EPISODE KEY TERMS
Member of Congress
Star Wars Episode II
We’re gonna talk about something you might be afraid to ask. What is congress?
Let's start with the absolute basics.
Congress is a legislative body. Which means like our bodies, it is made up of multiple parts, in this case, of legislatures.
A legislature is a group of people that hold power and generally oversee the operation of the government. This does not mean that they are involved with the day-to-day operation of the government, i.e. if the line at the DMV is super long it usually doesn’t mean it's the legislature’s fault.
The key with legislatures is that they are only supposed to have as much power as the people give to them. Representatives are generally elected by the people, to do the job for them because they don’t want to.
With our DMV example, this means that when the people complain enough to their legislators that the line sucks, it becomes their job to learn enough about the DMV’s budget, staffing needs, and logistics of operating that they can create new laws and adjust the funds to hopefully improve things.
This is the difference between a true or “direct” democracy and a republic. In a direct democracy, every single person is in charge of running the government. In a republic, we have “representatives” to do the work for us.
There are many different legislatures all around the world and throughout history. The first acknowledged one in history is thought to be the Ecclesia in Athens greece.
Here in the United States, each state has a legislature made up of two houses that meets in the state capitol, the Senate and House of Representatives (or Assembly) - except for Nebraska, which only has a Senate. Some states call their legislature the “general assembly” but its the same thing.
These state legislatures make decisions specifically for the state they are in. California cannot make decisions for Maryland and Vice-versa.
When we have to make decisions that affect the entire country, we go to congress.
All of these legislatures meet in the capitol, located in the capital. See what I did there? The building is the one with the “O,” the city is the one with the “a.” Don’t ask me why it works this way. English is hard.
Congress is the word that describes the two legislative bodies of the United States, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
If you grew up with the flaming garbage pile of special effects and terrible romance that is Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. You are probably familiar with the idea of a Senate as a group of representatives that can be so corrupted by a single individual that it becomes a tool for amassing power and personal wealth instead of representing its people.
The House and the Senate are made up of representatives from the states. In the House we elect representatives based on population, right now that averages out to 710,767 for each member or the house. Every state has at least one, totalling up to 435 voting members of the House.
In the Senate we elect two Senators from each state regardless of population, which means right now we have 100. This means that some states with fewer than a million people in them -- states like Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming -- have the same level of influence as a state like California, which has more than 37M people.
Sometimes in the news you will hear the terms member of congress, senator, representative, member, and congressman all thrown around like they are interchangeable, but don't be fooled -- they are not.
All members of the Senate and the House are considered members of congress. There are 535 voting members of Congress. Congressional staff and journalists often refer to them simply as “members.”
Senators are easy, the name describes where they work -- the senate.
From there it gets more complicated.
The formal title of members of the House of Representatives is “Representative.” As in Representative Jamie Raskin, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, or Representative Jimmy Fremgen.
If you are watching an interview with a member of the House, you will usually hear the interviewer refer to them as “congresswoman,” which can be kind of confusing.
Even though Senators and Representatives are both members of the Congress, this is a term that is only used for House members. Mostly because it is way harder to get elected to the Senate and Senators get all uppity if you call them anything other than Senator.
Another major difference is the length of the term that they serve.
The constitution says that Members of the House are to be selected every two years, have to be 25 years or older and citizens for a minimum of 7 years before being elected.
Members of the Senate are selected every six years. must be at least 30 years old and been a citizen for at least 9 years.
In the House this means that representatives are basically permanently running for reelection, only two years away from losing their jobs at maximum. Some people argue that this is a big reason the House tends to be more fiery in debate, because every speech is essentially a campaign speech. The founders set it up this way because they wanted the House to be closest to the people and by constantly worrying about their jobs, the thought was that they would have to be around and stay in touch with their voters more often to stay employed. This has had, um, limited success.
In the Senate you get more of a break in between elections and only a third of the senators are up for reelection at any given time. Political insiders will call this “being in-cycle” and Senators that are up for reelection in the near future tend to behave differently than those that are not.
This close connection with the people is also why the House has exclusive authority to impeach a president and raise taxes. The senate, with its longer terms and (theoretically) increased stability, gets to be the jury for impeachment trials, decide whether to ratify or agree to treaties, and confirms presidential appointments.
There are MANY more differences and the way that they work gets even more complicated. I’m going to keep making videos explaining how and why congress matters, but I think thats enough boring white guys for now.
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ABOUT POLITICS FOR PEOPLE
Breaking down the basics in government, politics, and civic engagement in five minutes or less, or more.
Former High School Government Teacher and former House Oversight Committee and CA State Assembly staffer Jimmy Fremgen tries his best to make complicated concepts approachable.
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On bias at Politics 4 People
Politics for People is a series by me, Jimmy Fremgen, breaking down concepts of civics into little bite size chunks. Politics for People is intended to be an objective explanation of how concepts work but occasionally my bias creeps in since the concept of unbiased content is a total fallacy. I am mindful of this and try to base these videos around the fundamental belief that good government is based on the principle of caring about the people around us.
In an attempt to be transparent so that you can make up your own mind, I’ve created a video about my background and some of the issues that are important to me on my Patreon page.