United States House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is the larger of two houses that make up the United States Congress, the other being the United States Senate.
House of Representatives chamber
Members of the House are elected for a term of two years. Elections alternately coincide with the presidential election; when they do not, they are called mid-term elections.
Since 1912, the House has had 435 seats which are apportioned among the fifty states by population, as determined by a decennial census. Members are elected from districts through a first past the post method. Consequently, disputes over the boundaries of the districts, which must be redrawn after each census, can be particularly contentious.
Subject to constitutional requirements established by case law, and in some states to review by the United States Department of Justice to ensure compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which bans drawing districts to reduce the voting power of ethnic minorities, the government of each state draws the boundaries for the House districts within the state's borders. While Federal law and court decisions prohibit gerrymandering districts from being drawn to reduce the voting power of protected groups such as ethnic minorities, it is perfectly legal to draw districts to favor one political party or another. Many analysts have argued that sophisticated gerrymandering computer technology plus the fundraising advantages incumbents possess have resulted in a situation where very few of the seats in the House are actually competitive. In 2002, a redistricting year, 356 House races were decided by more than 20 percent, another 41 were decided by 10 to 20 percent, only 38 were decided by less than 10 percent. Of close races, nearly all involved an open seat or a seat whose incumbent had only served one or two terms.
In 2004, nine incumbent Congressmen were defeated for reelection, two in primary races and seven in the general election. However, both of the primary losers, and four of those who lost in the general, were defeated after the unusual mid-decade Texas gerrymander. In only twelve other House contests was the election decided by less than 10 percent.
Even though only a few incumbents were defeated in 2004, the combination of retirements and resignations to run for other offices caused a nearly ten percent turn over between the 108th and 109th Congresses. This level of turn over is common and exceeds the percentage of turn over in the U.S. Senate. However, of the vacant seats, only three changed party control.
If a vacancy occurs in a House seat between elections, it may be filled only by a special election.
Presently the state delegations in the House range from fifty-three members for California, to one each for Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. There are also five members without voting rights on the floor, but who may vote in committee proceedings. Four of these non-voting "delegates" are from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and serve two-year terms just as ordinary Members do. A fifth delegate, known as the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, serves a four-year term. Apportionment of House seats among the states changed slightly with the 108th Congress elected in 2002. That Congress, and the four that follow, have been reapportioned on the basis of the April 1, 2000, United States Census. (See complete apportionment numbers in United States Congress.)
See also List of members of the U.S. House of Representatives
The House Committee on Financial Services oversees the entire financial services industry, including the securities, insurance, banking, and housing industries.
The powers and duties of the House are described in the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 2. The House is presided over by the Speaker of the House, who is elected by the House; although historically every Speaker has been a Member of the House, this is not a constitutional requirement (Art. I, s. 2. merely specifies that the House "shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers"). In matters of legislation it is essentially co-equal with the Senate, with the exception of the rule provided by the Constitution that all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives. While the House has the power of impeachment over federal officials, the Senate has the duty to try these officials. The Senate also has exclusive power to ratify treaties and approve presidential appointments.
Although revenue bills are constitutionally required to originate in the House, in practice, the House is equal to, or inferior to,the Senate in matters of budget and taxation. In "Congressional Government," Woodrow Wilson wrote:
- the Senate's right to amend [revenue bills] has been allowed the widest possible scope. The upper house may add to them what it pleases; may go altogether outside of their original provisions and tack to them entirely new features of legislation, altering not only the amounts but even the objects of expenditure, and making out of the materials sent them by the popular chamber measures of an almost totally new character." (Congressional Government, 114)
Historically, much of the power of the House was in the committees. Over long years of service, Committee Members develop expertise in the issues before them. Both the Chairman and Ranking Member are able to call witnesses during hearings before a Committee as well as offer amendments and vote on final passage of bills during mark up. Committees have weakened in recent years in favor of the party leaders.
The House Committee on Rules is particularly powerful because each bill submitted to the floor of the House must have a rule assigned by the committee which limits the amount of debate and more importantly specifies what amendments can or cannot be allowed in the course of the debate. The rule approved by the Rules Committee is subject to acceptance or rejection by a vote of the full House. The majority party is overrepresented on the Rules Committee, currently it consists of nine Republicans and four Democrats.
Another important committee is the House Committee on Ways and Means which is responsible for taxation and is particularly powerful because of the constitutional requirement (in Article 1, Section 7) that bills raising revenue shall originate in the House. The House Committee on Appropriations is another important committee whose power derives from its ability to consider funding for government projects.
Unlike senators, most House members have little individual power, and typically will ally themselves in informal caucuses with other members from similar districts.
The House chamber is located in the south wing of the United States Capitol, in Washington, DC. To allow members to visit their districts, the House is normally only in session three days a week. The record for most meetings in a year was 167 set in 1995, 2004 set the record for fewest, with only 97. Most bills are debated on the House floor for only a few hours.
In New York City on April 1, 1789 the House held its first quorum and elected Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania as the first House Speaker.
On August 8, 1911, Public Law 62-5 set the number of representatives in the House of Representatives at 435 but the law didn't take effect until 1913.
In 1917 Jeannette Rankin became the first female elected representative.
Composition of the 108th Congress (2003–2005)
|+ ||Republicans: 227 |
|* ||Democrats: 205 |
|- ||Independent: 1 (Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) is not affiliated with any party, but caucuses with Democrats for organizational purposes.) |
|- ||Vacancies: 2 (Florida 14th, Nebraska 1st) |
Speaker: J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) Majority Leader: Thomas D. DeLay (R-Texas) Minority Leader: Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
A cable TV viewer's guide to the House
Minding the House can be a rewarding experience for those with time to spare.
Since 1979, C-SPAN, the cable television network, has televised the House proceedings live. Also, the Official Reporters of Debates take down every word spoken on the House floor, and edited transcripts of the proceedings can be found in the Congressional Record. (The Congressional Record is also printed daily.)
The House, when in session, generally convenes at 2:00pm (Eastern Time) on Tuesday and continues until adjournment late in the day on Thursday. The first thing one notices about the House chamber is that most of the seats in the chamber are empty most of the time. Most Members of Congress ("members") are usually busy attending committee meetings, working in their offices, or doing other things while the House is in session. If there is a floor vote, the electronic voting system is activated and a sequence of bells rings throughout the House side of the Capitol and in the House office building complex. When the bells ring, members flock to the House floor, typically travelling the one-block distance from their offices by foot or by electric trolley. During the last few minutes of the 15 minutes usually allotted for an electronically recorded vote, the chamber fills with members and just as quickly empties again after the vote. It can be politically damaging at home if a member misses too many votes, and the political leadership therefore tries to schedule votes during times when members are likely to be around. Sometimes several votes are held all at once at the end of the day. Fridays usually mean short sessions, no sessions, and/or no votes. This is so that members who live on the other side of the country can fly home for the weekend.
Members vote by inserting a plastic voting card, which doubles as a photo ID, into terminals located on the backs of seats in the House chamber. The member presses a red button to vote "No" or "Nay," a green button to vote "Aye" or "Yea," and a yellow button to vote "Present" (i.e. the member abstains from voting) or to register his or her presence at a quorum call. Members' names are displayed on a blue, backlit panel above the Speaker's chair, and when a member votes, a red, green, or yellow light appears adjacent to his or her name. Displays on the side walls of the chamber display a running vote total.
If the voting system is down, either the clerk calls the roll and members enunciate their votes, or a "teller" vote is held in which the members fill out red, green or yellow voting cards and give them to the clerk. For more information, see Recorded vote.
Voting lasts for fifteen minutes, unless the House leadership is narrowly behind on its vote. If the leadership believes it can whip a few additional votes out of its caucus voting may be extended. Since 1994, voting has been extended eight times, most notoriously for the Prescription Drug Benefit, where voting took place between 3:00 and 6:00 am.
A typical day's proceedings
Every two years at the beginning of a session of Congress, the House adopts the same Rules of the House as were in force during the preceding Congress. But many of the rules in the book are antiquated and are ignored.
At the start of each day, the House Speaker or his designee (the Speaker Pro Tem) walks into the chamber and gavels the House to order. The Chaplain, or some guest clergy member from someone's home district, offers a prayer. After the prayer, a period for "one-minute speeches" takes place. A member who wishes to give a one-minute speech is recognized by the Speaker: "For what purpose does the gentleman [gentlewoman] from [state] arise?" "I ask unanimous consent to address the House for one minute and to revise and extend my remarks." "Without objection, it is so ordered. The gentleman is recognized."
(If the Speaker of the House does not feel like presiding for whatever reason, he appoints a member of his party as Speaker Pro Tempore.)
Two things of note:
- Much House business is conducted by "unanimous consent." Any member may object, but nobody usually does.
- To "revise and extend" one's remarks means that the member may submit remarks in written form to be printed in the Congressional Record. What the member puts in the Congressional Record may be longer or shorter or completely different from what was actually said on the floor—the only verbatim account of the proceedings would be a videotape recorded from C-SPAN.
After the one minute speeches, the House might typically proceed to consider a "rule," or a resolution stating how much time is allotted to debate a particular bill. Rules are made by the Committee on Rules. (In the press, it is the House Rules Committee or the House [Blank] Committee, officially it is the Committee on [Blank].) A rule may provide that amendments to the bill are allowed (an "open rule") or restricted (a "closed rule").
A rule might say something like this:
House Resolution 999
"Resolved, that at any time after the adoption of this resolution the Speaker may declare the House resolved into the Committee of the Whole House on the state of the Union for consideration of the bill H.R. 999, the [XXX] Act. General debate shall be confined to the bill and shall not exceed one hour equally divided and controlled by the chairman and ranking minority member of the Committee on [XXX] . After general debate the bill shall be considered for amendment under the five-minute rule. At the conclusion of consideration of the bill for amendment the Committee shall rise and report the bill to the House with such amendments as may have been adopted. Any Member may demand a separate vote in the House on any amendment adopted in the Committee of the Whole to the bill. The previous question shall be considered as ordered on the bill and amendments thereto to final passage without intervening motion except one motion to recommit with or without instructions."
What all this means is, that the House first forms itself into the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union. When sitting as the Committee of the Whole, a quorum is 100 members instead of 218, and a limit of five minutes of debate are allowed for or against any specific amendment to the bill being considered. You can tell whether the House is convened as the House or the Committee of the Whole by noting the position of the Mace (the pole with the silver eagle on top which is situated on the left side of the Speaker's podium). If the Mace is placed atop its pedestal, the House is in session; if placed in a lower position, this means the Committee of the Whole is in session. (The Mace is not visible in the above photo of the House chamber, indicating that the House was not then in session.)
After all the amendments to the bill are voted on, and before the bill itself is voted on, there is usually a "motion to recommit" the bill back to the committee whence it came (to kill the bill). The vote on a motion to recommit is usually more indicative of how Members really feel about a bill than the final vote on passage. Many members who are against a bill will vote for the motion to recommit and then vote to pass it once the vote to recommit is lost. That way they can tell the constituents back home about how they favored the legislation all along.
After the day's business, and before adjournment, there is a period called "special orders" during which members may reserve time, as much as an hour, to speak. There is nobody in the chamber at 8 P.M., but the cameras don't usually show the empty seats: the members can play to the C-SPAN audience, especially if the member's district is on Pacific time.
This is a list of standing committees, joint committees and special committees of the United States House of Representatives.
Committees of the United States House of Representatives
The United States House of Representatives is organized into numerous committees and subcommittees. The Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, consisting of the entire membership, is discussed on the main page.
When a bill is introduced, the Speaker refers the bill to one (or more) of the standing committees. In order for the bill to ever be considered on the House floor, in other words for the bill to have any chance of passage, one of two things must happen: The bill must be reported favorably out of the committee, in other words it has a majority of the votes on that committee; or a Discharge Petition must be signed by a majority (218) of House members.
Before the recent centralization of power by the leadership, committee chairs were the leaders of the House. Woodrow Wilson (in his earlier role as a scholar well before his presidency) described the heyday of the Committee system (which lasted until the 1970s) thusly:
- Power is nowhere concentrated; it is rather deliberately and of set policy scattered amongst many small chiefs. It is divided up, as it were, into forty-seven seigniories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court-baron and its chairman lord-proprietor. These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within the reach of the full powers of rule, may at will exercise al almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself. (Congressional Government, 76)
Memberships on committees are allocated so that the party with the majority of House seats gets substantially more committee seats than does the minority party. Historically, chairmanships were determined by seniority, but then the large idealistic "Watergate class" changed the rules in 1975 so that committee chairs would be determined by the whole party caucus. From 1975 to 1995 the party caucuses gradually strengthened themselves and the leadership at the expense of committee chairs.
In 1995 the Republicans established term limits on committee chairs. This has had the effect of further strengthening the leadership since the vacancy of a committee chair appears more often than it did in the past. Members of both parties who wish to be committee chairs one day have a powerful incentive to follow their respective leaderships. Committee staffs have also been reduced.
Most legislation is written by the leadership, and in 2003 over three-quarters of bills were considered under rules that forbade amendment (in contrast, 1995-1997 only 56 percent of bills were considered under no amendment rules, and 1977-1978, only 15 percent of bills were considered under no amendment rules).
Under House rules, 48 hours are supposed to elapse between action by the Rules Committee and voting, but currently 57 percent of all bills are considered under "emergency" status. Under emergency status bills are voted on within a half hour. Occassionally Congressmen do not even know what they are voting on or have only a few hours to read hundreds of pages.
Committees are divided into subcommittees, again apportioned in favor of the majority party. The chairman and ranking minority member of the full committee are automatically members of all subcommittees.
A committee can be a "standing committee," such as the Committee on Appropriations, or a "select committee," such as the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Until reorganizations initiated in the mid-20th century, the number of standing committees was much greater than it is today. Most of these committees were either merged with other committees or reduced to being subcommittees; some were abolished outright.
Joint House and Senate Committees
- U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Printing
- U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Taxation
- U.S. Congress Joint Committee on the Library
- U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee
- Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
- Select Committee on Homeland Security
Each state's delegation in Congress consists of two Senators, and a number of Representatives (see below) depending on an apportionment among the states, based every ten years on their respective populations in the U.S. Census. Non-state territories have a Delegate each in the House, and many present states had such delegates when they were organized territories prior to statehood. See also: United States Congressional Apportionment
The sum of Senators and Representatives determines that state's number of Electors in the U.S. Electoral College.
Based on the 2000 Census, members of the U.S. House of Representatives represent 646,952 persons, on average.
The following states Congressional delegations include the number of Representatives indicated; the articles linked in many cases list not only the current Congressional delegation but former Senators, and Representatives; when applicable, Delegates of the former organized territory that had the same extent are included.
The following are the changes in apportionment following the 2000 Census:
- Arizona (+2)
- California (+1)
- Colorado (+1)
- Connecticut (-1)
- Florida (+2)
- Georgia (+2)
- Illinois (-1)
- Indiana (-1)
- Michigan (-1)
New York (-2)
North Carolina (+1)
Wisconsin (-1) |
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