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Understanding the duties and responsibilities of the United States Congress Part I

Updated on June 23, 2012

Congress is an organization with which we are all familiar but there are sometimes questions as to whether the actions being taken with regards to proposed legislation are within their Constitutional authority. Questions regarding such proposed or enacted legislation by Congress are sometimes generated through lawsuits such as the one involving the present healthcare legislation awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court.

The cultural environment in existence in Congress today is one which is not popular with the public. There are always going to be disagreements between the main political parties but it is how those disagreements are resolved leaving a less than a desirable situation. An action which appears to be politically motivated and may not be in agreement with the public’s position has resulted in a low approval rating for Congress.

Those who we have elected or will elect to serve our needs in Congress must understand the principle that they are there to serve us not their political agenda. Granted some positions being taken by the political parties are in agreement with the public’s position on issues but the current environment results in little or no action being taken.

Congress must understand and some of those we have elected know if we do not like the actions or decisions made by our elected officials they can be removed from office. The responsibilities of the United States Congress are a critical element of our system of government. While there are two legislative organizations, the Senate and the House of Representatives they each have their own responsibilities separate from the other but they also have some common responsibilities.

To begin the responsibilities and duties of Congress are clearly defined within our Constitution. When it was first created the Constitution it was designed to change with the times as can be seen with the Amendments which have been added to it. Today government has become too big and whether the actions being taken exceed their authority must be examined.

Below are the basic authorities of Congress as identified in Section 8 of Article 1 of the Constitution:

The first is to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States. It requires that all duties, imposts and excises will be uniform throughout the United States. This authority is directly related to the income tax law but puts no restriction on any possibility of a revision to the content or requirements.

Another authority given to Congress is to the ability to borrow money on the credit of the United States. This we all understand but the action to borrow money should be based on a need to provide funds to accomplish the authorities granted to Congress and the President. The authority to regulate commerce with foreign Nations and among the states is a key element with regards to what constitutes regulation and what actions exceed the regulation authority.

The authority to create a uniform Rule of Naturalization is not denied but this authority does not reference the manner of enforcement. Immigration reform has been a controversial issue for several years and today there is a decision whether the Arizona law regarding immigration exceeds a state’s authority. It is true that the current Illegal immigration reform and immigrant responsibility act of 1996 made drastic changes to asylum law, immigration detention, criminal-based immigration and many forms of immigration relief. The basic content of the current law identified four specific conditions note below:

Required employers to attest to their employees” immigration status

Made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit unauthorized immigrants

Granted amnesty to certain agricultural illegal immigrants

Granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and resided there continuously.

It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court upholds the Arizona law or decides it is not within the jurisdiction of the state. While it is clear that Congress can make the rules it does not identify that the sole enforcer of the requirements is the federal government. It basically does not restrict states from enforcing immigration laws.

Two other authorities granted to Congress is the authority to coin money, regulate the value of and of foreign coin along with fixing the Standard of Weights and Measures. In addition Congress has the authority to define the punishment for counterfeiting the Securities and coin of the United States.

One of several authorities which impacted and impacts every citizen is the authority of Congress to establish Post Offices. While the post office is still somewhat controlled by the government it is a private entity. Recently we have seen issues with the financial stability of the Post Office and measures had to be taken to put it on a better financial foundation. It is an entity that is critical for the way many individuals pay their bills and mail packages to family, friends and sometimes the military servicing overseas or in country.

Additional authorities and responsibilities are discussed in Part II including the limitations imposed on Congress by the Constitution and the roll of the Senate and House of Representatives. The manner in which laws are generated between these two houses of Congress is defined within the Constitution.


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