SIC 9121

This category covers legislative bodies and their advisory and interdepartmental committees and commissions at the local, state, and national level.

NAICS Code(s)

921120 (Legislative Bodies)

Industry Snapshot

Legislative bodies (from the Latin lex, "law," and latio, "a bringing") include the U.S. Congress, state legislative assemblies, and local commissions and boards. These entities are responsible for proposing, selecting, and amending the laws that govern all Americans. They have the authority to levy taxes, regulate commerce, borrow money, and exercise a number of additional powers.

Although it has been amended to alter the function of the legislature, the U.S. Constitution that became effective in 1789 defines the federal legislative branch. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution expressly reserves to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution. State legislative bodies have been likewise organized under state constitutions. The conceptual structure of most U.S. legislative bodies largely reflects European initiatives, such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689).

The authoritative purview of U.S. legislative bodies is often challenged in legal efforts to clarify the scope, limits, and respective balancing of federal versus state power. This helps to maintain the vitality and viability of the Constitution when applied to contemporary issues and crises. Accordingly, the U.S. legislative system has remained a healthy model for democracies around the globe.

Organization and Structure

All U.S. governing bodies at the national and state levels—and most local governments—are distinguished by the fact that their executive, legislative, and judicial branches are practically independent of one another. This portentous difference contrasts with cabinet governments, utilized in many European nations, in which the executive body is drawn from and responsible to the legislative arm. As a result, the president is solely responsible to the voters and is theoretically free from direct legislative control. Likewise, legislative bodies are relatively unfettered by the executive branch. This separation of powers, combined with a system of checks and balances, serves to reduce the potential power of the government to domineer U.S. citizens. For example, chief executives can veto legislative initiatives, but legislators can override their vetoes.

State legislators initiate, draft, and vote on proposed state laws. Each state has two legislative bodies, an upper house (Senate) and a lower house. Nebraska, which has only one house, is the exception. The lower house is usually called the House of Representatives, or in some states the Assembly or the House of Delegates. The size of legislatures varies. For example, during the early 2000s Georgia had 236 legislators, whereas Nevada had only 63. However, within each state, all representatives are elected from districts with an almost equal number of citizens. About half of the legislators meet annually to vote on laws, and the other half meet twice each year. Upper house members are customarily elected for a term of four years and lower house members for a term of two years.

Most community legislative bodies exist under one of three types of government. Under mayor and council systems—the most common type of local governing body in the United States—an elected council acts as the legislative body. Its ordinances are typically subject to confirmation by the mayor, who is the head of the executive branch. Conversely, in the commission form of government, the elected commission essentially serves as both the legislative and executive body. The third type of system, council-manager government, operates similarly to the commission arrangement, the primary difference being that the council appoints a manager to oversee governmental departments rather than running the departments itself. Also at the local level are a variety of county legislators, who also receive their lawmaking authority from the state.

Congress. Congress constitutes the legislative branch of the federal government. It is the responsibility of Congress to develop, draft, amend, and vote on laws and proposed legislation that applies to the entire nation. In addition to their legislative duties, members of Congress also spend much of their time representing constituents in grievances against the federal bureaucracy. Congress convenes once each year, beginning on January 3, for a few months. It also holds special hearings on important public issues. In addition, the president may call special sessions of Congress.

Under the original U.S. Constitution, Congress is vested with the "Power 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." Some of the powers specifically outlined in Section 8, Powers of Congress, include the authority to: borrow money, regulate cross-border and interstate commerce, coin money, establish post offices and roads, grant creative (patent) rights, declare war, and "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers."

Congress is comprised of the Senate (upper house) and the House of Representatives (lower house). Both houses can introduce and amend bills. However, many of the laws on which Congress votes are written or proposed by the executive branch. To become law, bills must receive a majority vote from both houses and be signed by the president. If the president refuses to sign a bill, Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote from both houses.

The Senate was originally formed to represent the states and the upper class of society. Although its role has changed, it still retains some privileges, such as the power to approve or reject some presidential appointments, to try officials impeached by the House of Representatives, and to ratify or reject treaties. The Constitution allows each state two Senators. Senators are directly elected by the people of the state they represent and serve a term of six years. Senate elections are staggered so that no more than one-third of all Senate seats are up for election during any year. Although the vice president serves as the Senate president, the strongest Senate leaders are the majority floor leader and the minority floor leader, who are elected by caucuses of their respective political parties.

The House of Representatives was originally designed to represent the people. The proxies in this legislative body are elected from districts of approximately equal size in states throughout the United States. Each state gets at least one representative, and the total number of U.S. districts is limited to 435. "Apportionment" of House seats among the states is predicated on U.S. Census results. Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and Delaware each had only one representative in 2003, whereas California, for example, had 53 House members. The House is led by the speaker, who is selected by the majority party. Among other duties, the speaker presides over debates and appoints some committee members.

Bills introduced by either Senate or House members are sent to standing—or permanent—committees. Committees meet in private to amend, hasten, delay, or kill the bills. There were 19 standing committees in the House and 16 in the Senate in 2003, each of which was concerned with a special subject, such as public works and transportation, foreign affairs, or agriculture. Committee chairpersons, who often possess significant power, are usually members of the majority party that have served the longest on their committee. In addition to standing committees, there are several special and select committees. In 2003, the Senate had four select committees: aging, ethics, intelligence, and Indian affairs. The House had two: intelligence and homeland security. Finally, joint committees unite members from both houses to draft compromises of conflicting bills that each house has passed. In 2003, there were four joint committees: economic, library, printing, and taxation.

After a bill is passed by a committee, the house votes on it. In the House of Representatives, the bill must also pass through the Rules Committee before it is put to a vote. If the bill passes, it is sent to the other house where it is again subjected to a committee. If changes are made, a joint committee develops a compromise bill that each house must accept. The final bill is sent to the president. If he does not sign or veto the bill within 10 days, it becomes a law. On the other hand, if Congress adjourns before the 10-day period expires, the bill is effectively vetoed, or "pocket vetoed."

Background and Development

The first Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia in 1774. Representatives of all states except Georgia attended. The group passed intercolonial resolutions calling for a boycott of British trade. The Constitution of the United States of America was created between May and September of 1787, in Philadelphia, by a group of delegates from 12 of the original 13 states. That document, which became effective in 1789, outlined the structure of the legislative as well as the executive and judicial branches of the federal government.

The Constitution reflected a blend of British law, a general distrust of government, Pilgrim political heritage, and European political philosophy from authors like John Locke and Montesquieu. Manifest in the Constitution was the concept of legislative supremacy by a representative body, particularly in matters of economics. Legislative dominance related to taxes and other laws was tempered by the separation of powers and an innovative system of checks and balances. In addition, the framers of the Constitution were careful to retain independence of state and local legislative bodies.

The Constitution was also unique in that it established a system whereby lawmakers could amend the document. Amendments could be passed by a consensus of two-thirds of both houses, or by a state-supported national convention. By 1999, the Constitution had 27 additional amendments (the last in 1992). In addition, as the role of the United States in world politics expanded, particularly following World War II, the function of Congress changed. While the powers of the federal executive branch increased, legislative dominance diminished in some areas, including fiscal control. However, Congress remains the primary force in U.S. government.

As the federal legislative branch changed during the 20th century, so did the role of state and local legislative bodies. Early in the nation's history, federal and state powers were succinctly delineated. The Constitution assigned exclusive powers to both state and federal legislatures and provided for concurrent powers to be exercised by both levels of government. Federal courts, independent of Congress, mediated disputes and helped to determine spheres of state and federal influence. States, meanwhile, delegated legislative authority to local governments.

But the autonomy of state legislatures declined during the mid-1900s as the federal government ballooned in massive proportions, particularly after World War II. After giving itself the power to tax the income of U.S. citizens in 1913 (the 16th amendment to the Constitution), Congress swelled its income tax revenues from $5.4 billion in 1920 to $360 billion by 1980, and then an estimated $1.9 trillion (individual and corporate income taxes, along with excise taxes, and social insurance and retirement receipts) by 2002. As a result states became increasingly dependent on federal government resources, and state and federal legislative bodies formed closer relationships.

Although they have evolved to meet the demands of a changing world, U.S. legislative bodies have remained relatively intact, from a Constitutional perspective. Besides a greater concentration of power at the federal level, several trends have characterized the legislative process. One of the most dominant is an emphasis on legislative oversight. This entails the responsibility of state and national legislators to continually review, investigate, and evaluate how well the policies and programs of the government are being executed. The purpose of legislative oversight is to reduce excessive and inefficient laws and bureaucracy.

A primary oversight tool developed during the latter decades of the century was "sunset legislation," which established a means of automatically terminating agencies, boards, and committees that are not specifically reauthorized by the legislature. Sunset laws had been adopted in 36 states by the mid-1980s. By the 1990s, however, several states had ceased using the sunset laws because of various logistical and political hindrances. The focus shifted to term limits and balanced-budget laws.

Congress entered the millennium with a balanced budget for the first time in decades. Several major pieces of legislation of global import were on the verge of final vote. The issues reflected the times: Year 2000 ("Y2K") computer glitches, gun control, and interest rates. One of the most sensitive and politically charged issues for legislators was allocating funds for military efforts overseas, such as in peacekeeping missions, or in assisting new democracies rising from volatile beginnings.

Current Conditions

By the early 2000s, security issues—both at home and abroad—were of great concern to members of Congress. In response to increased terrorist threats, which included attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, as well as mail tainted with anthrax, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was formed. The Senate approved the new agency in November 2002 as the 107th Congress came to a close. The Associated Press dubbed the approval as "the largest government reorganization since World War II." A month earlier, Congress also passed a resolution that gave President George W. Bush the power to use military force against Saddam Hussein, who had been ordered to dispose of weapons of mass destruction by the United Nations. The Senate voted 77-23 in favor of this issue, and the House voted 296 to 133. In spring of 2003, Bush used the powers granted by Congress, as the United States invaded Iraq in an effort to destroy the Hussein's regime.

Another major initiative affecting Congress was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). Effective on November 6, 2002, this legislation resulted in significant changes to federal campaign finance law. BCRA also is known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, because U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and U.S. Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) were instrumental in its development. Although many Democrats and Republicans favored the law, many were also opposed to it. These opponents filed lawsuits at the federal level calling the law unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. These lawsuits eventually were combined into one court case, McConnell v. FEC, which was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in May of 2003.


In 2003, there were 535 congresspersons, about 7,500 state legislators, and thousands of local legislative bodies. The numbers were not expected to increase before 2006, although some local governments may expand as a result of increased regulation and growth forecasting. In a recent year, of the 535 U.S. Congressional members, 470 were male and 65 female. Caucasian members totaled 474, with 61 minorities. Ten members were over the age of 75, and nine members were under the age of 35. By far, the majority of members fell within the 40-to 60-year age group.

On a daily basis, legislators work with their voters, meet with lobbyists and special interest groups, read reports, write legislation, and meet with fellow legislators and other government workers. They may also appoint department heads and commission members, approve budgets, do research, and perform various ceremonial duties. National legislators, particularly, also spend time working to secure reelection. Local legislators often work part-time—they hold another full-time job, are retired, or run a household. State legislators usually work full-time for a few months each year and then only part-time. Congresspersons work long hours most of the year.

Eligibility requirements for local and state legislators vary, though residency is a common prerequisite. Likewise, Senators and House members in Congress must be residents of the state from which they are chosen. House members are typically residents of their districts, though that is not required by the Constitution. Senators must be 30 years old and have been U.S. residents for nine years or more, whereas House members must be 25 years of age and at least seven-year residents. Although there are many routes to becoming a legislator, it is common for state and national representatives to have law degrees, a history of public service, and/or a military background. But public figures from all walks of life, including astronauts, entertainers, and businessmen, are commonly elected to serve.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the average salary for state legislators in the early 2000s ranged from $15,000 to $60,000 for those states that paid an annual salary. Only eight states paid legislators for the days they were in session. U.S. Congress voted to increase members' salaries to $154,700 annually for the year 2003, up from $141,300 in 2000. Minority and majority leaders, along with the speaker of the House, earned considerably more. But Congresspersons also enjoy a windfall of perks, and many representatives, after leaving their posts, are able to secure lucrative work as lobbyists, attorneys, and consultants. Gubernatorial salaries ranged from approximately $65,000 to $179,000.

America and the World

Most industrialized nations have a legislative federal arm that resembles the one in the United States. They are typically bicameral, allow for some system of checks and balances with executive and judicial branches, and represent the general population to varying degrees. However, checks and balances on legislative powers varies greatly from country to country.

As of the close of the century, no global legislative body or entity yet existed. The United Nations continued to have its member nations adopt "resolutions," and envisioned enforcement power under its newly formed International Court of Justice, but its jurisdiction was limited to member nations only.

Of significance to the development of a global economy was the proliferation of multinational corporations, organized under the laws of one country but doing business worldwide. In the early 2000s, Internet business continued to usurp conventional marketing strategies, raising new issues about the scope of intellectual property law (rights to Web sites, trademarks and service marks, computer software, and so on) and the ability to enforce such laws in other countries. The need for a global legislative body, in conjunction with a global enforcement entity, became a topic of discussion.

Further Reading

"Congress by Sex, Race, Age." The Political Reference Almanac. Available from . March 1999.

CongressLink. "Congressional Pay Rates." 17 May 2003. Available from .

Federal Election Commission. "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002." 8 May 2003. Available from .

"Federal Government Budget by Agency." From the Office of Management and Budget. 1999. Available from .

"Hill Leaders Offer to Cut Their Pay as Part of Budget Cut." Congressional News. Available from .

"McCain Lauds Senate Passage of Landmark Campaign Finance Reform Bill." 20 March 2002. Available from .

"McCain Urges G.O.P. Chair to End Distortions about Reform Law." 24 February 2003. Available from .

Public Citizen. "Update: McConnell v. FEC Litigation Over the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002." May 2003. Available from .

Raum, Tom. "Congress Passes Iraq War Resolution," Associated Press. 11 October 2002.

"Senate Creates Homeland Security Department, Enacts Terrorism Insurance as 107th Congress Grinds to End," Associated Press. 20 November 2002.

"Table of Articles and Amendments [to the U.S. Constitution], November 1999." Available from .

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2002-2003 Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 2002. Available from .

U.S. Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States:2002. Available from .

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "FAQs." 16 May 2003. Available from .

"Y2K Issues." Congressional Digest, June-July 1999.

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