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What’s the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives?

The Senate and the House together make up Congress. They were founded in order be a balance on executive power but how do they work in reality?

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES- NOVEMBER 29: The lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. on November 29, 2022. (Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Under the US Constitution, the legislative branch is tasked with making new laws and amending old ones. The Senate and the House of Representatives are also responsible for providing government oversight, balancing against the president’s power and discretion.

Also on the list of tasks is to determine the makeup of the Supreme Court, declare war, and set 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 but are highly reliant on one another to accomplish the political agendas of both parties.

Who are the members of the House and the Senate?

There are one hundred Senators, two for each of the fifty states. Compared to the House of Representatives, which is composed of a colossal 435 members, the upper chamber is only a fraction of the size but is thought to hold much more power. In the Senate, smaller states, in terms of population, have an outsized amount of power, which can be used as a backstop to prevent “majority rule,” as is possible in the lower chamber.

Each House member represents an individual district within states, whereas Senators represent entire states. This means that while the state’s population dictates the number of Representatives in the House, 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 are required to have been US citizens for at least nine years. In contrast, the lower age limit for the House is 25, and members can only have been citizens for seven years. For both chambers, the member must live in the state 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, a third are 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.

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

The House was always intended to be the chamber 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 is far more controlled and formal. For instance, before the 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 limits its debate times to one hour, but in the Senate, the discussion is not time restricted. Senators may speak on issues other than the bill under consideration during speeches, and any amendment can be introduced.

Party leaders and committees function differently in the House and Senate. With 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 of the House is currently Nancy Pelosi, who announced that she would be stepping down from party leadership. She also influences the House Rules Committee in deciding which legislation will be considered.

In the Senate, the Majority Leader takes on a similar position to the Speaker but is not vested with the same powers and decides which bills will be brought to the floor for a vote.

The Senate also differs from the House in that a bill must receive at least sixty votes to pass, not a simple majority. Bills passed through a parliamentary process known as reconciliation can pass with a fifty-one vote majority, but the number of bills of this nature that can be taken up per year is limited. The Democrats have passed two major bills, the American Rescue Acy and the Inflation Reduction Act, under reconciliation during President Biden’s term. Under Donald Trump’s tenure, the Senate used the process to pass the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which made many changes to the country’s tax code, including lowering the corporate tax rate to a historically low level.

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. When a new law is written, it’s either accepted or rejected by a committee. If the bill gets approval by the 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 other chamber 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 vic-a-versa.

Currently, Democrats control both chambers of Congress, but come January, the GOP will have a majority in the House. On 6 December, Senator Raphael Warnock was re-elected, giving Democrats a 51 vote majority in the chamber.

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. 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.