Who makes the laws in the United States? For the most part, that job belongs to Congress, but it’s much more complicated than that. Congress is the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government. It is composed of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate, both of which are composed of congressmen and women who have been democratically elected to serve and represent the interests of their constituencies. That means they decide on actions the government should take, such as regulating taxes, that can improve the lives of people living all over the country.

Composition of the U.S. Congress

Congress is a bicameral legislature, meaning that it has two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. In total, the House of Representatives and the Senate together are made up of 535 voting members and six nonvoting members. These nonvoting members represent U.S. territories in the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives contains 435 representatives, with the number of representatives from each state varying according to that state’s population. Representatives are elected by popular vote in designated areas of their states known as “congressional districts.”

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The Senate contains 100 senators. Two senators represent each state in the Senate regardless of that state’s population. House representatives serve for two-year terms, and senators serve for six-year terms. To be eligible for election to the House of Representatives, candidates must be at least 25 years old, and potential senators must be at least 30 years old.

What Are the Duties of Congress?

The duties of Congress are varied and are wide-reaching. Congress was established way back in 1789, when the country was young. Since then, constitutional amendments have granted more powers to Congress, and the role of congressmen and women in shaping the nation has changed over time. In the beginning, Article I of the Constitution of the United States defined the initial duties of Congress. Section 8 of Article I enumerated Congress’s powers. These powers are often referred to as Congress’s “expressed powers.” Examples of expressed powers include Congress’s ability to declare war and to levy taxes.

The Necessary and Proper Clause of the U.S. Constitution describes another set of powers in addition to the expressed powers examples enumerated in Article I, Section 8. Powers derived from the Necessary and Proper Clause are called "implied powers" because they are assumed and are more changeable than those under the expressed powers definition.

Expressed Powers Definition

Expressed powers go by many names. Don’t let that confuse you. Sometimes they’re called "delegated," and other times they’re called "enumerated," but all of these different monikers refer to the same thing. Expressed powers by definition describe Congress’s role for governing the nation and how it can work most effectively with the two other branches of the American federal government. Put simply, the list of expressed powers named in the U.S. Constitution describes all of the things that Congress is allowed to do. They might be allowed to do other things, given the leeway provided by the Necessary and Proper Clause.

Important Expressed Powers Examples

Many of the most important expressed powers have to do with money. Congress can define who should pay taxes and how much they should have to pay, a power put into use on a daily basis. Congress can also impose import duties and other ways of collecting money, like imposts and excises. They can also decide what the money collected from taxes can be used for, though it should promote the general welfare of the country and be uniformly imposed.

Another essential law expressed in Article I, Section 8 is this: “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

This means that Congress can and should enact laws that enable them to carry out the powers defined by Article I, Section 8. Without this clause, Congress may not have been able to enact amendments to the Constitution that have given them additional powers.

Other Powers Expressed in Article I, Section 8

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution expressly names the following as powers held by Congress:

  • Congress can borrow money to pay for actions taken by the federal government.
  • Congress has the power to impose rules and laws for the regulation of trade with foreign nations.
  • Congress has the power to impose rules and laws for the regulation of interstate commerce.
  • Congress has the power to impose rules and laws for the regulation of trade with Indian tribes.
  • Congress has the ability to implement criteria for becoming a citizen of the United States.
  • Congress is in charge of coining and regulating currency.
  • Congress can regulate the foreign exchange of currency.
  • Congress is in charge of the standards for weights and measures used by various industries throughout the country.
  • Congress has the power to punish people who print counterfeit money.
  • Congress establishes post offices.
  • Congress should promote the arts and sciences “by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
  • Congress can conduct tribunals for matters beneath the Supreme Court.
  • Congress can punish pirates. Yes, the seafaring kind.
  • This isn’t a common duty anymore, but Congress can grant letters of marque, deputizing privateers to commit piracy for the federal government.
  • Congress can declare war. If a sitting president wants to declare war on a foreign enemy, he must receive the express permission of Congress to do so.
  • Congress can raise and provide money to furnish the various branches of the military, expressly the Army and the Navy. Congress also has to make rules and laws that govern those military bodies.
  • Congress has the power to “suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions” by summoning a militia. Of course, Congress can prescribe how that militia is trained and prepared as well.
  • Congress has ruling power over the District of Columbia. 

What Are Implied Powers?

Implied powers are powers that are necessary for the execution of powers expressly enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. These implied powers are assumed and are extended from the expressed powers. They gain their legality from various clauses of the U.S. Constitution, such as the Necessary and Proper Clause, which imply their merit.

While there is no definitive list of Congress’s implied powers, implied powers usually involve the imposition of laws or the interpretation of powers already granted to Congress.

One important example of Congress’s implied powers came early on in the life of the nation. Alexander Hamilton had implemented a state bank, the First Bank of the United States, even though many people disagreed with this action. However, Hamilton believed that maintaining a state bank was vital to running the country. He cited the General Welfare Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, and with this argument, he managed to sway many of his detractors, allowing the bill to form the state bank to be signed into law.

About the Author

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.