Problem

It was the summer of 1787. The 55 Constitutional Convention delegates were in the middle of writing the U.S. Constitution, but they could not agree on how to apportion representation for the new legislature. Larger states wanted representation based on the population or wealth of each state, while smaller states wanted each state to have equal representation.

Solution

Eventually, they reached a compromise. This Great Compromise established a bicameral legislature with an upper and lower house. In the lower house, representation would be based on population, and in the upper house, all states would be represented equally. 

House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is the lower house of Congress. It has 435 members, and the representation of each state is based on the population of that state. Along with the upper house, the Senate, it is responsible for proposing, debating, amending, and voting on bills. The House of Representatives also has exclusive power to introduce revenue bills, impeach federal officials, and elect the president, should the electoral college vote result in a tie. 

How It Works

Since representation in the House is based on state population, some states, like Alaska, have only one representative, while a large state like California has 53. There are six non-voting members of the House, representing D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Representatives are elected for two-year terms, and each member represents approximately 600,000 people. To be a representative, you must be at least 25 years old, have been a U.S. citizen for a minimum of seven years, and live in the state you will be representing. 

The House is led by the Speaker of the House. The Speaker of the House sets the schedule for when bills are debated and voted on, and they preside over these debates. The Speaker is a member of the majority party, or the political party with the most members in the House. The Speaker is also second in line for the presidency. 

The House also has a majority leader, who establishes the majority party’s legislative strategy, and a minority leader, who advocates for the minority party’s beliefs. Each party also has a whip, who is responsible for counting potential votes for bills under deliberation and increasing party unity. 

Every member of the House is part of different committees. There are about 20 standing, or permanent, committees in the House, including committees on agriculture, education and the workforce, and small business. There are also select and special committees, which are temporary and usually meant for specific projects, such as the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. 

One of the House’s most important responsibilities is its role in creating laws. When a House member introduces a bill, the bill is first considered by a subcommittee that debates and edits it. If the subcommittee votes in favor of it, the bill is then reported to the full committee. Both the committee and subcommittee have hearings to discuss the bill in which they may have experts, advocates, and opponents provide testimony to help them become more informed about whether or not to support the bill. 

If the committee votes in favor of the bill, it is then reported to the House floor where the entire chamber can debate and vote on it. During the debate process, every member who wants to can speak for a limited time. If a majority of the House votes in favor of the bill, it is sent to the Senate. Once both chambers approve the bill with a majority vote, it is sent to the president to be signed. 

Though the House works closely with the Senate, it does have some powers that the Senate does not. For example, only members of the House can propose revenue bills, or bills that help raise money, such as through taxes. Usually, bills can originate in either chamber. The House also has exclusive power to impeach federal officials such as the president. Additionally, it chooses the president in the event of a tie in the electoral college vote.

Why Care?

The House of Representatives is one of the most influential parts of our government. It provides an essential check on the Senate’s power and is responsible for creating and passing laws that establish how our government functions. Since they must be re-elected every two years, members of the House are usually pretty aware of what is most important to their constituents. They will work to advocate for the communities they represent. If there is an issue you’re passionate about, you can write to or call your representative to share your opinion. For example, if a bill on climate change action is currently being debated, you could write to your representative explaining why this bill is important to you and your community. If many people do this, the representative will see that this issue is important to her constituency and may be more likely to vote in favor of it.

    Learn More

    1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “House of Representatives.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/House-of-Representatives-United-States-government.
    2. History.com Editors. “House of Representatives.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Nov. 2019, www.history.com/topics/us-government/history-of-the-house-of-representatives.
    3. “The House Explained.” United States House of Representatives, www.house.gov/the-house-explained.
    4. “The Legislative Branch.” The White House, The United States Government, www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/the-legislative-branch/#:~:text=The%20House%20has%20several%20powers,of%20an%20electoral%20college%20tie.

    Think Further

    1. Why are checks and balances in our government important? How do the House and Senate check each other?
    2. How could the majority party prevent bills that represent the minority party’s interests from being passed? What does the minority party need to do to get its bills passed by the House?
    3. Every ten years, the U.S. Census counts every person living in the U.S. Why is this important with regard to the House?

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