- The U.S. Congress consists of two chambers – the House of Representatives and the Senate.
- The House of Representatives is one of the two chambers of Congress.
- It has 435 voting members representing the 50 states, based on population.
- There are also 6 non-voting members from U.S. territories and Washington D.C.
- The Speaker of the House, elected by members, is the presiding officer.
- For a bill to become law, it must pass both the House and Senate.
The United States Congress is composed of two legislative bodies, known as chambers – the Senate and the House of Representatives. This bicameral structure was designed by the founders to provide checks and balances within the legislative branch. The two chambers share many similarities in terms of their role and powers, yet also have key differences in how they operate and are composed. Understanding the unique structure and function of each chamber is essential to comprehending how the U.S. Congress as a whole functions.
This article will provide a comprehensive overview focused on one chamber – the House of Representatives. It will analyze its composition, leadership roles, powers, legislative processes, and differences from the Senate. The value for readers is a deeper understanding of how this vital component of the U.S. system of government operates. By exploring the key features and dynamics of the House of Representatives, this content will equip readers with knowledge about a core instrument of democracy in America.
Through an in-depth evaluation of size, membership terms, leadership, constitutional powers, legislative rules, partisan influences, and more, this article illuminates the important function and complexities of the House. It aims to answer common questions about how bills move through the House, how the Speaker and committees wield influence, how Members represent diverse constituencies, and how political factors impact its workings. Whether you are simply seeking foundational knowledge or desire to dive into the nuances that shape House operations, this article provides comprehensive and insightful analysis.
The House of Representatives is One of the Two Chambers of Congress?
Yes, the House of Representatives is one of the two chambers of the United States Congress.
The U.S. Congress consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, making it a bicameral legislature. This means there are two chambers, or bodies, that make up the legislative branch of the federal government.
The House and Senate were established in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 and given equal legislative powers1. For any bill to become law, it must pass both chambers and be signed by the President2. This creates a system of checks and balances, where each chamber must approve legislation before it can be enacted.
While they share equal authority, there are important differences between the House and Senate in terms of size, representation, and rules. The House is considered the lower chamber of Congress, with the Senate being the upper chamber. Together, they comprise the legislative authority of the United States federal government.
How Many Voting Members Does the House Have??
The House of Representatives currently has 435 voting members2.
This number is fixed by law, not the Constitution. The permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 established the House at 435 members, aside from a temporary increase to 437 between 1959-19631.
The 435 seats are allocated across the 50 U.S. states based on their relative population according to the constitutionally-mandated Census, which is conducted every 10 years. The seats are redistributed among the states following each decennial Census in a process called congressional reapportionment2.
California has the most Representatives with 53, while states like Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming have just one each. The average U.S. House district has about 710,000 constituents2.
With a total voting membership of 435, the House can operate more efficiently and nimbly than much larger parliamentary bodies globally, though some argue it should be expanded to allow more proportional representation4.
How Many Non-Voting Members Are There in the House?
In addition to the 435 voting representatives, there are currently 6 non-voting delegates in the House2.
These delegates represent:
- The District of Columbia
- The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
- American Samoa
- U.S. Virgin Islands
- Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands
The delegates can serve on and vote in committee proceedings, as well as debate on the House floor. However, they cannot cast formal votes when the full House votes on passage of legislation3.
Providing some representation in Congress for Americans in these territories and D.C. reflects democratic principles. However, their lack of full voting rights continues to spur debate about fair political participation and statehood3.
Who is the Presiding Officer of the House of Representatives?
The Speaker of the House is the presiding officer of the House of Representatives2.
The Speaker is elected by the entire body of House members at the start of each new Congress. They serve as leader of the majority party in the chamber. The current Speaker is Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California.
As presiding officer, the Speaker holds a great deal of power in determining the legislative agenda by scheduling bills for floor votes. They also make committee appointments and oversee administrative operations of the House.
When the Speaker is not present, the job of presiding over House business falls to the Majority Leader (Steny Hoyer of Maryland) and the Minority Leader (Kevin McCarthy of California)2.
The iconic role makes the Speaker second in line to the presidency after the Vice President. The Speaker is one of the most influential political offices in Washington and sits atop the House power structure.
For a Bill to Become a Law, Does it Have to Pass Both the House and Senate?
Yes, for a bill to successfully become a law, it must pass both chambers of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate4.
The Constitution established this bicameral process requiring legislation to move through both the House and Senate in the exact same form before going to the President. The Founders saw it as an important check and balance on power.
The legislative process typically begins with a bill being introduced in either chamber. It then gets referred to one or more committees, which can approve, revise, or kill the bill before it moves to the full House or Senate. A majority vote in both chambers is needed for final passage.
After a bill passes the House and Senate in identical form, it goes to the President. If signed, it becomes law. If vetoed, Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds supermajority vote in both chambers to still enact the bill.
This bicameral system was crafted to ensure careful consideration and prevent hasty or unbalanced legislation. By requiring both chambers’ approval, no law can be made without agreement between the Senate and House of Representatives.
How Are House Members Elected?
Members of the House of Representatives are elected directly by voters in their congressional districts every two years2.
There are currently 435 congressional districts divided among the 50 states. The number of districts each state gets is dependent on its population according to the U.S. Census. States must redistrict/redraw district boundaries after each census to reflect shifts in population and preserve equal representation.
House members run in district-level elections held in November of even-numbered years along with presidential and midterm contests. Candidates must live in the district they aim to represent. Voters cast ballots for one House candidate to serve their local district.
Contested House races feature nominees from each major party, third-party candidates, and write-in options. Whichever candidate earns the most votes (a plurality) wins. There are no run-off elections. House terms are just 2 years long, so representatives must run frequently to keep their seats.
How Long Is the Term of a House Member?
Members of the House of Representatives serve 2-year terms2.
Unlike Senators, who serve staggered 6-year terms, all 435 House members face election every 2 years. The Founders made House terms shorter to ensure members would stay closely connected to their constituents.
There are no term limits on serving in the House, so members can serve unlimited consecutive 2-year terms if continually reelected. In practice, many spend 10-20 years in office building seniority. However, the biennial elections tend to produce more turnover than in the Senate.
The Constitution mandates the entire House must stand for reelection every 2 years during midterm elections. This was intended to make the House more responsive to shifts in public opinion. Approximately one-third of House members retire or are voted out of office each election cycle.
How Does the House Elect Committee Members?
Members of House committees are appointed by party leaders, based on seniority and expertise4.
There are 20 standing committees and dozens of subcommittees covering every policy area from agriculture to science to transportation and infrastructure. The key committees like Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Rules wield significant influence over legislation.
Each party’s representatives and leaders meet at the start of a new Congress to determine committee sizes and appoint party members. The majority party gets a majority of seats on every committee. Members angle for appointments to high-profile committees dealing with issues important to them or their constituents. Leadership weighs merit, experience, party loyalty, and seniority when doling out committee spots.
First-term members typically get less influential committee assignments unless they have special backgrounds. Serving on a powerful committee for many years allows members to develop issue expertise and relationships with stakeholder groups.
How Does a Bill Get Introduced in the House?
A bill can be introduced in the House by a Representative sponsoring legislation, or by the President and senators referring bills over from the Senate5.
Most bills originate in the House, introduced by individual representatives or bi-partisan groups. Any member can sponsor and introduce a bill without any limits. They signal their bill sponsorship by putting their name and home state at the top of the bill text.
After a representative formally submits the bill to the Clerk of the House, it gets assigned a bill number starting with “H.R.” (for House of Representatives). The bill then gets referred to all committees with jurisdiction over its issue. The committee stage is the key hurdle for a bill to clear before possible votes.
When senators or the President want to initiate legislation, they can formally send – or “sponsor” – that bill over to the House where it follows the same path starting with committee review. This inter-chamber sponsorship typically occurs so both the House and Senate work on identical bills.
What Is the Role of House Committees?
House committees play a central role in the legislative process by conducting hearings, reviewing bills, and determining which bills can advance to the full chamber5.
When a bill gets introduced, the Speaker assigns it to one or more committees for consideration based on their subject-matter jurisdiction. Committees have narrow policy portfolios like agriculture, natural resources, foreign affairs, transportation, budget, etc.
Committees hold public hearings inviting experts, stakeholders, and impacted groups to provide testimony. Members assess the bill’s intended and unintended consequences. If deemed worthwhile, the committee will mark up the bill and vote. If approved, it gets issued to the full House in a formal report. If defeated, the bill dies in committee.
By dividing up specialized review duties, committees allow the House to vet bills in detail. This system also enables members to gain expertise on specific policy topics over time. About 4 in 5 bills die in committee, highlighting gatekeeper power.
How Is a Bill Debated on the House Floor?
If a committee reports a bill favorably to the floor, lengthy debate can take place before the full House votes on passage5.
The Rules Committee decides how much time the bill will receive for debate and whether amendments can be offered. Time allotted often depends on whether party leaders support the bill and want quick action or obstruction.
Debate occurs with members taking the floor to discuss the bill’s merits, offer amendments, or signal opposition. Leadership and relevant committees weigh in. The minority party may try delaying tactics. But structured rules limit the extent of time-consuming debate through motions and quorum calls.
For major bills, debate can drag for hours or days across multiple sessions. While less grandiose than the Senate, impassioned floor speeches and deal-making still typify high-stakes House bills approaching a final vote. The presiding officer maintains order and decorum during debate.
What Is the Process for Voting on Bills in the House?
The House employs a precise process for holding votes on bills that involves the calling of each member’s name and recording their vote6.
When debate finishes, the Speaker prompts a voice vote by asking those in favor to say “aye” and those opposed to say “no.” If the result is unclear, a recorded vote will ensue. Electronic boards display the bill number and each party’s positions.
For recorded votes, members have 15 minutes to come to the floor and cast their votes electronically. The Speaker or floor staff will also call each member’s last name alphabetically and record votes stated as “yea” or “nay.” Members can also vote “present” to not take a firm stance.
If members don’t show up in time, they can’t vote. The final tally decides if the bill simply has a majority for passage or meets special two-thirds thresholds. Members can request a formal re-vote if needed. The public can view every vote on the Clerk’s website.
How Does the House Count Votes on Bills and Amendments?
The House counts votes based on the total number of representatives who vote Yea or Nay, in order to determine if a bill or amendment is adopted7.
After the 15 minute voting window closes, the presiding Speaker will announce the total Yeas and total Nays. If the Yeas exceed the Nays, the bill or amendment “passes” or is “adopted.” If the Nays equal or exceed the Yeas, then the bill or amendment “fails” or is “rejected.”
218 Yeas constitutes a majority of voting members needed to pass a bill, based on the House’s current size of 435 members, one vacancy, and 6 non-voting members. But certain matters require a two-thirds supermajority to pass, which is 290 votes if all 432 members participate.
Members who vote Present or abstain from voting affect the vote total needed to hit 50%+1. The Speaker does not typically vote but can break a tie. Vote counting in the House is clear-cut – the side meeting the vote threshold wins.
What Does the Speaker of the House Do?
As Speaker of the House, they preside over floor debate, call votes, enforce rules, appoint committee chairs, schedule legislation, and oversee operations8.
The Speaker is the House’s top leader and perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in Congress. They’re elected by a majority vote when their party holds the House majority, as Nancy Pelosi has done since 2019. This influential position puts them second in line to the presidency after the Vice President.
On the floor, the Speaker manages debate, decides if amendments are in order, and maintains order and decorum. They call for and tally votes that determine if bills pass or fail. The Speaker also refers bills to committees with jurisdiction over the issue area.
Behind the scenes, Speakers influence enormously through committee appointments, distributing favors, and convincing members to support the party’s legislative agenda. Speakers drive the schedule by selecting which bills receive floor votes. As chief partisan advocate, they work to unify the majority party around policy priorities.
What Are Party Whips in the House of Representatives?
Party whips are House members responsible for ensuring their fellow party members vote with their party on bills9.
The majority party and minority party each elect one representative to serve as a whip. The job responsibilities are highly tactical and political.
The main duty is working before votes to “whip up” support and convince wavering members to stick with the party line. They keep track of how members plan to vote and may pressure or entice those on the fence. Whips are masters of making deals and reading personalities.
On the floor, whips convey the party’s voting position on bills and report members’ sentiments back to leadership. They help rally votes during roll calls and issue guidance on how leadership wants members to vote. While not policy visionaries, whips provide key vote counting intelligence. They embody raw partisan team spirit.
What Are House Resolutions? How Do They Differ From Bills?
House resolutions are position statements that only require approval in the House, unlike bills which require Senate passage10.
There are two types of resolutions, with different purposes:
- Simple resolutions express the sentiment of the House and govern internal matters like adjourning for a recess.
- Concurrent resolutions deal with technical issues affecting both chambers like setting budget framework levels, or expressing public policy views.
Resolutions are simpler than bills in form and effect. They are not presented to the President and do not become law. Resolutions start in committee like bills but take effect once passed by the House.
Other motions like questions or appeals also only require House approval. The term “resolution” signifies its internal implications versus bills that must navigate bicameral passage and presidential presentment to become law.
How Can the House Discipline or Expel Members?
The House has constitutional authority to discipline or expel members by majority vote for disorderly behavior or ethics rules violations11.
The House Committee on Ethics investigates allegations of misconduct and makes recommendations to the full body, which then holds a disciplinary vote. Forms of discipline include formal reprimand, censure, fine, denial of certain privileges, or expulsion in severe cases.
A public censure, the most common outcome, admonishes the member’s behavior via an oral reading of the censure resolution on the floor. Expulsion, requiring a two-thirds majority agreement, removes a member from the House and is quite rare.
Disciplinary votes uphold conduct standards. However, some argue party leaders manipulate ethics enforcement to punish political rivals or shield their allies. Members are more likely to be punished for corruption than general impropriety12. Oversight depends on who controls the chamber.
What Are House Oversight Powers on the Executive Branch?
The House has expansive oversight powers regarding the executive branch, able to probe supboenas, launch investigations, and review policy implementation13.
Key oversight methods include:
- Hearings questioning executive officials
- Investigations by committees like Oversight and Reform
- Analyzing agency budgets and performance
- Assessing policy outcomes through Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits
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