House of Representatives

views updated May 14 2018


The House of Representatives was born of compromise at the constitutional convention of 1787. Early during the Convention, the virginia plan, favored by the larger states, proposed a bicameral legislature in which states would be represented on the basis of wealth or population. New Jersey and other small states balked at this plan and proposed maintaining a unicameral legislature in which each state would have equal representation. The present structure of Congress was accepted as the heart of the great compromise. In the senate each state was guaranteed equal representation, while in the House, representation was to be determined by each state's population, excluding Indians but including three-fifths of the slave population.

The compromise served dual purposes: it resolved a major conflict between the delegates, and it created one of the checks and balances within the Congress to guard against the flawed legislation that might come from a unicameral legislature. The House of Representatives was planned to reflect populist attitudes in society.

Article I, section 2, of the Constitution establishes the structure of the House. Members are chosen every second year. By law, this occurs the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered calendar years. The frequency of elections was expected to make House members particularly responsive to shifting political climates. The Framers believed this influence would be balanced by requiring legislation to be passed by the Senate and House together. Senators are elected for six-year terms, with a third of the seats contested in each biennial election. The two-year term in the House was a compromise between those favoring annual elections and others, including james madison, who favored elections once every third year. Subsequent attempts to set House terms at four years have failed. Opponents of such plans believe that having all congressional elections coincide with presidential elections would make House candidates unduly vulnerable to the effects of coattail politics. There is no limit to the number of terms a representative or senator may serve.

The Constitution requires that representatives be chosen by "the People of the several States," as opposed to the indirect election of the President and Vice-President by the electoral college, and the original plan called for election of senators by the state legislatures. The seventeenth amendment now requires direct election of senators. The precise method of direct election is not constitutionally determined. Until 1842, some states allowed voters to select a slate of at-large represenatives, making it possible for voters to select every representative from a given state. Congress forbade this practice, mandating the use of congressional districts—that is, equally apportioned subdivisions within the states. Each district sends one representative to the House.

Congressional districts have been the subject of continuous controversy. Districts are drawn by the state legislatures, and the political parties in control of the individual legislatures often gerrymander boundary lines, creating oddly shaped districts that benefit the fortunes of the majority party. The federal courts have been loath to intervene in these disputes, although the issue does not fall squarely into the category of the unreviewable political question, and the Supreme Court has hinted that an extreme partisan gerrymander might be unconstitutional.

The Court has been far more strict in requiring that state legislatures draw district lines to achieve population equality among the several districts within a given state. This principle, first set forth in wesberry v. sanders (1964), has been consistently reaffirmed.

Anyone who can vote in an election for "the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature" can vote for members of the House of Representatives. Early in the country's history, voting rights were limited to white males and were often linked to property holdings. As a result, voter eligibility varied from state to state. The scope of suffrage has broadened over time, through the adoption of the fifteenth amendment (vote for former slaves), the nineteenth amendment (vote for women), the twentyfourth amendment (abolition of poll taxes), the voting rights act of 1965, and the twenty-sixth amendment (vote for all citizens eighteen or older). Indians are also now eligible to vote and are counted for purposes of apportionment.

Article I, section 2, requires that representatives be at least twenty-five years old, U.S. citizens for at least seven years, and citizens of the states they represent. Although not constitutionally required, political practice in the United States requires House members to reside in the districts they represent. This practice is not common to all national legislatures, most notably the British House of Commons.

Under Article I, section 5, the House and the Senate are the judges of the qualifications of their members, as well as the final arbiters of contested elections. On ten occasions, elected candidates have failed to meet constitutional requirements for House membership. Prior to 1969, both chambers occasionally refused to seat victorious candidates who were thought unacceptable for moral or political reasons. The Supreme Court limited Congress's ability to make such judgments in powell v. mccormack (1969). The Court ruled that the House could not refuse to seat Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., on the basis of his being held in contempt of court. So long as an elected candidate meets the constitutional requirements of age, citizenship, and residence, the member's chamber must seat him or her, although members may be censured or expelled for violating internal chamber rules. Article I grants each chamber of Congress the power to establish and enforce internal rules.

The number of House seats allotted to each state is determined by the decennial census. Article I, section 2, paragraph 3, sets forth the original apportionment scheme. The apportioning mechanism remains, but the size of the House has increased with the growth of the country. The House was initially designed to seat 65 members, each representing not less than 30,000 countable constituents. During the twentieth century, allowing the maximum membership under the Constitution would have produced an unwieldly body of several thousand members, Congress has permanently capped the size of the House at 435 voting members. In the 1980s, members from all but the smallest states represented an average of approximately 520,000 constituents.

When a vacancy occurs in the House of Representatives because of death or other circumstances, the governor of the state with the vacant seat calls a special election. Vacant Senate seats are filled by gubernatorial appointment. The special-election requirement reaffirms the constitutional principle that representatives are the elected national officals most directly tied to their constituents. In practice, when vacancies occur in the second year of a congressional term, seats often remain vacant until the next general election.

Article I, section 2, paragraph 5, provides for the election of the Speaker of the House and other officers. The Speaker is actually chosen by the majority-party caucus and then formally elected by the House. House rules dictate the specific functions of the Speaker and other officers, and by Act of Congress the Speaker is second in the line of presidential succession, behind the Vice-President. The Speaker is not constitutionally required to be a member of the House, although political practice has limited the Speaker's office to senior House members from the majority party.

Few specific powers are granted exclusively to the House of Representatives. In the event that no presidential candidate receives a majority of Electoral College votes, representatives, voting in state delegations with one vote per state, choose the President from among the three candidates with the greatest number of electoral votes. This process, set forth in Article II, section 1, and modified by the twelfth amendment, has been used only following the elections of 1800 and 1824.

The House has the sole constitutional power to impeach officers of the United States. When impeaching a federal officer, the House brings formal charges of high crimes or misdemeanors against the accused. Following a vote to impeach by the House, the Senate may vote to convict the officer by a two-thirds majority. The House has impeached only one President, andrew johnson, in 1868. The Senate failed to convict him by a single vote. A dozen federal judges have been formally impeached, and four convicted. In July 1974 the House Committee on the Judiciary initiated impeachment hearings against President richard m. nixon and recommended his impeachment on three counts. Nixon resigned following his court-ordered release of the Watergate tapes, and the House dropped its proceedings.

The final power held exclusively by the House is the "power of the purse." The Constitution requires that all bills to raise federal revenues originate in the House. The larger states at the Constitutional Convention insisted on linking taxation and representation, believing that the direct and frequent election of the representatives would cause them to proceed with caution in proposing tax measures. In fact, the Senate can propose revenue measures through the process of amending bills from the House. The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment has diluted much of the original concern regarding taxation and direct representation.

Robert F. S.J. Drinan


Congressional Quarterly 1982 Powers of Congress, 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Corwin, Edward Samuel 1985 Corwin and Peltason's Understanding the Constitution, 10th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Galloway, George B. 1976 History of the House of Representatives, 2nd ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Hinckley, Barbara 1987 Stability and Change in Congress, 4th ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

House of Representatives

views updated May 18 2018


The lower chamber, or larger branch, of the U.S. Congress, or a similar body in the legislature of many of the states.

The U.S. House of Representatives forms one of the two branches of the U.S. Congress. The House comprises 435 members who are elected to two-year terms. The U.S. Constitution vests the House with the sole power of introducing bills for raising revenue, making it one of the most influential components of the U.S. government.


According to Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, a member of the House must be at least twenty-five years of age and a U.S. citizen for seven years before his or her election. In addition, representatives must reside in the state that they represent. Members of the House are generally called congressmen, congresswomen, or representatives.

During the First Congress (1789–91), the House had sixty-five members, each representing approximately 30,000 people. Until 1929 the law required the number of members in the House to increase in proportion to the national population. That year Congress passed the Permanent Apportionment Act (46 Stat. 21, 26, 27), which limited the size of the House to 435 representatives. During the 1990s each House member represented an average of 572,000 people.

Reapportionment or redistribution of House seats—a process whereby some states lose House representatives while others gain them—occurs after census figures have been collected. The Constitution requires that a census be conducted every ten years (art. 1, § 2). Each state must have at least one representative.

Puerto Rico elects a nonvoting resident commissioner to the House for a four-year term. Nonvoting delegates from American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands are elected to a two-year term. These special representatives are allowed to participate in debates and vote in committees.


House committees are responsible for most of the work involved in the creation of new laws. After a bill is introduced in the House, it is referred to a committee. The committee studies the bill and may hold public hearings on it or suggest amendments. If the bill has the support of a majority of committee members, it is reported to the House, which then debates it and votes on it. The Committee on Rules determines how long a bill may be debated and the procedure by which it is amended.

The number of standing, or permanent, House committees has varied over time. In 1800 five standing committees existed. By 1910 the number of standing committees had increased to sixty-one. Between 1950 and the 1990s, the total stabilized at nineteen to twenty-two. During the 104th Congress (1995–97), there were nineteen standing committees in the House: Agriculture; Appropriations; Banking and Financial Services; Budget; Commerce; Economic and Educational Opportunities; Government Reform and Oversight; House Oversight; International Relations; Judiciary; National Security; Resources; Rules;

The First U.S. House of Representatives, 1789–1791: Setting Precedent for Future Lawmakers

Today the U.S. House of Representatives is known as an institution with established traditions and procedures. It has 435 members, standing committees, rules for evaluating legislation, and well-defined relations with the Senate, the president, and the executive agencies of the federal government. However, the structure and operations of the House have not always been well established. In 1789, as it began the task of creating laws for a new nation, the House had no precedent to guide it.

The House of Representatives first convened April 1, 1789, in New York City. Representatives slowly made the long journey to New York, and the First House eventually reached a total of sixty-five members. Fifty-five representatives belonged to the federalist party, and ten allied themselves with the Anti-Federalist party.

The new House members were not without experience in legislative matters. Fifty-two had served in a state legislature, the continental congress, or the Constitutional Convention. Their legislative experience proved invaluable during this First Congress, because the Constitution gave them only limited guidance on how to establish the House. It was up to the representatives to work out the details of an effective lawmaking body.

On its first day in session, the House elected its officers, choosing Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania, as its first Speaker. On succeeding days it established rules relating to debate, legislation, committees, and cooperation with the Senate. It also defined the duties of the Speaker, modeling that position after the Speaker of the English House of Commons. The Speaker was to preside over House sessions, preserve order, resolve disputed points, and appoint certain committees.

The lack of precedent made operations difficult for the First House. james madison, of Virginia, a principal Framer of the Constitution and a leading member of the First House, complained, "In every step the difficulties arising from novelty are severely experienced …. Scarcely a day passes without some striking evidence of the delays and perplexities springing merely from the want of precedents." Madison was confident that the House would resolve its problems, however, concluding, "Time will be a full remedy for this evil."

The House gradually found ways to improve the problems cited by Madison and others. One important solution was the development of committees. The first legislation passed by the House was created by the Committee of the Whole—that is, the entire House acting as one large committee. Representatives soon found that this was a cumbersome way to pass legislation. When meeting as the Committee of the Whole, they could consider only one piece of legislation at a time. Moreover, the chamber often became bogged down by seemingly endless debate as each member sought to join the argument.

The House responded to this predicament by creating temporary committees to research and draft legislation, forming a separate committee for each bill. This relieved the entire chamber of the necessity of debating every detail of each piece of legislation. The contemporary House, by contrast, has permanent, or standing, committees, each of which handles many bills. The sole standing committee to come out of the first House was the Committee on Elections.

With these and other changes, the First House of Representatives was able to accomplish many tasks of vital importance to the young nation. Together with the Senate, it passed sixty statutes, including laws that founded the Departments of War, Treasury, and Foreign Affairs. The House also established its power to give limited orders to executive agencies, such as when it requested Secretary of the Treasury alexander hamilton to report on issues such as the federal debt, plans to promote manufacturing, and the establishment of a national mint. No less important, under the leadership of James Madison, it drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the bill of rights.

The House has changed greatly in more than two centuries, but the foundation built by the first representatives remains. Their innovations have become flexible traditions that allow the House to maintain order even as it evolves and adapts to new situations.

Science; Small Business; Standards of Official Conduct; Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans' Affairs; and Ways and Means.

Each committee has an average of eight to ten subcommittees. Committee membership is determined by a vote of the entire House, and committee chairs are elected by the majority party. The House may also create special committees, including investigative committees.


The Speaker of the House has the most powerful position in the House and is traditionally the leader of the majority party. The Speaker interprets and applies House rules and refers bills to committees. Party leadership positions in the House include the majority and minority leaders, or floor leaders, and the majority and minority whips.

The elected officers of the House include the clerk, the sergeant at arms, and the doorkeeper. The clerk oversees the major legislative duties of the House. He or she takes all votes and certifies the passage of bills, calls the House to order at the commencement of each Congress, administers legislative information and reference services, and supervises television coverage of House floor proceedings. The sergeant at arms, a member of the U.S. Capitol Police Board, is the chief law enforcement officer for the House. The sergeant maintains order in the House and arranges formal ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations and joint sessions of Congress. The doorkeeper monitors admission to the House and its galleries and organizes the distribution of House documents.

further readings

U.S. House. 1994. Committee on House Administration. History of the United States House of Representatives, 1789–1994. 103d Cong. 2d sess. H.Doc. 103-324.


Apportionment; Congress of the United States; Constitution of the United States.

House of Representatives

views updated May 18 2018

House of Representatives Lower House of the US legislature, which together with the Senate forms the Congress. It has 435 members. Each state has at least one representative; the larger the population of a state, the more representatives are allowed. Representatives must be more than 25 years old, US residents for no less than seven years, and resident in the state they represent. They are directly elected and serve two-year terms. The House considers bills, and has exclusive authority to originate revenue bills, initiate impeachment proceedings, and elect the president if the electoral college is deadlocked.

House of Representatives

views updated May 18 2018


HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES. SeeCongress, United States .

House of Representatives

views updated Jun 08 2018

House of Rep·re·sent·a·tives the lower house of the U.S. Congress and other legislatures, including most U.S. state governments.

Representatives, House of

views updated Jun 08 2018

Representatives, House of See House of Representatives

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