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Your questions about Congress answered

You asked. We answered.

We asked you to submit your burning questions about Congress and how it works and the answers to selected questions are below. If you have additional questions not answered here, just send a tweet with the hashtag #CongressQandA.

 

How is the total number of representatives arrived at? Where in the Constitution does it say 435 members?
— Roger P.

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution dictates that seats in the House of Representatives are determined by a state's population. This number is calculated based on the census conducted every ten years. Each state is entitled to at least one Representative. On average, each member of the House represents about 700,000 people, which is higher or lower depending on the state's population. Click here to see how seats were reapportioned after the 2010 Census.

 

How much do Congressmen get paid? Who decides how much they get paid?

In 2010, non-ranking members of the House and Senate received $174,000 per year. The majority and minority leaders and the president pro tempore (customarily the most senior Senator in the majority party) receive higher salaries than other members — $193,400 per year. The Constitution requires Congress to determine its own pay, but Congress hasn't enacted a pay increase since 2009.

 

Are Congressmen and women required to vote on ALL proposed legislation?
— Sabrina D.

Senate and House members can vote either "yea" or "nay," unless excused by the Senate or House leadership. If they are not present for the vote, it is recorded as a missed vote. You can see a historical overview of how Congressmen have voted in our Congressional Votes Database.

 

How on earth do they decide what member goes on which committee?
— Nancy H.

Members of Congress each serve on committees in order to manage the thousands of bills introduced to Congress each legislative session. The Senate and House have many similar standing committees, including the Budget committee, Foreign Relations committee, and the Finance committee and together have joint committees, including the Joint Economic Committee and Joint Committee on Taxation. Each committee includes Members from both parties and its members are selected by party leadership based on seniority and interest in the given issue. You can find a list of the Senate committees and members here and the House committees here.

 

What is the budget for running Congress itself?
— Dale W.

The 2011 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, which includes Congress' operating budget, totaled $4.63 billion, which includes $926 million for the Senate, $1.371 billion for the House of Representatives, $337.2 million for the Capitol Police, which includes 1,800 Capitol Police officers and 393 civilians, and $147 million for the Government Printing Office.

 

What do the Majority and Minority Leader do?

The Senate and House Majority and Minority Leaders are four members of Congress who are elected as spokespeople for their parties and manage and schedule the business of the Senate and the House. The Senate Majority Leader is Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Senate Minority Leader is Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The new House Majority Leader is Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the House Minority Leader is Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The Majority and Minority Leaders have procedural privileges and are recognized first if either leader and another Congressman are seeking recognition at the same time. Also, by custom, only the Majority Leader (or a Congressman acting on his behalf) proposes what bills and resolutions the Senate should consider and in what order.

 

What is a filibuster? How does it work?

Senators who oppose a pending bill or other agenda item can speak against it as long as they want or delay action by offering different amendments and motions. This tactic is called a filibuster and is used to stall action on a measure in the hope of convincing the Senate to change it or withdraw it from consideration. Filibusters can last for days or as long as the Senator can or wants to speak.

 

What is cloture? Why did Senate come up with 60 as the number for cloture?

Currently, the only Senate procedure that can overcome a filibuster is cloture. Cloture requires the support of three-fifths of the Senate or a minimum of 60 votes, except on proposals to change rules, which require two-thirds of Senators to give their approval. Also, cloture cannot be voted on until two days after it is proposed. If the Senate invokes cloture on a bill, amendment, or other issue, consideration of the matter is limited to 30 additional hours during which each Senator may speak for no more than one hour. Cloture does not stop debate immediately; it only ensures that debate cannot continue indefinitely.

 

Why don't we have term limits for Senators?
— George D.

Currently, Senators are allowed to serve unlimited six-year terms and Representatives can serve unlimited two-year terms. The Constitution only limits the Presidents to two four-year terms in office. Several attempts to limit reelection, including a short-lived movement in the 1990s, have failed. In 1995, the Supreme Court overturned legislation from several states that aimed to impose limits on time one person could hold office in the Senate seat.

 

How much in expenditures do Senators and Representatives actually pay out of pocket? What perks do they receive?
— Chris V.

House members receive an allowance for personnel (up to $922,350) and another allowance for "ordinary and necessary" business expenses related to their duties, including travel ($250,512 in 2009), according to the Congressional Research Service. In the 2010 financial year, Senators received between $128,585 and $465,919 for office expenses. This number is based on the distance between Washington, D.C. and the Senator's home state, the population of the state, and other factors.

Congressmen can deduct up to $3,000 a year in living expenses while away from their congressional districts or home states. Members are eligible to receive health and life insurance and retirement benefit and also have mailing privileges. There are various restrictions on how much members of Congress can earn outside of their base salary.

 

How long does a Senator/Representative have to serve to draw retirement and how much?
— Glen B.

Members of Congress are eligible for a pension when they turn 62 if they have completed at least five years of service, according to the Congressional Research Service.  Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a member of Congress' retirement annuity cannot exceed 80 percent of his or her final salary.

In 2007, — the most recent year for which numbers available — 435 retired Members of Congress received federal pensions. Of this number, 286 retired under the Civil Service Retirement System, a pension plan for federal employees who served prior to 1984, and received an average annual pension of $63,696. The remaining Congressmen retired under both CSRS or the Federal Employees' Retirement System, a newer pension plan, or under FERS only. In 2007, their average annual pension was $36,732.

 

SOURCES: Staff reports. Mark S. Luckie, Lucy Shackelford, and Alice R. Crites contributed to this report / The Washington Post - Jan. 5, 2011.
 

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