NBC News' Kristen Dahlgren breaks down the three branches of government, including the bicameral structure of Congress and the similarities and differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate.
What Is Congress?
KRISTEN DAHLGREN, anchor:
Every four years, the United States holds an election for president. But there are many other elections that can be nearly as important to all of us and effect the way our government operates.
The United States Constitution, written in 1787, lays the groundwork for how our government works. It's basically the rulebook for our country. It established three branches of government-- the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary.
The president is the head of the executive branch, which enforces federal laws. The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the nation and heads the judiciary branch. Its main job is to interpret the Constitution and ensure that every American gets equal justice under the law.
That leaves the legislative branch. It's headed by Congress, the country's lawmakers, who write, submit, and vote on laws that govern our country. Congress is divided into two chambers -- The House of Representatives -- and the Senate -- in what's known as a "bicameral" legislature. And the delegates for both are elected by popular vote.
The Founders of the Constitution believed that creating a bicameral legislature would help individual states and their citizens be represented fairly. The number of Representatives in the House are chosen in proportion to a state's population, while every state, no matter what the size, gets only two Senators. That's why the House of Representatives can have as many as 435 members, while the Senate is capped at one hundred.
So, who can actually run for Congress? For the House of Representatives, you have to be at least 25 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and live in the state you're representing. For the Senate, you actually have to be 30 years old and a U.S. citizen for at least nine years.
And the differences don't stop there. Members of the House of Representatives are only elected for two years at a time, then they have to run for re-election. But senators are elected for 6-year terms. The Senate is divided into thirds-- every two years, a third of the Senate runs for re-election.
That brings us to Midterm elections, the elections that happen in the middle of a presidential term. They are seen as a pretty big deal for our country -- they often swing the representation in Congress from one political party to the other. And unlike the president, who can only serve for two terms, there are no terms limits for Congress people, meaning that either a Senator or Representative can serve as long as they keep getting re-elected. The current record-holder? That goes to Representative John Dingell, Jr. of Michigan, who served more than 59 years!
The point of all of this? These people are your elected officials. They help give a voice in government to you. So whether it's for president, senator or representative, voters have a say about who sits in government, which is what America is all about.
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