The U.S. has one of the most unique political structures in the world because its lawmaking bodies exist on both a federal level as well as in each of its 50 individual states. To gain an understanding of public affairs, it’s important to first understand the differences between Congress and state legislatures and how those differences affect their abilities to govern the nation.  


1. They Have Different Structures 

State legislatures vary greatly from state to state. They are the backbone of state-level governance and are typically composed of two chambers: the Senate and the House or Assembly. The number of legislators in each chamber varies based on state population, and on how often they meet.


  • Full-Time Legislatures: They devote at least 80% of their time to lawmaking, have large staffs and receive the highest pay. 
  • Part-Time Legislatures: They spend about half of a full-time job doing legislative work, have small staffs and receive the lowest pay.
  • Hybrid Legislatures: They spend about two-thirds of their time legislating, have an intermediate-sized staff and often earn more than part-time legislators. 

Congress, the federal body, mirrors the bicameral structure of state legislatures. It consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives, with senators representing entire states and representatives elected from individual districts. The number of representatives in Congress is based on a fixed ratio determined by population. Each state is allotted only two senators. 


2. They Have Authority Over Different Areas

The purpose of state legislatures is to enact laws on issues within their respective states. These could include education, health care, transportation and criminal justice. These laws can vary significantly from one state to another, reflecting the unique needs of different regions.

Congress operates on a national scale and holds powers outlined by the U.S. Constitution. These powers include regulating commerce, printing money and declaring war. 




3. The Legislative Process is Different

State legislatures adhere to specific rules and practices governing the legislative process, such as committee assignments, floor debates and voting procedures. The frequency and duration of legislative sessions vary among states, with some convening annually and others biannually.

In Congress, sessions are governed by established rules and procedures outlined in the respective rules of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Bills must pass through committee review, floor debate and final passage in both chambers before being sent to the president for approval or veto.


4. State Legislatures are More Productive than Congress 

State legislatures take the prize in productivity. State legislatures introduce 23 times more bills than Congress does. Bills are also more likely to pass on the state level than in Congress. 

Members of Congress represent broader constituencies, encompassing entire states or large congressional districts. For this reason, it can be challenging to balance constituent preferences and implement diverse interests into national policymaking. After more than 200 years, Congress has become less productive, and its chronic failures have led to nearly yearly threats of government shutdowns


More Resources to Help You Understand Congress and State Legislatures 

While both bodies serve as pillars of democracy, their differences highlight the intricacies of our political system. You can continue learning more on the LegiStorm site. Legistorm offers up-to-date information about state legislatures and Congress, and gives you the ability to track political changes. 


Originally published April 4, 2024, updated May 4, 2024





Latest Articles from Our Public Affairs Blog

Grassroots Lobbying vs. Direct Lobbying: Understanding the Dynamics

In the world of public affairs, lobbying plays a crucial role in shaping decisions that affect society. Two common approaches to lobbying are grassroots lobbying and direct ...
Theo Dicharry
Theo Dicharry

How Many State Legislatures Are Controlled by Each Party

Over the past few years, our divided Congress has been caught in a virtual standstill, with the government body passing only 31 laws in 2023, making the 118th Congress the least ...
Joel Foster
Joel Foster

Congress and State Legislatures: 2023 in Review

Understanding the changes that occurred in 2023 among Congress and state legislatures in the U.S. is pivotal for public affairs professionals looking to develop an effective ...
Joel Foster
Joel Foster

How Do State Legislatures Make Bills and Pass Laws?

State legislatures actively craft and enact laws that govern their respective states, playing a vital role in the democratic process. Understanding the functioning of these state ...
Joel Foster
Joel Foster

Unlocking the Power of Grassroots Advocacy

Grassroots advocacy has become an important part of an organization’s public affairs strategy for implementing policy changes through collective action. The strength of grassroots ...
Joel Foster
Joel Foster

What is Public Affairs?

Public affairs refers to a broad field focused on helping organizations communicate and develop relationships with government bodies and the public. The practice can serve as a ...
Joel Foster
Joel Foster

State Legislatures - The Ultimate Guide in 2024

Understanding the functions and dynamics of state legislatures, crucial actors in shaping each United States' governance and policies, is essential for those interested in ...
Joel Foster
Joel Foster

Lobbying - The Ultimate Guide in 2024

In modern politics, particularly within the United States, lobbying assumes a critical role in any public affairs strategy; it actively shapes public policy and decision-making. ...
Joel Foster
Joel Foster