DC Speak: U.S. Congress – Who Does What, House Edition

Those of us who remember our high school U.S. Government classes know that the House of the Representatives and the Senate are quite different in structure and function. If we really paid attention, we might recall that the House, which has 435 voting members, 5 non-voting delegates, and a Resident Commissioner, was meant to be the chamber most closely tied to the people's wishes. The Senate, which has 100 members, was meant to represent the states' interests, and deliberate weighty issues thoroughly. These distinctions are a result of compromise at the founding of the republic and underlie the ways in which each chamber differs from the other. Understanding the unique abilities and rules of the House and the Senate is key to understanding the power centers and legislative highways of Congress.

Let's begin with the House of Representatives. The 435 voting members are apportioned using data from the Census. The Constitution (Article I, Section 2) mandated that members represented no more than 30,000 people each, and the number of House members increased as the nation['s population grew. This stood until the Reapportionment Act of 1929. After the 1920 Census, fights were brewing as the urban states continued to gain seats at the expense of the rural ones. These issues came to a head when the House failed to redistrict after the Census, essentially violating the Constitution. The solution was to fix the number of Representatives at 435 and create a formula for distributing them in the future to limit the amount of political squabbling.

The preliminary results of the 2010 Census were released in December of 2010, and you can view the apportionment map here. 10 states in the Midwest and Northeast lost Congressional members, and 8 states in the Southeast and West gained members, which reflects the shift of the population since the last Census. Now, each of these state legislatures will redraw their Congressional districts to add or subtract a member before the next Congress is elected in 2012. Gerrymandering, or the practice of drawing Congressional districts to favor a party or an incumbent, is a serious issue that deserves careful attention during the redistricting process. The Center for Voting and Democracy and the Public Mapping Project both have a wealth of information about redistricting, its effects, and suggested alternatives to the current system.

The House also has 5 non-voting delegates and a Resident Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico who represent the interests of U.S. possessions and territories. Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the District of Columbia all have non-voting representatives elected for two year terms. The Resident Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is elected for a four-year term. These delegates serve on committees and may introduce legislation or speak on its behalf, but they are not allowed to cast votes on business conducted as the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia not only casts no votes but must submit its budget and laws to Congress for approval under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. DC has had a very visible, strong movement to become a state or earn voting rights in Congress, including adding the slogan “Taxation Without Representation” to their license plates.

The official head of the House of Representatives is the Speaker of the House, who is elected to the position on the first day of the new Congress. Each party submits a candidate and the House as a whole votes for the Speaker, who typically comes from the majority party (but on occasion comes from the minority or a third party when a coalition is formed). The Speaker of the House of Representatives is one of the most important, powerful, and influential people in the United States Government. He or she is second in line for the presidency after the Vice President. The Speakers also serves as the representative of their individual district, and the Administrative Chief of the House.

Each member and delegate of the house is assigned to one or more committees, which are groups of Congresspeople who work together on a specific issue area. There are currently 20 committees, 1 permanent select committee (which overlaps other committees), and 4 joint committees (which are composed of both House and Senate members). Unless otherwise permitted, a House member may not serve on more than 2 committees and 4 subcommittees, nor may they serve as chairperson of more than one committee. The Speaker decides which committee(s) considers a bill, which has a great impact on how close it will be studied and by whom, if amendments will be attached, and if it will make it to the floor for a full vote. Additionally, a Speaker may move an important bill forward on the House's calendar or set in motion the process to have it considered by the entire House if the committee who has it refuses to send it to the floor.

All revenue legislation originates in the House Ways and Means Committee, which ,in addition to having jurisdiction over tax laws, also oversees the Social Security and Medicare programs, since they each have their own dedicated sources of revenue.

Perhaps the most important power the House of Representatives has is commonly referred to as “the power of the purse.” The Constitution requires that all bills that have to do with revenues or expenditures originate in the House. The Committee on Appropriations handles spending bills, and it is arguably the most powerful committee in Congress. Members who are assigned to this committee are able to secure funding for their districts, help other members, or withhold funding for members or projects with which they disagree. The Senate may offer amendments to appropriations bills passed by the House, but this pales in comparison with the control exercised by this committee.

The single most important difference between the House and Senate is that while in the Senate individual members have the ability to control the legislative process, in the House the majority party has total control of what happens on the House floor. This control is exercised through the Rules Committee (there is no corresponding committee in the Senate) which determines, which, when and how bills will be considered by the House. The Rules Committee also determines which, if any, amendments will be considered – or “made in order” – to a particular piece of legislation. On other committees the ratio of Democratic to Republican members reflects the overall party ratio of the full House – currently roughly five Republicans for every four Democrats. But the majority party, in recognition of the power of the Rules committee, has traditionally “stacked” its membership to ensure total control of the House agenda. The membership ratio on Rules is “two-to-one plus one” – the majority holds twice as many seats as the minority, plus one more. So currently there are nine Republican slots and four Democratic slots.

Through Constitutional mandate and historic tradition, the House of Representatives has acquired unique and valuable powers to use to members' advantage. It is the chamber of quick response to the issues of the day and of the most direct representation of the people (each member is responsible for, on average, 710,767 people, while each Senator is responsible for their entire state). Understanding how each chamber of the legislature works is crucial to understanding how the government is run and by whom.

Nest stop, the Senate...

[Editor's Note: As part of its version of a new Continuing Resolution to provide government funding for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2011, the House Republican leadership is considering some functional changes that might impact current House procedures. Look for an upcoming issue of “DC Speak” for analysis of these changes.]