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Difference Between House and Senate

Difference Between House and Senate

The Congress is the main legislative body of the U.S. government and is composed of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The legislative branch of the government has the primary function of making laws, but the Congress is also responsible for the approval of Federal Judges and Justices, for passing the national budget and for assisting the U.S. President in foreign policy matters.

Article 1 of the U.S. constitutions reads “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”1 While the participation of both chambers is necessary to enact the legislative process, the remaining sections of Article 1 of the Constitution grant unique and different powers to the two bodies.

House of Representatives2

The House of Representatives – or lower house – is the most democratic and national-oriented of the two bodies. When the U.S. constitution was originally drafted, the legislators believed that the government should have at least a democratic component/aspect. Therefore, the House was created to directly represent the citizens and be directly accountable to the people. The main features of the House of Representatives are:

  • Proportional representation;

  • Two-year terms: congressmen and congress-women should be directly accountable and, therefore, should be more responsive to popular demands;

  • Congressmen and congresswomen serve the two-year term in a specific congressional district;

  • Representatives have the duty to serve on committees, introduce bills and resolutions and propose amendments;

  • 435 representatives: the House is the largest chamber;

  • Each individual State has a different number of Representatives, depending on the number of persons who live in the State;

  • In order to become a member of the House, representatives must be at least 25 years old, and must have lived in the United States for 7 years – which means that they do not need to be born in the United States;

  • The House is chaired by the Speaker of the House who is a member of the body – even though the Constitution does not strictly specify that this has to be the case;

  • House leadership also includes majority and minority leaders, assistant leaders, whips and a party caucus or conference: the House works in a more organized and hierarchic way compared to the Senate;

  • The House has no say in the appointment of Ambassadors, Federal Judges and Cabinet Members;

  • Limited debate: due to the large number of representatives, there are speaking-time limits that must be respected during the debates;

  • Impeachment: Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S Constitutions states that the House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment;” and

  • All revenue bills concerning taxes must originate in the house with a democratic process.

Senate3

The Senate – or upper house – was conceived to be more aristocratic. In fact, when the Constitution was originally written, before the 17th amendment, Senators were indirectly elected by the State legislators instead of being directly elected by the people. The main features of the U.S. Senate are:

  • Two senators per state: as this body was intended to be the Federal chamber, every State – no matter how little – has the same representation. This means that California and Wyoming have the same number of Senators;

  • Six-year terms, but every 2 years one third of Senators are up for election;

  • The Senate was conceived to be an “insulated” body where treaties and foreign policy could be debated in the style of the Roman Senate but without the constant interference of public opinion. In this way, Senators can decide and do whatever is in the best interest of the country, even if that is not necessarily the most popular alternative;

  • There are 100 Senators – the Senate is the smaller of the two chambers;

  • In order to become a member of the Senate, nominees must be at least 30 years old and must have lived in the United States for a minimum of 9 years – without having necessarily being born in the United States;

  • The Senate is chaired by the Vice President who is not a member. The Vice President has the power to vote to break a tie, but is not entitled to vote to create a tie;

  • The Senate has the tradition of unlimited debate: being the smaller house with an aristocratic tradition, in the Senate there are no speaking-time limits;

  • Senatorial courtesy: due to the aristocratic tradition, when Senators refer to each other, they do not do so by name;

  • Confirmation of Presidential appointments: the Senate has the duty to confirm the Presidential nominations of Federal Judges, Cabinet Members and Ambassadors. In other words, the appointment process only happens with the “advise and consent” of the Senate: if the President does not get the majority of the votes of the Senate, his nominees will not be appointed;

  • With a 2/3 vote, the Senate has the power to ratify or reject treaties that were negotiated by the President; and

  • The Senate assists the President in his role of chief diplomat. The Senate is the only house assisting the President in foreign policy (i.e. analysis of foreign treaties, decisions concerning the initiation or the ending of a war etc.)

The U.S. Senate has an incredible power in all what concerns the country’s foreign policy. For instance, in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson actively participated in the drafting of the Treaty of Versaille and became a strong supporter of the League of Nations. However, despite the popular support, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty and, therefore, the United States never joined the League of Nations4.

Given its smaller dimensions, the Senate has more flexible rules and maintains its traditional aristocratic features, including the “Filibuster”. According to the “Filibuster”, whoever gets the floor can keep it for as long as he/she wants and can talk about whatever he/she wants, even if his/her speech is not pertinent to the topic of discussion. Such freedom has led to interesting episodes in the past. For instance, in the 1930s, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long once held the floor for over 15 hours; but the record goes to South Carolina Senator J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act in 19575 (and eventually lost). Taking the floor and filibustering for hours is a technique employed to push the other members of the Senate to compromise and implies the fact that, sometimes, minorities can rule the Senate. Yet, this was not the case for Senator Thurmond.

Summary

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are part of the U.S Congress, the legislative branch of the government that has the role of making laws – which will be enacted by the executive branch of the government, headed by the U.S. President – of approving Federal Judges, Ambassadors and Cabinet Members nominated by the President, and of assisting the President (the chief diplomat) in foreign policy matters, including in the withdrawal of troops, the ratification of international treaties and the initiation of wars.

The different powers and features of the two houses are decided in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. The main differences between the two bodies are:

  • The Senate has 100 members while the House 435;

  • Senators serve six-year long terms while Representatives are elected for two years;

  • The Senate supports the President in foreign policy matters while the House creates all revenue bills;

  • The Senate has an aristocratic tradition while the House is more democratic and closer to the population;

  • The Senate is chaired by the Vice President who is not a member while the House is chaired by the Speaker of the House;

  • The Senate approves Presidential nominees for Federal Judges and Members of the Cabinet while the House has no say in this process; and

  • There are two Senators for each State while the number of Representatives per State vary according to the population.

The work of the two chambers is strictly intertwined and the Congress needs the support of both bodies to be able to exercise its functions. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives play a major role in shaping the legislative framework of the United States and have the fundamental duty of assisting – as well as limiting and controlling – the work and the power of the U.S. President in the creation or modification of National laws, in the appointment of key political and judicial actors, and in the ratification of international treaties.

 


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6 Comments

  1. Good information of this article.

  2. The article helped me with an essay i have to do.

  3. Decent article, but at the very end it makes the claim that “the Senate has more members than the House.” Pretty ridiculous and embarrassing mistake to make.

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References :


[0]1 The Constitution of the United States: a Transcription, available at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript

[1]2 United States House of Representatives, available at http://www.house.gov/

[2]3 United States Senate, available at https://www.senate.gov/index.htm

[3]4 Treaty of Versailles and President Wilson, 1919 and 1921, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, available at https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/world-war-i/resources/treaty-versailles-and-president-wilson-1919-and-1921

[4]5 United States Senate, Filibuster and Cloture, available at https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Filibuster_Cloture.htm

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