The Structure of Congress

The Constitution structured Congress quite differently than the Articles of Confederation. To begin with, the Constitution created two houses of Congress, or a bicameral structure, as opposed to the unicameral, single house Congress under the Articles. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention opted for a bicameral arrangement to make the legislative process more deliberate and to create two houses with distinctly different characters. The differences in selection, terms, and powers distinguish the two houses of Congress from each other. They also highlight their differing roles in the constitutional structure.

The most obvious difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate is their size: today, the House has 435 members, which the Senate only has 100. House members are apportioned based on population and serve two-year terms. Members of the Senate, originally chosen by state legislators, serve six-year terms elected through statewide elections. In addition to differing election cycles, the two houses can also have very different ratios of representation. While a member of the House has a constituency of approximately 700,000 people, a Senator represents an entire state, no matter how large. Thus, in the case of California, one Senator represents upwards of 37 million people. 

The differences in how the House and Senate are chosen, when coupled with the representational differences and the different responsibilities they each exercise, suggest a difference in function. These differences can make the two Houses complementary rather than adversarial bodies. Though the houses may have slightly different duties, the Senate and the House are co-equal partners with respect to the process of law-making.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representative is made up of 435 members, each of which represents a constituency of approximately 700,000 people. Members of the House serve two-year terms, and all 435 seats are up for election at the same time. Arguably, these factors make the House of Representatives is closer to the people than the Senate. 

The Constitution does not require the creation of congressional districts—the requirement that the constituencies of members of the House be divided into districts was a later development. Indeed, in the early days of the Republic, a number of states chose members of the House of Representatives at large. That being said, the debates at the Convention often seemed to presuppose that members of the House would represent smaller districts than Senators. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate elections, and in the Reapportionment Act of 1842 they required that members of the House be chosen through congressional districts. As a result, House members serve a district-wide constituency rather than a state-wide constituency. Being closer to the people in this way was seen by many as problematic in some ways, given that democratic institutions were thought by many of the Founders to be tantamount to mob rule. We will see in a moment how the Senate was structured to counter-balance the popular will of the house. 

In addition to sharing the legislative power with the Senate, the House of Representatives has a number of specific responsibilities and powers. Bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives, though the Senate may amend such bills just as they can amend any other bill that originates in the House of Representatives. In these instances, the House and Senate work together. Additionally, the House of Representatives alone may impeach federal officials. However, the Senate alone presides over the impeachment trial. Finally, when the Electoral College vote does not decide the presidency, the House of Representatives chooses the President with each state delegation casting a single vote.

Madison’s Vision for the House of Representatives

Even before the Constitutional Convention was underway, James Madison wanted the 1st House (the House of Representatives) to be a larger body than the 2nd House (the Senate), and its electors elected directly by the people. He declared in the Convention that he “considered an election of one branch, at least, of the legislature by the people immediately, as a clear principle of free government” (June 6). Madison also wanted members of the House to have shorter terms than Senators, in order to bind them more closely to the will of the people, yet he wanted their terms to be longer than what was common at the time. Many states had regarded one-year terms as the maximum length the people’s representatives could be trusted to serve. Many of the delegates, like Elbridge Gerry, “considered annual elections as the only defence of the people against tyranny” (June 12). Madison preferred three-year terms, however, in order to promote greater stability in the general legislature (June 12 and 21). In the end, the Convention compromised on two-year terms.

The House of Representatives and Revenue Bills

There were two reasons why the Framers placed the power of originating revenue bills exclusively in the House of Representatives. There was the traditional reason, tied to the precedent found in the British Constitution; and then there was the novel reason, tied to the circumstances surrounding the formation of the United States Constitution. In Britain, the Lower House was structured so that it was more directly tied to the rights and interests of the people. Since taxation was considered a greater burden on the common man than the wealthy nobility, it was believed that only the people’s representatives could be trusted with decisions to raise revenue.

During the Convention, many delegates did not see the relevance of Britain’s precedent. Pierce Butler complained: “We were always following the British Constitution, when the reason of it did not apply.” And James Madison agreed: “The Senate would be the representatives of the people as well as the first branch . . . As the Senate would be generally a more capable set of men, it would be wrong to disable them from” originating revenue bills (June 13). 

Ultimately, this provision was included in the United States Constitution more likely due to immediate jealousies than due to any slavish devotion to the precedent set by Britain. Many of the large states were incensed that the small states were insisting on an equal vote in the Senate. As a compromise, the small states offered to withhold the important power of originating revenue bills from the Senate where they would have a disproportionate share of power. Madison, who was adamantly opposed to an equality of votes in the Senate, nonetheless wished to strike the provision excluding Senators from originating revenue bills. Other members of the large states, however, saw it as a necessary concession to an equality in the Senate. While the Senate cannot originate revenue bills, it retains the power of amending revenue bills that originate in the House.