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Background: How America got its House in Order

Key Facts
January 2017 started the 115th Congress, which will conclude on January 3, 2019.
Each Congress lasts two years.
As of September 2018, Republicans currently hold 236 seats in the House; Democrats hold 193 seats. There are currently 6 vacancies (due to deaths and resignations).
218 votes are needed to reach a majority vote.
The Freedom Caucus consists of 36-38 members, as of 2018.
Tuesday Group, moderate members, is made up of approximately 50 members.


By 1789, the United States had spent eight long years of desperate fighting for independence (from 1775-1783) and the Founding Fathers had set about constructing a government “built on the cardinal conviction of revolutionary-era republicanism: that no central authority empowered to coerce or discipline the citizenry was permissible, since it merely duplicated the monarchical and aristocratic principles that the American Revolution had been fought to escape. The United States is now the oldest enduring republic in world history, with a set of political institutions and traditions that have stood the test of time.” (from Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis)

According to “To ensure a separation of powers, the U.S. Federal Government is made up of three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. To ensure the government is effective and citizens’ rights are protected, each branch has its own powers and responsibilities, including working with the other branches.” This often referred to as “checks and balances,” and prevents any one part of government from wielding too much political power.  


When was the Constitution ratified?

The first session of Congress was held in New York City in 1789. Over about a month, the House and Senate established a quorum as lawmakers from other states arrived.  In 1789, Congress passed twelve amendments to the Constitution. Within three years, ten were ratified by the rest of the states and became the Bill of Rights. In 1800, the first session of Congress was held in the new Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

The Balance of Power

While frustration with the currently partisan gridlock in the U.S. Congress is certainly understandable, U.S. citizens have a lot to be proud of when it comes to the  nation’s founding principles which have stood the test of time.

As a result of U.S. leadership, nations across the world seek legitimacy when they claim to be a ‘democracy.’ Sadly, autocratic leaders like the former Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela claim to lead a democracy simply because the nation conducts periodic ‘elections’.  In reality, the people of Venezuela do not benefit from clear separation of branches of government or a free media, independent of government influence. Many countries are like Venezuela where the ruling power remains firmly planted in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government as well as in the media, leaving officials and citizens little choice but to do the President’s bidding. If individuals attempt to expose the corruption or pursue a different political agenda, they risk jail — or even death, as in the case of Argentine journalist Alberto Nisman, who was murdered after exposing government corruption.

This is not the case in America. We benefit from a judicial branch positioned to halt  executive branch overreach. The President of the United States cannot stay in power indefinitely and is unable to force the U.S. Congress to pass laws. From the very beginning, and still to today, the American people have access to and influence over their elected representatives. As George Washington said in 1783, “At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy the fault will be entirely their own.”

The House of Representatives most directly reflects the desires of the American public due to the ratio of American citizens to U.S. representatives and the constant election cycle of every two years. Much of the deadlock of the U.S. government that we witness today reflects a divided American people.

This brief focuses on the Legislative branch of the U.S. government, in particular the House of Representatives, including the nuts and bolts of how it works, how you can better understand its inner workings and how you can influence the legislative process.  For a brief on the U.S. Senate, click here.



What is the Legislative Branch?

The legislative branch is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, known collectively as the Congress.  Among other powers, the legislative branch “makes all laws, declares war, regulates interstate and foreign commerce and controls taxing and spending policies.”

This video is an introduction to a CrashCourse US Government and Politics series produced in collaboration with PBS and explains why understanding how our government works is our responsibility as citizens. The video below gives a ten-minute overview of “The Bicameral Congress,” or the House and Senate, and some of the basics in structure and function of our legislative branch:

This two-minute from gives an overview of these powers and why it seems to take so long to make and change laws:


Close to the Taxpayers

Of all federal government institutions, the House of Representatives is the institution designed to be closest to American voters, most closely reflecting the individual cares and concerns of American taxpayers.

Such will be the relation between the House of Representatives and their constituents. Duty, gratitude, interest, ambition itself, are the chords by which they will be bound to fidelity and sympathy with the great mass of the people.” – Alexander Hamilton or James Madison writing as “Publius” in “The Federalist No. 57”

As per the Constitution, the primary responsibility of the  U.S. House of Representatives is to make and pass federal laws, particularly that relate to budgets and taxation, along with the U.S. Senate. Though the House and Senate together make up Congress, and are both part of the legislative branch of government, there also are a few distinctions between the two.  For example, the Senate confirms many major presidential appointments, tries impeached officials, and approves treaties; there are 100 Senators who each serve six year terms. The House in turn initiates all revenue bills and initiates impeachment proceedings and passes articles of impeachment; each of the 435 congressional representatives serves a two year term.



The Size and Structure of the House

The Constitution gives Congress the power to determine the size of the House. The Constitution provides “for proportional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the seats in the House are apportioned based on state population according to the constitutionally mandated Census.”

States with large populations have more representatives than small states: The Constitution provides for at least one representative for each state and mandates a Census to accurately determine population and representation, known as “redistricting.”   The Census occurs every ten years and is overseen by the Bureau of the Census, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.



As mentioned above, redistricting occurs every ten years following the U.S. census. The Census determines representation in the House, allowing the number of each state’s representatives to increase or decrease along with fluctuations in state population. The Census data is then used to determine congressional districts, areas in the state from which representatives are elected to the House.


The next Census will take place in 2020. For general information about the Census, click here.  For information on how the Census process works and further reading click here.

“Gerrymandering” is a process by which a congressional district is redrawn by a ruling party to create a “safe” seat and is the namesake of Elbridge Gerry, who as governor of Massachusetts in 1811, promoted this practice.  The resulting district from his actions looked like a salamander … thus the term “gerrymandering” was coined. It is often pointed to as a source of congressional gridlock. This No Labels “Just the facts: Gerrymandering” post outlines the role state legislators play in drawing Congressional districts, and the incentive to draw the districts in a way that benefits the majority political party. The results can be congressional districts composed of one party, instead of a mix of parties, incentivizing that district’s representative to hold firm to one point-of-view instead of compromising among political leanings. Only six states – Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, California, Montana and Washington – have independent commissions responsible for re-districting.


What Do House Representatives Do?

Also referred to as a “congressman” or “congresswoman,” each House representative is elected to a two-year term serving the people of a specific congressional district.  Among other duties, representatives introduce bills and resolutions, offer amendments and serve on committees that enable members to develop specialized knowledge on the matters under that committee’s jurisdiction.  The number of representatives with full voting rights is 435. To be elected, a representative must be at least 25 years old, a United States citizen for at least seven years and an inhabitant of the state he or she represents.  U.S. House candidates are not required to live in the congressional district they represent.


A Representative’s Responsibilities

On average, the Congressional workweek in Washington is Tuesday through Thursday. This vote schedule provides representatives the time to travel and attend events in their districts the other four days of the week.  While some members find housing in D.C., roughly 50 choose to sleep in their offices, including current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

According to Congress Foundation’s “Life in Congress: The Member Perspective” study, when representatives are back in their home district, “members reported spending time as follows:”

  • 32% on “constituent services work”
  • 18%  on “political/campaign work”
  • 14% on “press/media relations”
  • 12%  on “legislative/policy work”
  • 9% with “family/friends”
  • 8% on “personal time”
  • 7% on”administrative/managerial work”

Congressional pay has been frozen since 2010. Rank-and-file lawmakers in the House and Senate earn $174,000 annually, while the majority and minority leaders in both chambers make $193,400. The Speaker earns the largest salary at $223,500.

While raises for lawmakers are a political non-starter, it is interesting to note the unique expenses most Members of Congress face. For those who choose not to sleep in their small congressional offices, they have to pay two rents or mortgages – one in Washington, D.C. and another in their home district, along with two vehicles and two sets of cable, electricity and water bills.

Additionally, over the past ten years, both the House and the Senate have enforced a strict ban on gifts from registered lobbyists or from private entities that retain or employ a lobbyist. This has put an end to most free meals and events for Members of Congress and their staffs.


Majority vs Minority in the House: Leadership, Committees and How Laws are Made (or not)

After each election, the political party that wins the most representatives is designated the “Majority.”  The other party is the Minority.”  These designations are significant because the majority party holds key leadership positions, such as Speaker of the House and Committee Chairmanships. The same party can have the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, or the chambers can be split. For example, from 1983-1985, the House majority was Democratic and the Senate majority was Republican.  As of September 2018, Republicans hold the majority in both the House and the Senate, as well as the Presidency.


Role of the Majority in the House

The House is run by majority rule.  When a majority of members vote to do something in the House, it gets done. Majority rule makes passing legislation relatively efficient, and that means that the party in the minority has little power to set the agenda or pass its proposals. This contrasts with the Senate, where a single senator – in the majority or the minority – can generally force a vote or stop a bill in its tracks.

The House majority party:

  • Sets Committee hearings
  • Moves legislation through Committees and to the House floor
  • Can usually shut down the minority party as long as the majority sticks together

As stated earlier, the legislative branch makes laws, declares war, regulates interstate and foreign commerce and controls taxing and spending policies.  Article 1 of the United States Constitution describes the design of the legislative branch and affords the U.S. House of Representatives the following unique powers:

  • Power to set in motion impeachment proceedings. It is up to the Senate to bring those proceedings into a trial setting. For example, had Richard Nixon not resigned his position as president for his role in Watergate, the House would likely have voted (as a  majority) to impeach him, at which point any formal proceedings would have moved to the Senate.
  • Power to introduce laws and legislation that specifically deal with revenue and taxes. Because revenue and taxes are issues closely related to their constituents, the House is granted the power to introduce these.


House Leadership

House Leadership includes the speaker, majority and minority leaders, assistant leaders, whips and a party caucus or conference.  The speaker acts as leader of the House and combines several institutional and administrative roles. Majority and minority leaders represent their respective parties on the House floor. Whips assist leadership in managing their party’s legislative program on the House floor – usually ensuring the party leadership knows how the party will vote before the vote actually takes place on the House Floor. A party caucus or conference is the name given to a meeting of or an organization of all party members in the House. During these meetings, party members discuss matters of concern, such as the party’s agenda, talking points to support this agenda and the floor schedule, i.e. what will be voted on and when.

Third parties, such as the libertarian party and the green party, have never had enough members to elect their own leadership, so independents generally join one of the larger party organizations to receive committee assignments.

To read more about the how leadership positions are filled, click here.


House Committees:  What do they do?

The video below explains the different kinds of committees, such as standing, select or special, joint, and collect committees and how they process legislation.

The House Committee on Ways and Means oversees all taxation, tariffs, and other revenue-raising measures. This includes jurisdiction over trade agreements. The committee also oversees Social Security and shares jurisdiction over health care, including Medicaid and Medicare.

The House Committee on Appropriations has jurisdiction over setting specific government expenditures.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has jurisdiction over foreign assistance. This includes oversight of development assistance, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, HIV/AIDS in foreign countries, security assistance, and the Peace Corps. The Committee also oversees national security developments affecting foreign policy; strategic planning; war powers; treaties; executive agreements; and the deployment and use of United States Armed Forces.

The House Committee on the Judiciary oversees the judiciary and civil and criminal proceedings.  It has jurisdiction over administrative practice and procedure; apportionment of representatives; bankruptcy, mutiny, espionage, and counterfeiting; civil liberties; Constitutional amendments; criminal law enforcement; federal courts and judges, and local courts in the territories and possessions; immigration policy and non-border enforcement; and interstate compacts.

Links to all House Committees can be found here.

Summaries of complete committee jurisdictions can be found here.


How Many Bills are Introduced every year in the House and Senate?

According to ProPublica, during the 115th Congress (January 2017 – present):

  • 12,334 bills have been sponsored: 8,167 House bills and 4,167 Senate bills
  • 239 bills have been signed into law.


How is Legislation passed in House of Representatives?  

Legislation begins with an idea.  It may come from a Congressman, a staffer, a constituent, or a thought leader or expert on a given subject.  You may remember the School House Rock video below, which walks through the legislative process in an accessible way and is great to share with your kids.


“Regular Order”:  How it is supposed to work

1.) A Congressman or Congresswoman decides to draft legislation:

Working with House parliamentarians —  lawyers and clerks who provide nonpartisan guidance on rules and procedures — and other Congressional staff on Capitol Hill, the Congressional representative’s staff drafts the bill.  The parliamentarians have specific expertise; they work closely with staff in a non-partisan manner to draft the specific language of the bill. Staff works to build sponsors and cosponsors before the bill is introduced.

2.)  Introduce the bill:

A member or staffer deposits a copy of the proposed legislation, signed by the sponsor, in a box on the House Clerk’s desk in the cloakroom in the Capitol building. This is known as dropping the bill in the “hopper.” Within the next day or two, the bill is formally assigned a number by a bill clerk. A bill originating in the House will start with H.R, H.Res, H.Con.Res, or H.J.Res (see definitions below). The Speaker’s office then assigns that bill to its committee(s) of jurisdiction, which then assigns the bill to a subcommittee(s).  

3.) Committee process:

The Subcommittee holds hearings and a markup on the legislation, and then the legislation moves to the full committee for hearings/mark-up. The mark-up hearing provides an opportunity for members of the subcommittee and full committee to amend the legislation. You can watch House Committee hearing videos here.

When the legislation is reported favorably out of the full committee it awaits a decision by leadership to schedule time for it to be debated on the house floor. This decision is a negotiation based on priorities of the committee and of leadership. A Full Committee mark-up and the decision of what legislation makes it to the House floor is tightly controlled through the Committee Chairman’s office and leadership. 

As explains, “Once a committee has reported a bill, it is placed on one of the respective chamber’s calendars. These calendars are essentially a list of bills eligible for floor consideration; however, the bills on the calendars are not guaranteed floor consideration. Many will never be brought up on the floor during the course of a two-year Congress. It is also possible, although less common, for a bill to come directly to the floor without being reported and placed on a calendar.  In the House, majority party leadership decides which bills the House will consider, and in what order. For example, after consulting with committee leaders, majority party leadership may decide to schedule a bill for expedited floor consideration. Alternatively, leadership may ask the Rules Committee to start the process of bringing a specific bill to the floor for more lengthy consideration and possible amendments.”

4.)  The Committee on Rules

Once leadership has decided that a specific piece of legislation will receive floortime, the House Majority Leader alerts the committee of jurisdiction that the bill will be considered on the House Floor, and this kicks off the Rules Committee process.

The Committee on Rules (a.k.a. Rules Committee) is one of the oldest standing committees in the House,  first formally constituted on April 2, 1789. The Committee is commonly known as “The Speaker’s Committee,” because it is the mechanism that the Speaker uses to maintain control of the House Floor.  Until 1910, the Speaker chaired the Rules Committee.  The Rules Committee determines how much time will be allowed for debate on each piece of legislation considered on the House floor, and if any (and which) amendments will be allowed to be considered during the debate.

Types of Rules

The Rules process in the House is more structured than the Senate process.

  • Open rules – permit the offering of any amendment that otherwise complies with House rules, and allows debate under the 5-minute rule.
  • Modified-Open rules – operate much like an open rule, but have some restrictions  on amendments, either through a pre-printing requirement or an overall time limit on consideration of amendments.
  • Structured rules – specify that only certain amendments may be considered and specify the time for debate.
  • Closed rules – effectively eliminate the opportunity to consider amendments, other than those reported by the committee reporting the bill.

The Rules Committee outlined above determines which rules will apply to consideration of a given bill.

5.)  Floor debate

A floor debate on the amendments and on the underlying legislation then takes place under the rule. Once the allotted time is up, the House of Representatives will vote on the bill. If it is reported favorably from the House, it then goes to the Senate and waits to be scheduled for floor time.

During the 114th Congress, the House has generally maintained the 3-day rule between reporting the bill on the floor and the subsequent debate. The purpose of this rule is to allow members the time and opportunity to review legislation before they vote on it. In practice, if the bill is scheduled on Monday before midnight, it can be debated and voted upon on Wednesday, which would be the 3rd day.

Click here to read about the alternative legislative procedure in the House.

Learn more about the different types of legislation here.


What is the Omnibus Spending Bill?

The omnibus is a type of spending bill, typically hundreds or thousands of pages long. It folds many smaller appropriations bills (bills that appropriate money for discretionary government spending) into one large bill that can pass only with one vote in each house. Failure to pass the omnibus results in a government shut-down.

In March 2018, House lawmakers passed the most recent omnibus — a 2,322 page bill that authorized $1.3 trillion in spending for the remainder of the fiscal year (through September 30th).  145 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted “yes” to passing the 2018 omnibus spending bill (Roll Call).  Vox provides a detailed “explainer” of the 2018 omnibus bill and what it contained.



How the Legislative Process can work well: Evidence Based Policy Commission Act of 2016

This link outlines each step H.R .1831 – the Evidence Based Policy Commission Act of 2016 – took to become a law. The bill was first introduced in the House in April 2015. It passed the relevant committee in May and was ‘reported’ to the House floor by the Committee in July. The house passed it by a voice vote – as opposed to a recorded vote where each member casts a vote – because both the majority and the minority viewed the bill as a non-controversial. It was then sent to the Senate where it sat until March 2016 when it was scheduled for the consideration of the full Senate. An amendment was offered during the Senate debate, the amendment passed unanimously and the bill then passed the Senate with the amendment, also by a voice vote.

Since the bill was amended in the Senate, it had to be sent back to the House for final approval. Given that this was a non-controversial, bipartisan bill – it was easy for the House to schedule a vote on the final version of the bill on the day following the Senate’s approval. That final bill was approved by a voice vote in the House and was sent to the President for his signature. President Obama received the bill on March 24th and signed the bill into law on March 30, 2016. As a result of this legislative process, the Evidence Based Policy Commission Act of 2016 is now Public Law No: 114-140.

All legislation that has been introduced in the House or the Senate can be followed through the same website – Not every bill follows the exact same process, but H.R. 1831 represents a good example of how the legislative process is designed to work.

Read more about the Evidence-Based Policy Act here.


How To Find Your Legislator and Be Heard

This is a link to identify your Congressional Representative.

Generally speaking, elected Congressional Representatives must keep their constituents happy if they are going to keep their jobs. As a result, they watch their local newspapers closely and they keep an eye on clear trends in their constituents’ interests. For example, if an office starts to get calls and letters from a large amount of their constituents, from leaders within their congressional districts, and/or they start to see opinion editorials and letters to the editor in the local paper about a topic, it is likely that they will take notice.

Following are a few key approaches that help you to be recognized by your Congressional Representative:

Research. Make sure you know your facts about the issue you are raising.  The internet enables gathering data about any given topic. Government agencies, think tanks, media outlets all can be good resources, and their quality and depth of expertise can vary by issue.  Research both sides of your issue as well to make sure you understand the various angles. Also talk with people who are being affected by the issue you are concerned about; anecdotal information combined with measured data can be powerful in telling your story.

Write. It may come as a surprise in the digital age, but writing an old-fashioned letter to your local elected representatives or to members of Congress is still one of the most effective ways to influence lawmakers.  These detailed instructions here, reposted from USGovInfo, walks you through the steps to writing letters to elected officials, with helpful tips on substance and format: how to address your representative, how to put forth a detailed and persuasive argument, how to reference specific legislation, what to avoid, and how to properly send your correspondence.

Mobilize a group. Work with colleagues, neighbors, friends and local organizations to mobilize an effort to bring attention to your issue to your local Congressional office.  Organize people to call in and follow-up with written material. Also reach out to community leaders to educate them and request their engagement on the issue.  Demonstrating wide support can be very effective in influencing a legislator to support your position.

How do I find out how my representative voted on specific legislation?

You can track your representative’s votes here by legislation or by member.  Countable is also a helpful website for monitoring votes and offers an email notifications whenever your representative votes.   

What is a legislative calendar and how can it help me?

You can find the legislative calendar for the House of Representatives here. The legislative calendar shows you when Congress is in session or in recess, what hearings or votes are scheduled for each day in session, when there are markups on specific bills, etc. You can use this to closely follow issues and legislation that are important to you, and to see with which hearings and bills your member is engaged. You can also use the legislative calendar to watch footage of hearings. For example, many Policy Circles discuss the war on poverty, and on June 9th, 2016, the House Committee on Oversight and Governance Reform held a hearing on efforts to combat fraud and improve integrity in SNAP (food stamp program). You can see the footage here, and browse recent hearings for each date that Congress is in session.


House Leadership Positions and Definitions:

  • Speaker of the House  – Presiding officer of the House, elected by its members.  The Speaker is second in line to succeed the President, after the Vice President. 
  • Speaker Pro Tempore – Presides over the House in the speaker’s absence.
  • Majority Leader – Schedules legislative business on the House floor.
  • Majority Whip: Assists leadership in managing party’s legislative program.
  • Minority Leader: Represents minority party on the House floor.
  • Minority Whip: Assists leadership in managing party’s legislative program.

Additional positions:

  • Republican Conference Chairman: Heads organization of Party members in the House.
  • Republican Policy Committee Chairman: Heads Conference forum for policy development.
  • Assistant Democratic Leader: works with caucuses and as a liaison to Appropriations Committee.
  • Democratic Caucus Chairman: Heads organization of all Party members in the House.



For a glossary of terms regarding the House click here


Questions for Discussion

  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages with the structure of the U.S. House of Representatives?  Do you think the structure and process works? Why or why not?
  • Do you know who your representative is and how to find out how he or she voted on a given issue?
  • What legislation are you interested in following?   How would you go about tracking it?
  • What can you do to influence your legislator on an issue?  How could you get the attention of legislators and their staffs?
  • How could you participate in a committee hearing, or if you weren’t able to travel to Washington, how could you follow a committee hearing from your home?
  • Please share an example of a bill that was initiated by constituents, small businesses or groups.   Also, here are some examples:

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Updated September 2018