American Government 101: Difference Between House and Senate

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The U.S. Congress is often referred to as a single entity, but it’s actually a combination of two distinct groups: the House of Representatives and the Senate. While both houses of Congress work together to propose and enact the laws that govern our country, the differences between the House and Senate ensure that each chamber in this bicameral (“two room”) system has distinct roles and responsibilities.

The U.S. Capitol building’s east facade is shown with the U.S. flag flying in front of it.

Together, the House and Senate form the legislative branch of government. They interact with the executive and judicial branches to implement the checks and balances that keep all three branches functioning and prevent any single branch from abusing its power.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution: Difference Between House and Senate

The framers of the Constitution knew that it was important to protect the smaller states of the newly formed Union from being overshadowed by their more populous counterparts. They hoped that by dividing legislative power between two houses, they’d be able to ensure equal representation for residents of all states, as the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center explains.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates from Connecticut proposed that the seats in the House be assigned based on population, while the seats in the Senate be assigned two per state. The Great Compromise (or Connecticut Compromise) gives each state equal representation in the Senate while ensuring equal representation per citizen in the House.

Article I, Section 2: Composition and Function of the House of Representatives

Article I of the Constitution specifies the powers, duties, and responsibilities of each of the two houses of Congress. It lays out the rules for qualifying as a representative, as well as the method by which the seats in the House of Representatives are assigned to the states and how vacancies are filled.

The Constitution affords the House — known as the lower chamber because it has more members than the Senate — much leeway in deciding how it will operate.

Age, citizenship, term duration, and residency requirements

Representatives:

  • Must be at least 25 years old.
  • Must be citizens for at least seven years.
  • Are elected to a two-year term.
  • Must be residents of the states they represent.

Allotment of representatives based on population

Originally, the number of representatives was set at 1 per 30,000 inhabitants, but the representative count has since increased, as the U.S. House of Representatives History, Art, and Archives website describes. The apportionment was to be based on an enumeration (population census) that was to be made within three years of the Constitution being ratified (approved) by the 13 states, and then every 10 years thereafter.

The Apportionment Act of 1911 and its successor, the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, capped the number of representatives at 435. For this reason, as of the 2010 Census, the average number of inhabitants in a congressional district is about 710,000. The House of Representatives Archives states that the number of representatives was limited to 435 because the U.S. population was growing faster in urban states than in rural ones, which gave large states a higher proportion of representatives than smaller states.

Power to devise its own rules of operation

The Constitution allows each house of Congress to set its own rules. This has led to divergent practices and procedures in the House and Senate. The Library of Congress summarizes the operating rules of the House of Representatives:

  • Only a numerical majority is required to pass legislation in the House, which allows bills to be processed quickly. By contrast, Senate votes typically require a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes in favor.
  • Majority party leaders in the House control the priority of various policies and determine which bills make their way to the House floor for debate. In the Senate, minority party leaders have more influence over such procedures, so the majority leaders must work more closely with them.

Power of impeachment

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution states that the House “shall have the sole power of impeachment.” This power applies to the offices of president, vice president, federal judges, and other federal officers, as the Library of Congress’ Constitution Annotated explains. Grounds for impeachment are “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The House determines whether to impeach and if an impeachment is called for; the Senate decides whether to convict and remove the official from office. This follows a pattern established in the British government and American colonial governments dating back to the 17th century, as the Senate website explains.

Article I, Section 3: Composition and Function of the Senate

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution calls for two senators from each state to be selected by a state’s legislature to represent that state. However, the 17th Amendment, approved in 1913, mandates the direct election of U.S. senators, which means that they’re elected by direct vote of the people rather than by state legislators.

As the Senate website explains, the amendment was in response to corruption and other problems that prevented state legislatures from choosing U.S. senators. The Senate is known as the upper chamber of Congress because it has fewer members than the House.

Age, citizenship, term duration, and residency requirements

The Constitution requires that senators be at least 30 years old, U.S. citizens for at least nine years, and residents of the states they’ll represent. Senate terms are for six years; the terms are staggered so that approximately a third of all senate seats are up for election every two years. This is intended to protect the Senate from short-term political pressure and to ensure that turnover in the Senate occurs evenly, rather than having stasis for six years followed by upheaval.

Allotment of Senators: Two per State

As the Senate website indicates, the reason the framers decided to allow each state to be represented by two senators was to prevent the large states from overpowering their smaller counterparts. Benjamin Franklin believed that states should have equal votes in all matters except those involving money. (Article I, Section 8 assigns to the House the power to tax and spend; this clause is described in the following section.)

Power to devise its own rules of operation

The Senate has the constitutional authority to set its own rules, just as the House does. The Senate website quotes George Washington as explaining to Thomas Jefferson that the framers intended the Senate to “cool” legislation passed by the House “just as a saucer is used to cool hot tea.”

  • In the Senate, individual senators have more options to slow the progress of a bill by making procedural requests, such as keeping floor debate open on the matter at hand. This is intended to encourage deliberation, or the careful discussion and consideration, of issues.
  • Majority party leaders in the Senate propose the priority of items to be debated, but they must work with minority party leaders — and often all senators — to determine the floor agenda: the order in which items are brought before the Senate.

Vice president as president of the Senate

The Constitution makes the vice president the president of the Senate, but the vice president is allowed to vote only to break a tie. The Senate is empowered to choose its own officers and president pro tempore to preside over the Senate when the vice president is unavailable.

Power to try and pass judgment on all impeachments

Senators are empowered to try and judge impeachments; in this capacity, they serve under “oath or affirmation.” In the case of a president’s impeachment, the chief justice of the United States presides. An impeachment conviction requires a two-thirds majority vote of the full Senate.

If the impeachment trial leads to a conviction, the punishment is removal from office and disqualification from “any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States,” according to Article I, Section 3. However, the impeached person is “liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.”

Resources on the structure and function of the House of Representatives and Senate

U.S. House of Representatives: Roles and Responsibilities

The duties of the House of Representatives are stated in Article I, Sections 7 and 8 of the Constitution. However, the powers granted to both houses of Congress are derived from Article I, Section 1, as the Legal Information Institute explains.

In the early Supreme Court case McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the government is “one of enumerated powers,” which means that it can exercise only the powers that have been granted to it explicitly by the Constitution. Paired with this doctrine is the ruling that legislative powers may not be delegated to any other branch of government.

Subsequent rulings have modified these two doctrines, resulting in new categories of powers derived from this constitutional foundation.

Enumerated, implied, resulting, and inherent powers

Marshall’s decision expanded the scope of the legislative powers enumerated in the Constitution by including the power to declare war, levy taxes, and regulate commerce. These powers are derived from the Constitution’s necessary and proper clause in Article I, Section 8.

This gives Congress the right to exercise any “means which are appropriate” to perform its constitutional duties, unless those means are inconsistent with “the letter and spirit of the Constitution.”

  • Implied powers are those that aren’t explicitly stipulated in the Constitution, but the government assumes these powers are granted to it by inference based on prior Supreme Court decisions, as the Legal Dictionary explains.
  • Resulting powers are those that Congress has because they’re needed for it to fulfill its duties. They’re derived from other powers specifically granted to the government so that it can exercise its enumerated powers. The Legal Information Institute gives as an example the power to acquire territory, which results from the enumerated powers to make war and treaties.
  • Inherent powers are also called implied powers, as the Constitution Annotated notes. They’re powers that Congress possesses even though they’ve never been explicitly exercised. An example would be the power to tax internet service providers.

Only congress may declare war, levy taxes, and regulate commerce

The power to declare war, levy taxes, and regulate commerce are among the congressional powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. The taxing and spending clause and the commerce clause have been used to broaden congressional authority over federal tax and economic policy.

In addition, Congress’ war powers have created a lot of friction between the executive and legislative branches. For example, presidents have tried to expand their power to engage the U.S. military in overseas conflicts, as the House of Representatives Archive describes. For example, in the period after World War II, presidents committed troops to the Dominican Republic, Laos, and Vietnam, among other countries, without requesting or receiving authorization from Congress.

The House originates all revenue legislation

Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution states that bills intended to raise revenue must originate in the House. This is one of the major differences between the House and Senate. The Senate is allowed to propose amendments to spending and taxing legislation, just as it can with other bills sent to it from the House.

Bills require only a numerical majority vote

The decision of the framers to allow bills to pass the House after getting a simple majority of votes was motivated by the desire to allow legislation to be enacted quickly. The responsibility for assessing and developing bills belongs to standing committees that are chaired by members of the majority party, but are made up of members of both parties, as the Congressional Research Service explains.

Majority party powers and prerogatives

The important role of political parties in the organization and functioning of the House is described by the House of Representatives Archive. The majority party elects a speaker of the house and chooses other leadership positions, including the chair of all House committees. There are more members of the House than of the Senate, so the majority party wields more power in the lower chamber.

Set policy agenda

The speaker of the house usually selects the House majority leader. The House majority leader is charged with formulating the party’s legislative agenda, as described by USHistory.org. The minority party chooses a minority leader whose impact on the House policy agenda is much more limited.

Decide which legislation reaches the House floor

Among the duties of the speaker of the house are presiding over all House proceedings, determining which bills go to which committees, influencing committee assignments for new House members, and deciding the priorities for bills to be debated and voted upon by the entire body of representatives.

Chair all committees

While majority party members are chosen to chair all House committees, they must work with the ranking member of the minority party to prepare bills for deliberation by all House members. The House of Representatives Archives describes the three types of House committees:

  • Standing committees are permanent; their jurisdiction is defined in the House rules.
  • Select committees are temporary; they’re created by resolution and charged with conducting investigations or researching specific topics.
  • Joint committees include members from the House and Senate, usually to study specific matters rather than to consider a piece of legislation.

Resources on House of Representatives roles and responsibilities

U.S. Senate: Roles and Responsibilities

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution describes the basic composition, operation, and duties of the Senate, although the Constitution grants the Senate leeway in determining how it will conduct its business. The Senate website describes the powers and procedures of the legislative body, which include trying impeachments, reviewing and approving presidential nominees, approving treaties, and managing internal matters.

Powers

The Senate receives all its authority from the Constitution. As described above for the House, the Senate’s powers are either enumerated, or expressly stated in the Constitution, or derived from the enumerated powers through the Article I, Section 8 necessary and proper clause.

Only the Senate confirms presidential nominations and treaties

Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution grants the president power to nominate and appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and “other officers of the United States.” However, the Constitution requires that nominations and appointments be made “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.”

Similarly, the Senate is empowered to approve treaties proposed by the president by a two-thirds majority vote. The Senate also has the power to change a treaty’s terms. (The president’s power to establish executive agreements with other nations doesn’t require Senate approval.)

Senate rules and procedures encourage deliberation rather than speed

The Senate website explains that the framers modeled the upper chamber of Congress after early state senates and the governor’s councils of the Colonial era. To shield senators from short-term political pressure, their terms were set at six years rather than the two-year terms of House representatives.

The Senate was intended to act more deliberately than the House. This emphasizes the Senate’s duty to advise on and consent to actions taken in the House and by the executive branch of government. In this role, the framers expressed their “suspicion of the presidency” by allowing the Senate to serve as a check on executive powers. It also serves as a check against the impulsiveness of the House.

Individual senators have significant procedural leverage

The standing rules of the Senate promote deliberation by allowing senators to “debate at length” and by requiring greater than a simple majority to end debate on a matter, as the Congressional Research Service explains. The rules also let Senators propose floor amendments to pending bills that are outside of the subject matter of the bills themselves. For example, the Real ID Act of 2005 passed as a “rider”: an additional provision to a military spending act that in its original version made no reference to traveler identification, as ThoughtCo explains.

The result is an unpredictable daily floor schedule for Senate business and the possibility that bills will be proposed whose subjects haven’t been researched or debated in committee. To bring some order to Senate proceedings, the majority leader is given priority in being recognized to speak and to propose the bills and legislation that the body will consider.

Majority party powers and prerogatives

In addition to the Senate majority leader’s power to control debates on the Senate floor, the majority party is granted other rights in the operation of the Senate.

Proposes items for consideration

The duties of the Senate majority leader include handling all procedural matters that arise on the Senate floor and informing members of the majority party about the content, implications, and status of all pending legislation. In collaboration with Senate committee chairs, the majority leader addresses any conflicts that may prevent proposed bills from being passed.

Negotiates with the minority party to conduct Senate floor action

Most Senate actions require greater than a simple majority to pass. Therefore, the majority party must work more closely with the Senate minority party than is typical in the House, which needs only a simple majority to approve measures. The Senate website describes the relationship between the majority and minority parties in the Senate as “one of compromise and mutual forbearance” that’s intended to prevent stalemates from arising on important matters of legislation.

Chairs all committees

Similarly, members of the Senate majority party are chosen to chair all committees. However, the nature of the Senate requires that the majority leaders of committees work with the ranking member of the minority party to accomplish the committee’s goals. The Senate website explains that the majority party controls most committee staff and resources, but the minority party retains a level of control based on its share of Senate seats.

Resources on Senate roles and responsibilities

How a bill becomes law

The procedure that Congress must follow to enact legislation is described in Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution. USA.gov explains that anyone who has an idea for a new law is encouraged to contact their U.S. representative or senator to suggest it. However, most bills originate in the offices of one or more of their legislative sponsors.

Step 1: The bill is introduced in either the House or the Senate

A bill can be introduced by a representative or a senator; that person becomes the bill’s sponsor (note that bills can have multiple sponsors). After meeting in small groups to discuss the bill’s merits, representatives or senators assign the bill to a committee for further research, discussion, and potential amendments.

Step 2: The bill is debated and put to a vote

Once the bill is released by the committee, representatives or senators debate it and propose amendments or other changes prior to putting the bill to a vote. After passing in the initial body (House or Senate), the bill goes to the other body, where it’s researched, discussed, and amended further.

After both chambers accept the bill, joint committees work out the differences between the two versions. Both houses then vote on the exact same bill. If the bill passes, it’s sent to the president for approval.

Step 3: The president considers the bill

The president has 10 days to sign or veto bills that Congress sends to the White House for approval. (A presidential veto prevents the legislation from taking effect.) If the president approves the bill, it’s signed into law. If the president rejects the bill, it’s returned to Congress with an explanation for the veto.

If Congress adjourns before the 10-day period for signing the bill expires, the president can simply choose not to sign the bill, and the bill won’t become law. This is called a “pocket veto.”

Step 4: Congress may vote to override a presidential veto

Congress has the power to override a presidential veto by a two-thirds majority vote of both the House and Senate. If the veto is overridden, the bill becomes law. A pocket veto by the president can’t be overridden by Congress.

Resources on how a bill becomes law

Conclusion: How Their Differences Make the House and Senate Stronger

The framers of the Constitution worked carefully to ensure that the powers wielded by the three branches of government —  legislative, executive, and judicial — were carefully balanced so that the duties of each branch were clear and no one branch would overpower the other two. The bicameral legislature that splits legislative duties between a large House of Representatives and a smaller Senate is a key component of the framers’ power-sharing strategy.

Despite struggles and challenges that arose early in our country’s history and persist today, the division of responsibilities and sharing of power have succeeded in keeping the wheels of government turning relatively effectively more than two centuries after the Constitution was written. While few constitutional experts and political scholars would argue that the bicameral legislative system works perfectly, most would agree that the formulation has stood the test of time.

Additional Resources

The New York Times, “When the House and the Senate Are Controlled by Two Different Parties, Who Wins?”

U.S. Congress, “The Legislative Process: Overview”

U.S. National Archives, “The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription”

U.S. Senate, “Constitution of the United States”

Vote Smart, “Government 101: Congress”