by Reinout Debergh
The House of Representatives (from here on referred to as the House) is one of the two chambers of Congress. Congress forms the legislative branch of the government as set out in section 1 of Article I of the US Constitution . The reason for this ‘bicameral’ structure (meaning having two chambers), is to protect against tyranny. The fear was that one legislative body could become too powerful . Just like the three branches (legislative, executive and judicial) act as a checks and balances system, so do the two chambers of Congress [2,3].
In 1789, the House gathered for the first time in New York . It then moved to Philadelphia from 1790-1800, acting as the temporary US capital at that time . Finally, in 1800 it moved to Washington D.C. where it still is today .
Who’s in the House?
How each chamber would be represented was decided in the Great Compromise of 1787 (more on that in the following article on the Senate). The people would elect members of the house and the number of representatives (as members of the House are called) per state would be proportional to each state’s population . This makes the House the most democratic institution in the US government . Since 1913, the number of representatives in the House has been set at a fixed number of 435. Each state is divided into districts. In total there are 435 districts in the US which are of similar population sizes [2, 4]. The Constitution also sets a minimum of at least one representative per state .
The map above shows the geographical distribution of representatives. The top four most represented states are California (53), Texas (36), Florida (27) and New York (27), accounting for about one third of the House . What the map also shows is that eastern states are typically more populated compared to western states. A reminder of the history of the US which started on the east coast with the original 13 colonies. But the climate is also a factor as the west is drier compared to the east which has more water resources .
Of course, populations change so the number of representatives per state is not fixed. Every ten years, there is a census (counting the population) and seats are redistributed accordingly . Similarly, the boundaries of districts are redrawn based on the population .
There are certain important roles in the House (see table 1 below). Elections for those roles typically happen by the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Conference. These two organizations refer to meetings of Democratic and Republican House members respectively . Currently, in the House, there are 220 Democrats, 211 Republicans and 4 vacancies (in 2022, 2 members died and 2 others resigned) . It should be noted that not all representatives of each state have to be from the same party. For example, Arizona has 5 Democratic and 4 Republican representatives .
Table 1. Description of important roles in the House .
Speaker of the House
|The only House leadership position mentioned in the Constitution. Elected by the House every two years. Each party nominates their candidate but in practice, the candidate from the majority party always wins. The Speaker: |
– presides over House sessions;
– recognises members who want to speak;
– interprets House rules;
– assigns new bills to committees;
– appoints members to special committees.
Current: Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California) .
|Majority Leader||Second most powerful person in the House. Appointed by House members of the majority party. Their tasks include:|
– helping the Speaker and other party leaders;
– deciding what bills to pass and ensure they reach the House floor for a vote;
– convincing undecided members to follow the party line;
– letting the Speaker know which members should be heard in a debate of a certain bill.
Current: Steny Hoyer (Democrat, Maryland) .
|Minority Leader||Typically the minority party’s nominee for Speaker of the House. Their tasks include:|
– speaking in name of the minority party;
– leading the strategy for defeating bills they don’t like;
– arranging meetings with undecided members.
Current: Kevin McCarthy (Republican, California) .
|Majority Whip||Supports the majority leader. Their tasks include:|
– encouraging members to appear for votes;
– counting how votes are likely to go;convincing members to vote along the party line;
– acting majority leader if the majority leader is absent.
Current: James Clyburn (Democrat, South Carolina) .
|Minority Whip||Same as Major Whip but for the minority party.|
Current: Steve Scalise (Republican, Louisiana) .
What does the House do?
Work in the House is largely done through permanent standing committees (some other committees exist but do not produce legislation). Each standing committee can draft legislation or rewrite proposed legislation. There are 20 in the House with each committee comprising on average 35-40 members. The partisan ratio of members is usually the same as in the House. Each standing committee focuses on a certain policy area for example agriculture, foreign affairs, energy and commerce, natural resources, etc. They can be further divided into subcommittees of about 12 members (which also have the power to rewrite proposed legislation) .
Anyone can write legislation, but only members of Congress can introduce it after which it is sent to the appropriate committee which sends it on to one of its subcommittees [18,19]. Subcommittees recommend to the full committee whether the bill should pass or be defeated. The full committee then does the same to the full chamber . Only about 10% of the bills sent to committees reach the floor for debate. When a bill will be voted on and how long the debate will last, is decided by the Rules Committee. A bill may then be amended (open rule), not amended at all (closed rule) or only some parts of the bill may be amended. A bill passes the House by a simple majority: 51% of votes have to be in favour . But to reach the President for approval, a bill needs to pass both houses of Congress . The history of the Senate, who is in it and how it works you can find out in our next article: The Great Compromise: State Power.
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 12.2 A Bicameral Legislative Branch, University of Minnesota, https://open.lib.umn.edu/americangovernment/chapter/12-2-a-bicameral-legislative-branch/, accessed on 16/07/2022.
 Separation of Powers, Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/separation_of_powers_0, accessed on 16/07/2022.
 The House Explained, United States House of Representatives, https://www.house.gov/the-house-explained, accessed on 16/07/2022.
 Toogood, C., U.S. Congress (1790-1800), The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/u-s-congress-1790-1800/, accessed on 17/07/2022.
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 United States House of Representatives Seats by State, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/United-States-House-of-Representatives-Seats-by-State-1787120, accessed on 17/07/2022.
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 Tippett, R., U.S. Congressional District Population Estimates and Deviation from Ideal Population Size, 2014, The University of North Carolina, https://www.ncdemography.org/2016/02/29/u-s-congressional-district-population-estimates-and-deviation-from-ideal-population-size-2014/, accessed on 23/07/2022.
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 Key Positions in the Legislative Branch, Encyclopedia, https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/legal-and-political-magazines/key-positions-legislative-branch, accessed on 23/07/2022.
 Full Biography, https://pelosi.house.gov/biography-0, accessed on 23/07/2022
 U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer Representing Maryland’s 5th Congressional District, https://hoyer.house.gov/#offices-front, accessed on 23/07/2022.
 Kevin McCarthy representing California’s 23rd district, https://kevinmccarthy.house.gov/, accessed on 23/07/2022.
 Biography, https://www.majoritywhip.gov/biography, accessed on 23/07/2022.
 Biography, https://scalise.house.gov/about/biography, accessed on 23/07/2022.
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 The Legislative Branch, The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/our-government/the-legislative-branch/, accessed on 30/07/2022.