US GOVERNMENT

Congress: How are the House of Representatives and Senate different?

One of the three branches of the US government. Congress is divided into the Senate and House of Representatives, each with separate and mutual functions.

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Congress: How are the House of Representatives and Senate different?
SHANNON STAPLETON REUTERS

After a hard fought election season, and a tumultuous post-election period, Americans that don't remember their civics lessons from school are getting a crash course on their governing institutions. One of those institutions is Congress and its parliamentary procedures, which were brought to a standstill on Wednesday when mob attacked the US Capitol building. In a show of strength that the institution can overcome any adversity, lawmakers returned after the intruders had been forced out to carry on the People's work and confirmed Joe Biden's election victory.

Congress is the only branch of government that can either make new laws or amend old ones. The Senate and the House of Representatives are also responsible for providing government oversight, balancing against the president’s power and discretion. In the United States Constitution, Congress is empowered to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for any part of the government carry out the powers given to them by the Constitution.

Also on the list of tasks is to create the Supreme Court, declare war and setting the value of money.

Since their formation on 4 March 1789 the House and Senate have evolved into very different bodies. They have entirely separate ways of conducting business. They also rely upon each other to get things done.

Who are the members of the House and the Senate?

There are 100 Senators; two for each of the 50 states. Compared, the House of Representatives has a colossal 435 members.

Each House member represents an individual district within a states, whereas Senators represent entire states. This means that while the number of Representatives in the House is dictated by the population of the state, the number of Senators for each state is always two, no matter if there are two or two million inhabitants of that state.

The entry requirements also differ between the two. On the whole, the Senate is older and more experienced; its members must be at least 30 years old and must have been US citizens for at least nine years. In contrast, the lower age limit for the House is 25 and members need to be citizens for seven years. For both chambers the member must live in the state that they represent, though it’s not a requirement for a House member to live in the district they serve.

The refresh rate also varies wildly. In the upper chamber, or the Senate, each of the 100 members is only up for election every six years. It works on a rotating basis, so every two years one third is up for election and two thirds stay on. This makes it a “consistent” chamber. It also means that typically Senators can afford to be less responsive to the needs of their constituents (the citizens who they represent).

In the lower chamber on the other hand, each of the over 400 House members serve only two-year terms, and they all go up for election at once.

The House was always intended to be the chamber that was closest to the people, meanwhile Senators are not expected to be as influenced by the changing tides of popular opinion.

How do the House and Senate operate differently?

With four times more members than the Senate, the functioning of the House, by necessity, is far more controlled and formal. For instance before legislation comes before the House, more often than not it will be considered before a committee but in the Senate this step is easily bypassed. The House usually also limits its debate times to one hour but in the Senate discussion is unlimited. Senators may speak on issues other than the bill under consideration during their speeches, and any amendment can be introduced.

Party leaders and committees function differently in the House and Senate. With their 435 members, there’s no time for everyone to have their say in the lower chamber, so the House elects a Speaker who holds great power. The Speaker, currently Nancy Pelosi, is in charge of which bills are debated and when. She also influences the House Rules Committee in deciding which legislation will be considered. The Senate does not have a position with similar control to the House Speaker. In the Senate, the majority and minority leaders generally work together in consultation with all members to determine the schedule.

What are the powers and roles of the House and the Senate?

Both chambers are reliant upon the other when it comes to passing laws, they are intertwined in this way. When a new law is written, at first it’s either accepted or rejected by a committee. If the bill gets approval by committee it then gets reported to the floor of the House or Senate and the relevant chamber gets to decide when to schedule the session for consideration, if at all. Then if it passes the first consideration, it needs to also pass in whichever happens to be the second chamber in order to be signed into law by the president. So if a bill is first considered in the House, it later goes to the Senate to be passed and vice versa.

Power is currently split in Congress with Republicans controlling the Senate for now (though this could change pending Georgia Senate runoff elections in January) and the Democrats who took control of the House in the 2018 midterms. Given the above system, this makes it extremely difficult to pass laws.

The Senate has unique powers compared to the House and for this reason is often considered more prestigious. Senators approve presidential nominations, such as Supreme Court justices  where the House doesn’t get a look in. The Senate also has the power to approve treaties with foreign countries.

In general, the House tends to be more concerned with taxes and spending, awarding it a lot of influence when it comes to the national purse. Currently Democrats hold power in the lower chamber and it looks likely to stay that way in 2020.

Impeachment hearings must begin in the House, later moving up to the Senate, where the upper chamber tries the case, acting as a court. At least two thirds of Senators must find a president guilty to successfully impeach them. That’s why Donald Trump’s impeachment was initiated following the Democrats’ taking control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, but ended in acquittal in February 2020 by the Republican-controlled Senate.

The vice president serves as president of the Senate and may cast the decisive vote in the event of a tie in the Senate, so from January 2021 Kamala Harris may have the power to cast a deciding vote in the upper house.