View the Executive Summary for this brief.
The United States spent eight long years of desperate fighting for independence from 1775 to 1783. By 1789, 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.”
According to House.gov, “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 is often referred to as “checks and balances,” and prevents any one part of government from wielding too much political power.
Why it Matters
America benefits 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.
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 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 its inner workings, and how everyday citizens 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.”
CrashCourse U.S. Government and Politics, produced in collaboration with PBS, explains the Bicameral Congress (9 min):
Of all federal government institutions, the House of Representatives is designed to be closest to American voters, most closely reflecting the individual cares and concerns of American taxpayers. In fact, the House is the only institution that has been directly elected by American voters since its formation in 1789.
“‘If proportional representation takes place, the small States contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large States say their money will be in danger,’” explained Benjamin Franklin. What eventually “emerged from weeks of stalemate was called the ‘Great Compromise’ and created a bicameral legislature with a House, where membership was determined by state population, and a Senate, where each state had two seats regardless of population.”
Size and Structure of the House
There are 435 representatives in the House, and have been since the number was fixed by law in 1911. Each House representative is elected to a two-year term serving the people of a specific congressional district in a state. “Each state receives representation in the House in proportion to the size of its population but is entitled to at least one representative.” This means that states with large populations have more representatives than small states have. Representation based on population was “one of the most important components of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787,” as one of the founders’ greatest concerns was designing a system of government that would better represent the public than did the British model from which they had won independence.
In addition to the 435 representatives from the states, there is a Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico and Delegates from Washington D.C., American Samoa, Guam, The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands. The Resident Commissioner and Delegates are able to serve and vote on committees, but do not have the same full voting rights as the 435 state representatives.
The Role of the Census
Specifically, seats in the House “are apportioned based on state population according to the constitutionally mandated Census.” The Census, which occurs every ten years and is overseen by the Bureau of the Census, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Tying representation to Census data allows 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. This process is called redistricting. For more on redistricting and the Census, see The Policy Circle’s Decennial Census Brief.
Members of the House of Representatives “must stand for election every two years, after which it convenes for a new session and essentially reconstitutes itself – electing a Speaker, swearing-in the Members-elect, and approving a slate of officers to administer the institution.” Biennial elections are held in November, and the Congress commences in the following January. To be elected, a representative must be at least 25 years old, a United States citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state he or she represents. U.S. House candidates are not required to live in the congressional district they represent.
The Life of a Representative
According to Congressional Management Foundation’s Life in Congress study, when representatives are in Washington, D.C., they report spending their time as follows:
- 35% on “Legislative/Policy Work”
- 17% on “Constituent Services Work”
- 17% on “Political/Campaign Work”
- 9% on “Press/Media Relations”
- 9% on “Family/Friends”
- 7% on “Administrative/Managerial Work”
- 6% on “Personal Time”
When in their home district, they 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”
Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution requires Congress to determine its own pay. Congress’s “current automatic adjustment formula, which is based on changes in private sector wages,” was established by the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. The last pay adjustment was in January 2009. Since, most representatives earn $174,000 annually, while the majority and minority leaders make $193,400. The Speaker earns the largest salary at $223,500. Additionally, representatives “are subject to some specific laws and regulations regarding the acceptance of gifts,” particularly gifts from registered lobbyists or from private entities that retain or employ a lobbyist.
What does the House of Representatives do?
Responsibilities of the House
Per the Constitution, the House and Senate together make and pass federal laws, 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. Though both make up Congress, there are a few distinctions between the two. In particular, the Constitution “provides that only the House of Representatives may originate revenue bills,” and by tradition it also originates appropriation bills.
Additionally, while the Constitution does not specifically mention investigations and oversight, “the authority to conduct investigations is implied since Congress possesses ‘all legislative powers’.” The House initiates impeachment proceedings and passes articles of impeachment (the Senate sits as a court to try the impeachment).
Finally, during a presidential election, the House of Representatives steps in if no candidate receives a majority of the total electoral votes. Each state delegation has one vote to choose the President from among the top three candidates with the largest number of electoral votes.
Leadership in the House
After each election, the political party that wins the most representatives is designated the “Majority.” The other party is the “Minority.” The majority party holds key leadership positions, such as Speaker of the House. The same party can have the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, or the chambers can be split. Third parties rarely have enough members to elect their own leadership, so independents generally join one of the larger party organizations to receive committee assignments.
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 less 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.
House Leadership includes the Speaker of the House, Majority and Minority Leaders, and Majority and Minority Whips.
The Speaker of the House is the presiding officer of the House, and is elected by the members of the House. The Speaker administers the Oath of Office to House members, chairs certain committees or nominates committee chairs (namely the chairs of the House Administration Committee and the Rules Committee), and appoints members of various committees and House staff. After the Vice President, the Speaker is second in line to succeed the Vice President.
Majority and Minority Leaders represent their respective parties on the House floor. Each is elected by his or her respective party. The majority leader is second to the Speaker and schedules legislative business, planning legislative agendas rather than serving on committees. The minority leader serves as the minority party’s spokesperson, essentially the minority party’s counterpart to the Speaker. He or she also chairs the minority party’s committee assignment panel.
Majority and Minority Whips serve as middlemen to between their party leaders and members. They “maintain communication between the leadership of the party and its members, marshal support for party positions on the floor, count votes on key legislation, and persuade wavering Members to vote for the party position.”
The Speaker of the House is elected by the entire House of Representatives, while the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus elect the other leadership positions. The Republican Conference is the formal organization of Republican Members in the House, and the Democratic Caucus is that of the Democratic Members.
See current House Leadership positions here.
The Role of Committees
Committees “are permanent panels governed by House chamber rules, with responsibility to consider bills and issues and to have general oversight relating to their areas of jurisdiction.” Committees have different legislative jurisdictions, but each considers, shapes, and passes laws related to its jurisdiction, and monitors agencies, programs, and activities within their jurisdiction. Each committee has a chair that leads the full committee, and a ranking member who leads the minority members of the committee. Committee assignment directly affects a representative’s work in Congress. After a Congressional election, political parties assign newly elected representatives to standing committees
Crash Course U.S. Government & Politics explains what Congressional committees do (8 min):
Some of the most well-known committees include:
- The House Committee on Ways and Means, which oversees all taxation, tariffs, and other revenue-raising measures.
- The House Committee on Appropriations, which has jurisdiction over setting specific government expenditures.
- The House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which has jurisdiction over foreign assistance and oversees national security developments affecting foreign policy.
- The House Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees the judiciary and civil and criminal proceedings.
Most committees are regular standing committees, which continue from one Congress to the next. There are also select committees, special committees formed for a short period of time for a specific purpose such as an investigation, and there are several joint committees with the Senate. See a full list of all House Committees here.
Legislation in the House
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, which walks through the legislative process in an accessible way and is great to share with your kids (3 min):
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.
Introducing a Bill
Any Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner can introduce a bill when the house is in session by “placing it in the ‘hopper,’” a box on the House Clerk’s desk in the Capitol building. The Member who introduces the bill is known as the primary sponsor. The bill is then formally assigned a number by the Clerk. A bill originating in the House will start with “H.R.” (for the House of Representatives, as opposed to “S.” for the Senate). The Speaker’s office then assigns that bill to its committee(s) of jurisdiction, which then assigns the bill to a subcommittee(s).
The Subcommittee seeks input from relevant departments and agencies and holds public hearings. After hearings, there is a markup on the legislation, in which “views of both sides are studied in detail and at the conclusion of deliberation a vote is taken to determine” whether or not the subcommittee recommends the bill to the full committee. In the full committee, the subcommittee reports on the bill; this meeting provides an opportunity for Members to amend the legislation. There is also the possibility that the committee tables the bill or fails to take action, which prevents the bill from reaching the full House. You can watch House Committee hearing videos here.
To get to the full House, the committee staff writes a report describing the purpose of the bill, why the bill is recommended, and an analysis of each part of the bill and how the bill may affect existing law. A full committee mark-up and the decision of what legislation makes it to the House floor is tightly controlled by the Committee Chairman’s office and leadership. 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.
After a committee has reported a bill, the bill is placed on the calendar. This means the bill is eligible for floor consideration, but not that it will necessarily make it to the floor. In the House, it is up to the majority party leadership to decide which bills the House will consider on the floor, and in what order.
Committee on Rules
Once leadership has decided that a specific piece of legislation will receive floor time, 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, or Rules Committee, is one of the oldest standing committees in the House. The Committee is commonly known as “The Speaker’s Committee” – prior to 1910, the Speaker chaired the Rules Committee, and today it is the mechanism by which the Speaker maintains control of the House Floor. The Rules Committee is sometimes also referred to as “the traffic cop of the House,” as it 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.
Most bills are considered under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, “which limits debate to 40 minutes and does not allow amendments to be offered by members on the floor.” Otherwise, the bill is considered under terms tailored for the particular bill. In this case, the House adopts a resolution called a special rule from the Rules Committee. After the Rules Committee reports the rule for considering the bill and the House votes to adopt the rule, the House can then proceed to the floor debate.
Once the rule has been adopted, the House usually considers the bill “in a procedural setting called the Committee of the Whole, which is essentially “the House assembled in a different form; it is a committee of the House composed of every Representative that meets in the House chamber.” This procedure “allows members an efficient way to consider and vote on amendments.”
After the floor debate on amendments and the underlying legislation, the Committee of the Whole reports to the full House, which then votes on the bill. The bill passes the House by a simple majority, 218 votes of the 435 total. It then goes to the Senate and waits to be scheduled for floor time.
See The Policy Circle’s Senate Brief to see how the process continues.
Ways to Get Involved/What You Can Do
Measure & Identify: Who are the influencers in your state, county, or community? Learn about their priorities and consider how to contact them
- Do you know who your Congressional Representative is? What about your state elected officials?
- Track your representatives’ votes with GovTrack.
Reach out: You are a catalyst. Finding a common cause is a great opportunity to develop relationships with people who may be outside of your immediate network. All it takes is a small team of two or three people to set a path for real improvement. The Policy Circle is your platform to convene with experts you want to hear from.
- Find allies in your community or in nearby towns and elsewhere in the state.
- Foster collaborative relationships with colleagues, neighbors, friends, and local organizations to mobilize an effort to bring attention to your issue to your local Congressional office. Also reach out to community leaders to educate them and request their engagement on the issue.
Plan: Set some milestones based on your state’s legislative calendar.
- You can find the legislative calendar for the House of Representatives here.
- Don’t hesitate to contact The Policy Circle team, firstname.lastname@example.org, for connections to the broader network, advice, insights on how to build rapport with policy makers and establish yourself as a civic leader.
Execute: Give it your best shot. You can:
- Research: Make sure you know the facts about the issue you are raising. Government agencies, think tanks, and media outlets can all be good resources. Remember to research all sides of the issue to make sure you understand various angles. You can also talk with people who are affected by the issue with which you are concerned; anecdotal information combined with measured data can be powerful.
- Write: Although we may be more inclined to email in the digital age, 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.
- See these tips for step-by-step instructions to write letters to elected officials, including how to address your representative, reference specific legislation, and properly send your correspondence.
- Organize: Organize people to call in, follow-up on written material, and reach out to other community members to educate them on the issue. Demonstrating wide support can be very effective in influencing a legislator to support your position.
Suggestions for your Next Conversation
Explore the Series
This brief is part of a series of recommended conversations designed for circle's wishing to pursue a specific focus for the year. Each series recommends "5" briefs to provide a year of conversations.