and consent on free trade agreements, the U.S. Congress has a huge impact on employment, collective bargaining and the quality of work life for all Americans.
Congress has many powers, including the power to assess and collect taxes; to regulate commerce, both interstate and foreign; to coin money; to establish post offices; to create courts inferior to the Supreme Court; to raise and maintain a U.S. Army and Navy, and to declare war. Another power vested in Congress is the right to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution, whenever two-thirds of both chambers deem it necessary. The House of Representatives is granted the power to originate all bills for raising revenue.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the Senate is granted certain powers not given to the House of Representatives. The Senate must approve many high-level presidential appointments, including all federal judges and the Supreme Court Justices. The upper chamber must also concur in treaties with foreign countries by a two-thirds majority vote.
Committees are the engines of the congressional lawmaking machinery. There are 19 standing committees in the Senate and 20 in the House. These committees take initial jurisdiction over legislation and can move, stall or stop it. Without committee approval, a bill has little chance of reaching the full House or Senate for consideration.
In addition to standing committees, there are also select and special committees, created for a specific purpose. A recent example of such a committee is the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – better known as the “Super Committee” – that was established by Congress in the first session of the 112th Congress to draft legislation to reduce the federal budget deficit by over $2 trillion over 10 years. The membership of the standing committees of each chamber are selected by their respective party. Members of other committees are appointed under the provision of the legislation establishing them.
Representatives and senators generally seek membership on committees related to their personal interests, background and to the economic interests of their districts or state. Many, however, particularly if given an opportunity early in their careers, will choose the powerful appropriations committees that control the flow of money to programs authorized by other committees, as well as to the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees, which consider tax legislation. The House and Senate budget committees now allow Congress to compete with the White House in establishing national priorities through a national budget. This makes them attractive to most members. The House Budget Committee is unique in its rotation requirements. No one may serve more than two terms in a 10-year period.