The Articles of Confederation
On March 4, 1789, the U.S. Congress first convened in the newly independent country’s then-capital of New York City, heralding the birth of the two bodies that form the legislative branch of government—the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The so-called bicameral—from the Latin term for “two chambers”—legislature was created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which was finalized two years earlier in 1787. But it’s important to note that this was not the first format established by the framers for the federal government.
Indeed, the Articles of Confederation—the first constitution of the United States—established a Congress in which all 13 states (the original 13 colonies) were represented equally in a unicameral (one chamber) legislature, with no Office of the President.
The Articles of Confederation were drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, but the government they established soon proved inadequate to the task of governing the large and boisterous new nation.
Toward a Bicameral Legislature
Part of the problem was that larger states like New York complained that they were entitled to have more of a say in the activities of the government than their smaller counterparts (such as Rhode Island), and the framers soon became concerned that the unicameral legislature didn’t provide for adequate balances in power.
The concept of a bicameral legislature dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe, and was most notably—from the framers’ perspective—established in 17th-century England, with the formation of the British Parliament’s upper House of Lords and the lower House of Commons. In fact, the early governments of the individual 13 colonies featured bicameral legislatures.
Given the shortcomings of the government created by the Articles of Confederation, the framers soon realized that a bicameral legislature at the national level would foster a more representative central government.
Checks and Balances in Congress
Thus, the two-chamber design of the U.S. Congress is in keeping with what the authors of the Constitution had hoped to create with their new government: a system in which power is shared and in which there are checks and balances of power to prevent corruption or tyranny.
Their goal was to design a form of government that would keep one person or group of people from having too much power, or unchecked power. As a result, the two chambers are considered equal, even though they have different structures and roles.
The Senate includes 100 members, with each of the 50 states electing two senators to this body of Congress to six-year terms. The House of Representatives has 435 members, with each of the 50 states electing varying numbers of legislators, according to the size of their population.
Because the number of representatives in each state’s delegation is based on population, larger states such as New York and California elect more representatives to the House, each to two-year terms. A general rule of thumb is that each member of the House of Representatives represents roughly 600,000 people.
Interestingly, although the Senate is sometimes referred to as the “upper body,” and the House as the “lower body,” the two legislative bodies hold the same amount of power within the U.S. system. Both must agree to, vote on and adopt pieces of identical legislation (known as bills) in order for the legislation to become law.
Speaker of the House
The two houses of Congress may effectively have the same legislative powers, but they operate differently.
In the House of Representatives, the legislative schedule (which defines when bills are debated and voted upon) is set by the body’s leader, known as the Speaker of the House. The Speaker, who is chosen among the membership of the political party with the most seats in the House, establishes the legislative priorities for the body and presides over the deliberation of bills under consideration.
The Speaker of the House is also the second person in the U.S. presidential line of succession—the order in which presidents are replaced if they die, resign or are removed from office—after the Vice President and before the President pro tempore of the Senate.
The House Majority Leader—who is also chosen from among the membership of the political party with the most seats in the House—schedules time for floor debate on legislation and sets the legislative strategy for the party in control.
As a check to the power of the Speaker and Majority Leader, the Minority Leader, selected from the membership of the political party with fewer seats in the House, serves as an advocate for their party’s concerns and procedural rights.
Each of the two political parties also elect a “Whip”—the Majority Whip for the party with the most seats, and the Minority Whip for the other party—from their House delegations. The whip’s official role is to count potential votes for bills being debated for the party leaders.
Whips also work to promote party unity in upcoming votes. Procedurally, they also are responsible for sending out notices to the Representatives from their respective parties regarding the floor schedule, providing membership with copies of bills and reports and authoring their parties’ official positions on legislation up for debate.
The Duties of the House of Representatives
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are based at the U.S. Capitol building, located atop Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where they have met since 1807—except for periods during the early 19th century when the building was destroyed (and then rebuilt) during the War of 1812.
Originally, the framers of the U.S. Constitution saw the two houses as having distinct roles, with the House designed to serve as a forum for more pressing, everyday concerns, while the Senate was intended to be a place for calmer deliberation.
These differences have lessened over the years, but representatives elected to the House tend to be more engaged in the districts and communities they represent. Because they are elected every two years, they are typically more aware of current public opinion among their constituents.
Members of Congress in both houses are assigned to committees with specific areas of interest (e.g., the Intelligence Committee, the Agriculture Committee). Often, their committee assignments reflect their interests or the interests of their district.
Committees in both houses review bills that have been introduced by their colleagues, holding hearings in which their merits are debated.
Usually, these committees will make recommended changes to these pieces of legislation, before voting on whether or not to forward them to the entire House of Representatives or Senate for a vote. Bills must be approved by both chambers to become law.
Although this process means that only a fraction of proposed legislation actually becomes law, the framers of the Constitution wanted careful deliberation in which diverse views are heard and our rights as citizens are represented and defended.
History of the House: U.S. House of Representatives.
Articles of Confederation: Digital History, University of Houston.
The Two Houses of the United States Congress: The Center on Representative Government, Indiana University.