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Inside Politics

The insider's guide to the U.S. Congress

By Justin Gest for CNN
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(CNN) -- The Democrats' sweeping victory in the U.S. midterm elections changed the balance of power in American government. Here's all you should know about how things work (and don't work) on Capitol Hill.

What's the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives?

The United States' law-making branch of government is divided into two chambers. The House of Representatives holds 435 members who vote on behalf of local districts apportioned by population size -- around 600,000 people reside in each district. The members are elected every two years, keeping them very accountable to the sentiments (and inexplicable whims) of their constituency. This means that the state of Wyoming sends one "at-large" member to represent its 500,000 people in the House, while California sends 53 members to represent about 34 million inhabitants.

To counter the House's reactionary tendencies and the control it renders to big states, the Senate was created in the U.S. Constitution to be removed from the caprices of the populace and offer the smaller states a greater say. The Senate is comprised of 100 members -- two from each of the 50 states. This means that Wyoming -- a state with more cattle than voters -- receives as much of a say as California -- a state with an economy the size of France. Senators are subject to re-election every six years. The elections are staggered so that about one-third of the "upper" chamber faces a challenge in any given election cycle.

What exactly can Congress do? And how does it get done?

The general duty of the two chambers of Congress is to make federal laws. While state and local governments hold considerable power to govern regionally, Congress is charged with fostering national policies. They legislate everything from entire systems of national health care to purely rhetorical resolutions (e.g.: "Whereas previous explanations of Congress' inner workings have proven lackluster, let it be resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives that the CNN Briefing Room's contribution has been downright superb.").

Such resolutions and all proposed laws begin as nascent "bills." They are first assigned to the relevant subcommittees of each chamber, where they must be approved and passed along to the overseeing committee, before moving on for a "floor vote," when the whole chamber decides and a simple majority wins. Both the House and Senate must ratify every law, before it is sent down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House for a final and required signature of approval from the President.

What if the President and the Congressional majority disagree -- like now?

The United States government was designed by a coalition of colonists wary of British tyranny. In response, they instituted a system of "checks and balances" that allows each branch of government to check the power of the other. Unlike parliamentary democracies, the chief executive is elected separately from the legislators, so there is the potential for a President's party to conflict with the party of the House and/or Senate majority. Before 2000, such "divided government" was the norm, rather than the exception. With the Democrats' victory on Tuesday, Washington is divided anew. Now, many observers expect to see the "checks and balances" exploited by each side.

The President can veto -- reject -- any bill Congress passes on to the Oval Office, a significant power that President George W. Bush has used just once in his six years in office. In return, Congress can override any presidential veto with a two-thirds "supermajority." Seeing as how Democrats can claim about 53 percent of the House and 51 percent of the Senate, a supermajority is unlikely. The Senate is also charged with ratifying any treaties, wars, judicial appointments, and cabinet appointments made by the President.

What do the Democrats get for winning control?

Show 'em what they've won: As in a parliamentary system, the majority dictates the legislative agenda. Anyone can introduce a bill at any time in Congress. But the majority in power determines which bills are addressed, and in what order. Therefore, all the Democratic proposals shelved for the past 12 years can now be dug up, while Republican priorities are sidelined indefinitely. Democrats will now chair every committee and subcommittee in the Senate and House, and usually comprise committee majorities.

Unlike most other countries, the United States is essentially a two-party democracy. Third parties are weak and unpopular. Nevertheless, there are a few independents in each chamber of Congress. Those free spirits are asked to caucus with one side or the other. Currently, all independents -- like the former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman -- are siding with the Democrats.


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The U.S. Capitol building, home to the legislative branch of government.

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