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Summary of the Institutional Design of Congress

Summary of the Institutional Design of Congress

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation convinced the member states to send delegates to a new convention to revise them. What emerged from the debates and compromises of the convention was instead a new and stronger constitution. The Constitution established a bicameral legislature, with a Senate composed of two members from each state and a House of Representatives composed of members drawn from each state in proportion to its population. Today’s Senate has one hundred members representing fifty states, while membership in the House of Representatives has been capped at 435 since 1929. Apportionment in the House is based on population data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Constitution empowers Congress with enumerated, implied, and inherent powers. Enumerated powers are specifically addressed in the text of the Constitution. Implied powers are not explicitly called out but are inferred as necessary to achieve the objectives of the national goverment. Inherent powers are assumed to exist by virtue of the fact that the country exists. The power of Congress to regulate interstate and intrastate commerce has generally increased, while its power to control foreign policy has declined over the course of the twentieth century.

Practice Questions

  1. Briefly explain the benefits and drawbacks of a bicameral system.
  2. What are some examples of the enumerated powers granted to Congress in the Constitution?
  3. Why does a strong presidency necessarily sap power from Congress?

Sample Answers

1. A primary benefit of a bicameral system is the way it demands careful consideration and deliberate action on the part of the legislators. A primary drawback is that it is tougher overall to pass legislation and makes it extremely difficult to push through large-scale reforms.

3. The executive and legislative branches complement and check each other. The purpose of dividing their roles is to prevent either from becoming too powerful. As a result, when one branch assumes more power, it necessarily assumes that power from the other branch.


apportionment: the process by which seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among the fifty states

bicameralism: the political process that results from dividing a legislature into two separate assemblies

bill: proposed legislation under consideration by a legislature

constituency: the body of voters, or constituents, represented by a particular politician

enumerated powers: the powers given explicitly to the federal government by the Constitution to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, raise and support armies, declare war, coin money, and conduct foreign affairs

implied powers: the powers not specifically detailed in the U.S. Constitution but inferred as necessary to achieve the objectives of the national government

inherent powers: the powers neither enumerated nor implied but assumed to exist as a direct result of the country’s existence

oversight: the right to review and monitor other bodies such as the executive branch

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