Interpreted by Valerie McDonnell in easy-to-understand language. Exact Text is provided by The Constitution Center.
Article I defines The Legislative Branch. It is broken into ten sections.
Section 1 is a single sentence stating, “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” The sentence is crucial for multiple purposes. First and foremost that all lawmaking at the national level is done by Congress and cannot be delegated to the other branches. Next, Congress will represent the states in two different chambers, making it bicameral. The remainder of Article I elaborates on the chambers.
Section 2 expands upon that structure by explaining the House makeup, which is representatives from every state, but with variances in population. More populated states have more representatives than less populated states. The requirements to be a representative are being at least 25 with at least 7 years of citizenship. Also, a representative must live in the state they represent, but there are not further residency requirements. Theoretically, a candidate could file for office immediately following a move to the state they hope to represent. This has created complaints about ‘carpetbagging’ which initially described an insulting post-civil war practice. However, in modern times the term has become derogatory political jargon referring to a person who moved to a state just to seek office without any deeper arching loyalties to that state. Although the Constitution does not define any measures to counteract this, recent movements have sought to end this self-interested campaign strategy by adding minimum lengths of residency to the requirements for office. These efforts have varied across the states.
Also in Section 2 was the infamous 3/5ths compromise. The measure was designed by Northern abolitionists to limit the population, and hence the representation of the South. It is important to note that the population of free people in the North was greater than that of the South. However, with enslaved people included, the Southern population was greater. Therefore, Southern lawmakers wanted slaves to count towards the total Southern population so that the South would have more voting power in the House. Had that been done, then the institution of slavery could have continued for far longer. To prevent that, the Northerners granted slaves 3/5ths recognition in the population. As a result, the Northern states had more representation in the house than the Southern states did. In addition to other factors, including the hesitation of Confederate states to be readmitted to the Union following the Civil War, this aided the ratification of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery nationwide. Since slavery no longer exists in America, neither does this clause, which was removed by the 14th amendment. Doing away with fractional representation was a stride toward racial equality.
Also in Section 2 is the establishment of the Census, which is to occur every ten years. As the population fluctuates, so does the number of each State’s Representatives with the minimum being one per State. If there are ever vacancies, the seat is filled by an election. The House members also elect their Speaker. Finally, Section 2 grants the House “the sole Power of Impeachment.” This ensures that officials are accountable to the people.
Section 3 elaborates on the structure of the other chamber, the Senate. Each State gets two, regardless of its population, which protects States with smaller populations from being overpowered by larger states. The Senate terms last six years but are offset so only one-third of the senate seats are up for election every two years. The requirements for Senators are being at least 30, having been an American citizen for at least nine years, and living in the state they hope to represent. The requirements of Senators were designed to be stricter than that of the House, in hopes that Senators would be more educated. Unlike the House, the Senators do not select their leader. Instead, the Vice President breaks ties when needed. Also, the Vice President selects the other positions, including Senate President Pro-Tempore, who acts in the Vice President’s absence. These appointments are only for leadership positions. However, all Senators were once appointed by their state legislatures. The direct election of Senators by the electorate of each State did not occur until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913. Prior to then, Senators were appointed rather than elected, creating the potential for nepotism and corruption. That put the Senate in sharp contrast to the other chamber, which became known as ‘the people’s House’ because the people directly influenced its makeup. As can be seen, the House and the Senate vary in structure and have different responsibilities, still to this day. The last to be noted are the roles of impeachment. Although the House files the articles of impeachment, Section 3 grants the Senate, “the sole Power to try all Impeachments.” In other words, the senate acts as the jury of impeachment trials. In the matter of the Presidency, the Senate has not exercised its power of conviction. Therefore, the conviction and removal of a President would be unprecedented, and it remains to be seen if this will ever occur.
The States have the power to create laws about Congressional Elections in their state. This can include ballot-access requirements for candidates, such as filing petitions. Yet, states can not restrict ballot access to incumbent candidates for the reason of limiting terms. The Supreme Court enforced this in the 1995 case of US Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton. Therefore, Congress does not have term limits and states do not have the power to limit terms, much to the dismay of many. However, Congress can pass a federal election law that all of the States must abide by. For example, Congress decides what date will be Election Day and all the States must hold Congressional elections on that date. Also, Section 4 has been altered by the 20th Amendment which moved the Congressional session start date from December to January 3rd.
In Section 5, it is explained what occurs if the result of a Congressional election is contested and recounted. In that case, a petition can be sent to Congress to decide the outcome. This process is not subject to judicial review because as it is worded, “each House shall be the Judge of the Elections.” Also, any member of the Senate or the House of Representatives can request that attendance be taken at any time. That practice is crucial to ensuring that a Quorum, or majority, is present without which proceedings cannot occur as planned. Section 5 also allows both Houses of Congress to establish a Rules Committee to determine how meetings will operate and to punish or even to expel members. A total of five Representatives and twenty Senators have been expelled. The reasons for each instance have varied. Nonetheless, all of the reasons are public record because the Constitution requires both chambers to publish notes of each meeting in official journals. Notably, at the discretion of Congress, selected proceedings can be kept secret. Though overall, the journals are intended to keep the chambers accountable to the public. Finally, Section 5 explains that if either House wants to take a break longer than three days, then both Houses must agree to do so.
This section focuses on granting rights to the members of Congress and explicitly stating what they can and cannot do. Members of Congress are paid from the U.S. Treasury and not by the States. That is a stark difference from The Articles of Confederation. It is designed to emphasize that although Congress-people represent their home states, they are federal officials. Another Congressional protection is freedom of debate. Members of Congress can not be tried nor prosecuted for any speech on the debate floor. On the flip side, members of Congress can not do certain tasks, such as being appointed to a position that was created or had a salary increase while they were in Congress. Also, members can not hold another office while serving in Congress. This promotes the separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative Branches, in addition to ensuring that the members prioritize lawmaking above all else. This last prohibition is known as the Incompatibility Clause.
Section 7 explains how Congress is to correspond with the President, the leader of the Executive Branch. Section 7 is divided into 3 paragraphs known as clauses.
The Origination Clause is only a single sentence. However, the one sentence is immensely powerful: “All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.” Set on the precedent of the Great Compromise of 1787, this sentence was designed to please the states with larger populations, therefore larger representation in the House. Since the Senate, which equally represents all states regardless of population, can still amend revenue bills afterward, there have never been any major issues with this clause.
Section 7 also contains the Presentment of Resolutions Clause. This is not to be confused with the Presentment Clause, which comes next. The Presentment of Resolutions clause was written as a precaution to ensure that Congress could never go around the President on important orders. For example, if both chambers of Congress must come together to approve a matter, the President must also be shown the result. Without this clause, Congress could potentially even declare war without first informing the President. Preposterous, right? If that were so, President Franklin Roosevelt would likely not have told the Senate that December 7, 1941 would “live in infamy” when asking Congress to declare war on Japan. Furthermore, the Presentment of Resolutions Clause also ensures that Congress can not use resolutions to overturn executive actions. This was interpreted by The Supreme Court in 1983 in their decision on Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha. Chief Justice Burger’s reasoning was that the power of the Executive Branch would be unjustly limited.
Next is The Presentment Clause, which has had many objections through the years. It explains that after a bill passes both houses, the bill is sent to the President. If he signs it, the bill becomes law. However, if he disagrees with the bill, he can veto it, and send it back to Congress for revisions. The veto process exists to ensure what James Madison called “auxiliary precautions” in Federalist 51, but are more commonly referred to as checks and balances. If, however, the President does not sign a bill within ten days of it being presented to him, not including Sundays, the bill becomes law as if it was signed. This is known as Default Enactment, and it prevents bills from piling up. This way, both the President and the Congress can move on to their next tasks. The one exception to Default Enactment occurs if ten days pass and Congress is no longer in session. In that case, the unsigned bill will be vetoed. This far less common occurrence is known as a pocket veto and it was first used by President James Madison and has not been used since President George W. Bush. The pocket veto was first legally questioned in 1929 in the Supreme Court Case very very creatively named: ‘Pocket Veto,’ and then again in 1938 during the case of Wright v. United States and a third time in 1974 during Kennedy v. Sampson. In all three cases, the ability of a President to pocket veto has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The most interesting part about the controversy is that it revolves around one word: veto, which yes, is described in Section 7, but the word itself appears absolutely nowhere in The United States Constitution.
Section 8 is the lengthiest section in Article I. It assigns the Legislative Branch with many specific roles including international trade, coining money, and declaring War. The Section ends with a frequently quoted clause that states that Congress can “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper….” The Necessary and Proper Clause, as it is often referred to, emphasizes that the previous list is not exhaustive. Therefore, Congress can use reasonable judgment to assume additional roles as needed. The ambiguity of the Clause has been the cause for much debate dating back to the landmark Supreme Court Case of McCulloch v. Maryland. In 1819, it was interpreted that the Clause did grant the federal government the ability to re-charter the national bank of 1791 that had expired in 1811, seeing it as both “necessary and proper.” The bank was rechartered numerous times until the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913.
Although the Constitution is still relevant today and even more so is the guide for all laws and life in the United States of America, it did contain outdated portions that have since been removed or revised. Some of those null and void passages were within Section 9. The first relates to the importation of slaves, otherwise known as the slave trade, which was Constitutionally protected until 1808 when it permanently ended. However, slaves were still bred and raised in captivity until the institution was finally ended in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. Another altered portion of Section 9 related to federal taxes. Due to changes made by the 16th Amendment, the federal government can collect income taxes, which previously was not the case. As a result, income taxes have been collected at the federal level since 1909.
The fully operative portions of Section 9 include a clause to describe the volatile conditions in which the Writ of Habeas Corpus can be suspended. However, the manner in which the suspension occurs is not elaborated on, which historically has surrounded wartime executive powers with uncertainty. In peacetime, the Writ of Habeas Corpus grants an individual the privilege to appear in court to contest unlawful detentions. President Abraham Lincoln suspended the Writ during the Civil War and so did President George W. Bush during the War on Terror. Both instances were despite the authority to suspend The Writ of Habeas Corpus being reserved to Congress alone.
Next, Section 9 addresses the Framers’ concerns about the national government favoring certain states over others. That fear prompted a portion of Section 9 to state that “No Preference shall be given….to the Ports of one State over those of another.” As a result, all states are equal in the eyes of the federal government. That is crucial to interactions between the states because no states have more power than the others. On state relations, Section 9 goes on to explain that although Congress can not make port preferences, the States can amongst themselves. The Supreme Court interpreted this clarification in 1886. The case was called Morgan v. Louisiana. Finally, this Section notes that Congress must give permission for any American officeholder to become nobility in a foreign country. It should be noted that nobility positions are not granted by The United States.
Section 10 also prohibits nobility positions from being granted by any of the States. As a whole, Section 10 explains that individual states do not have the roles reserved for Congress alone. A non-exhaustive list of these inabilities is within Section 10. For example, States cannot make foreign treaties or alliances and are not permitted to coin money. Also, States cannot declare War on the remainder of the country, other states, or foreign nations.
Within Section 10, the Contracts Clause is the most litigated prompting Supreme Court Cases such as Fletcher v. Peck and Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1810 and 1819 respectively. Those historical cases still garner modern-day relevance in the form of varying theories of interpreting the Constitution. Scholars disagree on whether to interpret this passage (and the Constitution as a whole) based on Originalist or Living Constitutionalist principles. The prompting discussions make Constitution studies tremendously relevant.
The President leads the executive branch for a term of four years. The President is elected by state-appointed electors. To be eligible for President the candidate must be at least thirty-five, a U.S. citizen, and a U.S. resident for at least fourteen years. The President must take an oath of office and receive a salary.
The President is in charge of the military. The President can also grant pardons and make appointments. With two-thirds consent of the Senate, the President can make treaties.
The President must make a State of the Union Address (or letter) to Congress. The President can bring both Houses of Congress together to convene or make them take a break. As leader of the Executive Branch, the President must make sure that all laws are faithfully executed.
Treason, bribery, high crimes, and misdemeanors are grounds for impeachment and conviction. All civil officers (including the President) are subject to impeachment and conviction.
The Judicial Branch is led by The Supreme Court and contains lower courts. Congress has the power to create lower courts. Justices and Judges must receive a salary that can not be lowered. Justices and Judges are subject to removal.
Lists categories of conflicts that are handled by the judicial system.
No one can be convicted of Treason unless they confess in court or at least two witnesses confess.
Every state must respect the laws of all of the other states, to promote unity. Congress decides how to prove interstate laws.
A criminal of one state is still subject to punishment if found in another state. This promotes unity among all states as part of one nation.
Congress can add new states. However, two states can not be combined to form another state. Also, one state can not be divided to form two new states. Congress makes any law regarding U.S. territory.
The national government must protect every state’s democracy and from invasion.
With two-thirds agreement, Congress can propose Amendments to the Constitution. Also, with two-thirds of agreement of the States, Amendments to the Constitution can be proposed. With three-fourths agreement of Congress or of the States, proposed Amendments are ratified. An Amendment can never be passed that changes Senate representation.
All debts of the individual states became national debt when the Constitution was ratified. Federal law is supreme and must be obeyed by all of the States. All public officers must vow to support the Constitution. To protect freedom of religion, a religious test can never be required to assume a position. Article 6 promotes unity because instead of being a collection of individual states, America is one collective state.
The requirement for the Constitution to be ratified was the agreement of more than two-thirds of the States, which was only nine states back then. When New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution in 1789, the Constitution was adopted as the Supreme law of the land.