Civics 101: What You Need to Know about the Two Bodies of Congress


When Americans think about voting, their mind generally goes first to presidential elections. However, Americans vote for many other important leaders at the federal, state, and local levels. Some of the most important elections are for Congress, as evidenced by the recent Senate runoff vote in Georgia.

When voting for members of Congress, it is critically important to understand the role Congress plays in legislation, as well as the differences between the two houses that make up Congress. People often refer to Congress as if it is a single entity, but it consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. These houses work together to create and enact laws for the country.

Why Are There Two Congressional Bodies?

As the authors of the Constitutions were framing the American government, they understood that larger states with more people may have more power than their smaller counterparts. To reach a compromise, the framers created two legislative bodies. This framework was suggested by delegates from Connecticut at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. At this time, it was proposed that the House should have representation based on population within a state, while the Senate would have two representatives from each state. This proposal is known as the Great Compromise, or Connecticut Compromise, and was recorded as Article I of the American Constitution, which outlines the duties and selection of each body.

According to the Constitution, members of the House of Representatives need to be at least 25 years old and citizens of the United States for at least seven years. Representatives are elected for two-year terms and must reside in the states they represent. Initially, one Representative was allotted for each 30,000 inhabitants of a state. However, as the population increased, the number of Representatives was capped at 435 people, and these are allotted to states based on their population. As of the 2010 Census, each Representative now speaks for an average of about 710,000 people in a state. There is a lot of variation, however. 

To be elected to the Senate, individuals need to be at least 30 years old and citizens for at least nine years. The term for Senate seats is six years. Because of this length of time, the terms are staggered, so that about one-third of the seats turn over every two years rather than a large upheaval occurring every six. Each state gets two Senators so that each has equal power. 

What Are the Major Differences Between the Two Bodies?

The differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate do not stop at composition, qualifications, and terms. Each of these bodies has distinct powers and a different role to play in legislation. For example, all bills intended to raise revenue must originate in the House. While the Senate can propose amendments to spending and taxing legislation, no such laws can originate there. In addition, only the House has the power to impeach elected officials. The Senate decides whether to convict the person or remove them from office after the House has decided to impeach. In the House, bills require only a numerical majority to pass, which makes it possible to enact legislation more quickly.

In the Senate, a bill needs at least 60 votes to pass. The fact that more than a simple majority is needed was meant to encourage deliberation. While the House was created for speed, the Senate usually takes more time to pass legislation, and Senators have a lot of power to drive lengthy debates on important matters. The Senate has some unique powers and is the only body that can confirm presidential nominations and treaties. To pass, a treaty needs a two-thirds majority vote.

Another unique feature of the Senate is the role of the vice president, who presides over the Senate. While the vice president does not normally vote, he or she can provide a tie-breaking vote, which is sometimes needed because there are an even number of Senators (100).

How Does Congress Create Laws?

With the exception of bills meant to raise revenue, as discussed above, bills can be introduced by either the House or the Senate. The person who introduces a bill becomes its sponsor. The merit of the bill is discussed in a small group in whichever body it was proposed, and it then goes to a committee for further research and discussion. When the committee is ready to release the bill, it goes to the floor for debate and any proposed amendments are incorporated before it goes up for a vote. After the initial body passes the bill, it goes to the other for further discussion and amendment.

Once both bodies pass the bill, a joint committee works out any differences between the two versions and then both the House and Senate vote on the same bill. Once it is passed by both, the bill goes to the president, who has 10 days to sign it into law or veto (reject) it. Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority in both bodies. However, if Congress adjourns prior to the end of the 10-day period and the president fails to sign the bill, the bill expires and does not become law. This is known as a pocket veto. Congress cannot override a pocket veto and must reintroduce the bill to pursue it further.

Published by Rachel Lader

Rachel Lader recently completed her Juris Doctor (JD) on a scholarship at New York Law School. While earning her degree, she participated in a study abroad program at Birkbeck, University of London. Complementing her education, Rachel Lader has worked in multiple internships in the legal sector.

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