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Operation of the legislature

Closer Look – Parliament vs Congress [PDF 1.58Mb, 16 pages]

Both the Australian Parliament and US Congress are bicameral, meaning they consist of a House of Representatives and a Senate. A bill (proposed law) must pass through each of the two houses in identical form before it becomes law. Members of Parliament and Congress, although elected in different ways, share similar responsibilities as elected representatives and legislators (law-makers).

Legislation, or making laws, is one of the primary functions of both Parliament and Congress. The formal part of the legislative process in both Parliament and Congress starts with the introduction of a bill.

The following table provides an overview of the distinguishing features of both nations' legislatures:

Legislature
AustraliaUnited States

Composition

  • The House of Representatives has 150 members. Each member represents an electorate.
  • The Senate has 76 senators. Each state is represented by 12 senators and each territory is represented by two senators.

Composition

  • The House of Representatives has 435 members. Each member represents a district. There are 6 non-voting members, representing the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and four other territories of the United States.
  • The Senate has 100 senators–two for each of the 50 states.

Bills

  • Legislation is usually introduced by a minister in either house. The majority of bills are government bills.
  • A small number of bills are introduced by other members of parliament, although few become law.

Bills

  • Legislation is introduced by individual members of the Congress.
  • No bills are officially designated as government bills, although some important bills are traditionally introduced at the request of the President, such as the annual federal budget bill.

Committees

  • Members of parliament may refer bills to committees for further scrutiny and recommendations.
  • Both houses use committees to investigate bills and other issues in more detail than is possible in the chamber. In practice, it is usually Senate committees that look into bills.
  • Each committee oversees a specific policy area or issue such as the Joint Standing Committee on Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Committees

  • Every bill is referred to one or more committees for study and recommendation before being considered in the Congress.
  • Each committee oversees a specific policy area, and subcommittees look at specific topics in that policy area. For example, the House Committee on Ways and Means includes subcommittees on social security and trade.

Assent

  • When a bill has passed the Parliament, it is presented to the Governor-General for signing into law. This final step in the process of establishing an Act of Parliament, or law, is known as 'Royal Assent'.
  • The Governor-General may request that the Parliament review a bill, but no bill has ever been refused Royal Assent.

Assent

  • When a bill has passed the Congress, it is presented to the President for signing into law.
  • If the President refuses to sign a bill, known as a 'veto', it may only become a law if Congress overrides the veto by a two-thirds vote in each house.
Similarities

In both systems:

  • legislatures employ a bicameral system and use the same names for the upper and lower house, being the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • the chair of the House of Representatives is 'the Speaker'
  • members of the House of Representatives represent single-member electorates or districts and senators represent states or territories
  • legislatures focus on the work of considering bills, representing voters and scrutinising the executive
  • any member of Parliament or Congress may introduce a bill
  • bills pass through several stages: at each stage, a vote is taken to see whether the house approves the bill
  • amendments can be made to bills
  • all bills related to raising revenue and taxation must originate in the House of Representatives
  • bills must be passed in the same form by both houses in order to become law
  • members of Parliament and Congress establish and serve on committees to conduct detailed work to support both houses–including scrutinising bills, investigating current issues, examining government expenditure and listening to evidence and testimony from experts and from the general public–before making detailed recommendations
  • whips, or party managers, organise the hour-by-hour operations of debating and voting in each house
  • the houses contain viewing galleries open to the public and the media

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