We the people: The two houses of Congress were designed to appeal to different interests, and those differences still ruffle today
Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines a question from the naturalization test that immigrants must pass to become US citizens.
The question of the day: what are the two parts of the American Congress?
The United States has a two-chamber, or bicameral, legislature: the Senate and the House of Representatives, which are constituted in different ways under the Constitution.
It was the result of the “Grand Compromise” the framers of the Constitution had reached to balance the competing interests of the 13 states that made up the new nation.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the new Congress of the Nation had a single house established by the Articles of Confederation and with limited powers. It could settle disputes between states, conduct foreign affairs, and wage war, but could not levy nationwide taxes, raise an army, or enforce laws. Each state sent delegates to the Confederacy Congress, but delegates only voted once for their state, and any new laws had to be approved by at least nine of the 13 states.
Four years after the end of the American Revolution, the Confederacy Congress was struggling to meet the needs of the new nation, and a constitutional convention was called to make changes. The delegates drafted a brand new constitution, and the first article dealt with Congress.
The larger states wanted a Congress with the number of representatives from each state based on population. The small states wanted a Congress in which each state had a say in the laws governing the new republic.
The bicameral compromise tried to give both sides what they wanted. Seats in the House of Representatives would be determined by population, although each state was guaranteed at least one. Seats in the Senate would be evenly distributed, with two for each state.
As former British subjects, many Americans were familiar with the two houses of Parliament: the House of Commons, where members are elected, and the House of Lords, where membership was an inherited right of nobility. But the new nation had no nobility, so the framers gave the right to choose senators to the states.
Members of the House would be sent to Congress by direct election every two years. They had to be at least 25 years old.
Members of the Senate would be chosen by each state’s legislature and would serve six years, with staggered elections so that one-third of members’ terms expire every two years. They had to be at least 30 years old.
James Madison, the main author of the Constitution, explained the differences between the senators in Federalist Paper No. 62, saying that they would be older, have more knowledge and “stability of character”, and that allowing the states of selecting members to that chamber gave them “an agency in the formation of the federal government”.
The differences between the chambers would protect against what he called “inappropriate” legislation, he wrote.
“No law or resolution can henceforth be passed without the assent, first, of a majority of the people, then of a majority of the States,” Madison wrote. The Senate would be less likely “to yield to the impulse of violent passions and to be carried away by factional leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.”
The arrangement could sometimes cause problems by allowing smaller states to block legislation, he conceded, but governments are more likely to get in trouble by passing too much law than by not passing enough. .
The first Congress had 65 representatives and 26 senators. Both grew at the same rate as the nation, and the number of representatives was finally capped at 435 in 1929. States can lose or gain seats in the House every 10 years after the census. After the 2020 U.S. Census, a member of the House represents about 761,000 people on average.
But every state still has two senators, whether it’s California with nearly 40 million people or Wyoming with about 577,000 people, prompting some to complain that the Senate is undemocratic. The framers of the Constitution would probably agree, as they were creating a republic and the Senate was set up to control the more democratic House.
In the late 1800s, some states began allowing voters to choose their senators, and the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1912, required popular election of senators in all states.
Although a law requires a simple majority in each chamber, the Senate has a rule allowing one or more members to filibuster or block certain types of legislation with the threat of unlimited debate, unless at least 60 senators agree to block this decision. The House had a similar rule until 1842.
This means that a simple majority in the House can pass almost any law, but a supermajority is needed in the Senate to allow a vote on controversial bills when one party only holds a narrow majority. An example of this recently was the tough gun control legislation that House Democrats were able to pass that was ignored by the Senate. That chamber instead passed a more conservative bill that offered support for mental health care and “red flag” laws if states wanted to pass them. The House then passed the Senate bill, even though many Democrats called it insufficient, because it was that or nothing.