The federal legislature, the U.S. Congress, is bicameral in structure, meaning that it consists of two chambers, in this case the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each state has a legislature, and all state legislatures have two houses, except the Nebraska Legislature, which has only one. State legislative bodies have various official designations, including state legislature, general assembly, general court, and legislative assembly. Local legislatures are generally structured differently from the state and national model. They may be called city councils or boards of aldermen and alderwomen.
The traditional bicameral structure of state and national legislatures developed out of early U.S. societal distinctions between the public in general and the propertied, wealthy class. This structure provided for a lower house and an upper house. The lower-house legislators were elected by the general voting public, and it was believed that their votes were likely to be radical. The upper-house legislators were elected by voters who owned more property, and it was believed that they would be more mindful of concerns to property owners.
Traditional bicameralism is still supported for various reasons. It is believed that because both houses must separately pass a bill in order for the bill to become law, bicameral legislatures are less likely to pass hasty, ill-considered laws or to be subject to public passions. Proponents of unicameralism (a one-chamber system) cite lower costs, simpler procedures, better executive-legislative relationships, and legislative developments that are easier for the public to follow.
Federal and state legislatures range in size from the U.S. Congress, consisting of 535 members, to the Delaware Legislature, with fewer than 100 members. Legislatures organize themselves into a number of committees and subcommittees, which undertake in-depth study of issues within their area of expertise and focus. Each committee addresses the issues presented to it, recommends action, and changes bills before they are passed on for consideration by the full house. After members of one house pass a bill, it must go to the other house for approval. After both houses have approved a bill, it is presented to the president or governor to be signed into law or vetoed.
U.S. state legislatures and the U.S. Congress organize their members according to political party affiliations. The political party that represents the majority of a particular house of the legislature is able to organize and control the actions of that house. The lower house of the legislature chooses a member of the dominant political party to serve as Speaker. The upper house chooses a member of the dominant political party to serve as president. Generally, the members of the different political parties meet separately to determine what actions their party
will take in the upcoming session of the legislature. Though there are exceptions, legislators tend to vote along party lines. Political parties are less able to command party loyalty from individual legislators in state legislatures than in the U.S. Congress.
The Speaker of the lower house is the presiding officer of that house and is generally the most powerful member of the house. The full membership of the house chooses the Speaker. The duties of the Speaker include appointing members of the standing committees in the lower house. The speaker typically considers party membership, seniority, and the opinions of other party members in making these appointments. Unless there are house rules to the contrary, the Speaker may also refer bills to committee. It is the role of the Speaker to interpret and apply the rules of procedure that govern the actions of the house.
In accordance with the U.S. Constitution, the vice president of the United States officially presides over the U.S. Senate. Most state constitutions have similar rules, charging the lieutenant governor with the duty of presiding over the state's upper legislative house. In states that do not have a lieutenant governor or do not give that individual power to preside over the upper house of the state legislature, a member of the upper house is selected by other members to serve as president of the house. The duties of the president of the upper house are similar to those of the Speaker of the lower house, although they generally do not include appointing members to committees. Some states that do permit the president of the upper house to appoint committee members diminish that power by making the appointments subject to approval by the whole membership of the house. In a state in which the lieutenant governor serves as president of the upper house, if there is a tie on a vote in the upper house, the president of the house must cast the deciding vote. In the U.S. Senate and in states in which the lieutenant governor presides over the upper house, the house selects one member to serve as president pro tem (for the time being) when the president of the house is absent.
Legislative sessions are the periods of time in which a legislature conducts its business. Each legislative session of the U.S. Congress is called a "Congress," lasts for two years, and is numbered consecutively. For example, the 107th Congress began in January of 2001 and ended in December of 2002. The 108th Congress began in January of 2003. Each Congress begins in the year following a biennial election of members and is divided into two one-year "sessions." Most states have annual sessions, each lasting perhaps only a few months. The governor of a state may call a special session of the state legislature, outside its normal meeting times, to address issues that require immediate attention.
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