In 1789, the United States House of Representatives began work for the first time. It was a new type of representation for the thirteen states, with representatives apportioned according to state population. As the “lower chamber” of the bicameral (two-chamber) legislature, the House had two-year terms and many more seats than the “upper chamber” Senate. Over time, the House has grown and evolved, and in the modern era, seats have shifted from states with falling populations in the Northeast to states with rapidly growing populations in the West and South. Here’s a look at the history of the House of Representatives and which features that make it unique from other legislatures.
Setting the Stage: The Articles of Confederation
Many Americans may be surprised to learn that the United States has not always had the Constitution. For the republic’s first decade, the US existed under another governing document: the Articles of Confederation. Drafted in 1777 during the Revolutionary War, the Articles only bound the thirteen original states together in a loose sense. The central, or federal, government was very weak and had little power over the states. It lacked a chief executive and had no power to tax the states, with states having to voluntarily provide money…which they did not.
Under the Articles, the United States suffered from confusion and a lack of economic cooperation among the states. In 1786, Shays’ Rebellion almost overthrew the young republic because individual states lacked the power and organization to stop mob rule. After a privately-raised army finally put down the rebellion, most citizens were in agreement that reforms to the Articles of Confederation were needed to create a government with more power and authority to maintain order and protect property. In the summer of 1787, fifty-five delegates met in Philadelphia to adjust the Articles.
Setting the Stage: The Virginia Plan
One major complaint about the Articles was that the Congress was ineffectual. To create a federal law that applied to all states, nine of the thirteen members of Congress – each state received one vote regardless of population – had to be in agreement. This was a high ratio and prevented much from being accomplished. Many delegates wanted Congress to be reformed, but this created a conundrum: how would the power and rights of both large states, like Virginia, and small states, like Rhode Island, be fairly represented?
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James Madison, a delegate from the populous state of Virginia, proposed a plan that would base seats in the new Congress on state population. This Virginia Plan was popular with states that had many people but not with smaller states. Ultimately, a compromise was reached through a plan by Roger Sherman of Connecticut. The Great Compromise, also known as the Connecticut Compromise, created two chambers of Congress. Madison’s Virginia Plan would constitute the lower chamber, or House of Representatives. William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan, which called for keeping equal representation for each state in Congress, similar to under the Articles, would constitute the upper chamber or Senate.
Unique Duties: The House is for the People
The Great Compromise created a bicameral legislature where each chamber would have some unique responsibilities. The House of Representatives was originally intended to be the people’s chamber in the central government, with representatives directly elected by popular vote in House districts. Therefore, two key governing principles that were seen as vital to the people were given to the House: taxation and securing a president. Because taxation without representation was seen as a key factor in the Thirteen Colonies declaring independence from Britain in 1776, the origination clause was written into the US Constitution. This clause states that all bills dealing with federal taxation can only originate in the House of Representatives, thereby giving individual voters more say over taxation.
A new position created by the US Constitution, the presidency, was also linked to the House of Representatives instead of the Senate. In Article I of the Constitution, which details the duties of both chambers of Congress, the House was given the power of impeachment, or filing formal charges against executives and federal judges. The impeached official is then tried before the Senate, with members of the House serving as prosecutors. In the 12th Amendment, it was determined that if no presidential candidate receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives votes by state delegation to pick the president from the top three winners of electoral votes.
1789: The First US Congress (1789-91)
After the ratification of the Constitution, the first bicameral Congress met on March 4, 1789 in New York City’s Federal Hall. Unfortunately, the difficulties of travel in 1789 meant that a quorum (necessary amount) in the House was not reached until April 1, so that chamber could not begin its duties – crafting bills that the president could sign into law – until then. Only on April 6 did both the House and Senate have a quorum and begin working, with their first act being to convene the Electoral College to confirm George Washington’s selection as the first president.
Because representatives serve two-year terms, Congresses are the length of those terms rather than six-year terms for senators. The first United States Congress (1789-91) largely had to create its own rules and procedures, as the Constitution gave few specific instructions. The Constitution required both chambers to elect leaders, and Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected the first Speaker of the House on April 1, 1789. The House created additional positions in 1789, such as Clerk, Doorkeeper, Sergeant-at-Arms, and Chaplain, which largely remain today with modernized names and duties.
1789 – 1929: The House Grows With the Nation
The House of Representatives and Senate both grew in size as states were added to the union. However, the House faced additional complexity: unlike the Senate, which gave states two seats each regardless of population, the House was supposed to apportion seats so that each citizen had roughly equal representation. This meant both adding new representatives as new states were created due to westward expansion and also creating additional House districts in existing states to accommodate population growth, especially through immigration.
In 1911, as the last three continental states (Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) were about to be added, the House took the first steps to cap its size at 435 members. In 1920, the House did not reapportion seats after the on-the-decade US Census for the first time in history. This failure to reapportion was made permanent in 1929 with the Permanent Reapportionment Act. When Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, two additional House seats were added on a temporary basis but later reapportioned back by removing two existing House districts in other states.
A Unique Issue: Reapportionment / Redistricting / Gerrymandering
After the House was capped at 435 members in 1929, with reapportionment automatically occurring three years after each US Census, redistricting became an increasingly controversial issue. In the Constitution, states were given the responsibility of creating House districts. This quickly became a partisan exercise, with the political party controlling the state legislature redrawing House district lines to advantage themselves. Critics have come to call this practice gerrymandering, named after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. Gerry signed a bill to create a House district with an unusual shape (allegedly a salamander, creating the moniker gerrymander), giving his party more districts in the state.
Gerrymandering can occur any time there are specific legislative districts that are periodically reapportioned. The practice became even more controversial during the Civil Rights era when Southern states intentionally redistricted to deny African Americans, who tended to live more in urban areas, the majority in any legislative districts. In the 1960s, federal laws and Supreme Court decisions banned redistricting on the basis of race. However, redistricting for the purpose of partisan advantage is still legal and occurs nationwide. It remains highly controversial and allegedly hinders fair political representation and voter engagement in several ways.
A Large House Means Many Rules (Rules Committee)
The size of the House of Representatives and the fact that many of its members tend to be relatively new to politics requires a system of rigid rules. Unlike the Senate, the House does not allow for unlimited debate on bills and restricts amendments to bills to those that are germane (relevant and related) to the sub-section(s) in question. Otherwise, with 435 representatives, a substantial number of whom may be political rookies, bills may get bogged down with delays and unreasonable amendments.
Thus, the House has a unique committee called the Rules Committee. This committee, which dates back to the first Congress, is the most powerful in the House and has two responsibilities: create rules for the House and decide terms and conditions for debate on a bill. The committee can therefore protect important legislation from being bogged down by endless debate and ensure that representatives are focused on working primarily in their own committees. By contrast, the Senate has no Rules Committee, and all Senators have more freedom to address bills in all policy areas.
Floor Leadership in the House of Representatives
Another unique feature of the House is its top leader: the Speaker of the House. Elected by a majority of representatives at the beginning of each new Congress, the Speaker today is always a member of the majority party (political party controlling more seats) in the chamber. The Speaker is second in line to the presidency and becomes president in the event that both the president and vice president are incapacitated. The Speaker has significant power in the bill-passing process by deciding when to hold floor votes (votes of all members) for certain bills.
Symbolically, the Speaker is the opposition leader whenever the majority party in the House is not the president’s party. This is because the vice president, who always shares the same political party as the president, is technically the President of the Senate. The Speaker is expected to work with the Minority Leader, who is the elected leader of the other political party in the House. Both parties have appointed whips, who are senior members who help maintain party unity and loyalty during the legislative process. Similar to being in Congress itself, there are no term limits to being a floor leader (Speaker, Majority Leader, or Minority Leader); some have served for ten terms!
Radicalism in the House of Representatives
After the Constitution was written, some critics argued that it would never work due to radical factions who would never agree. However, Constitution writer James Madison argued that the single-member districts for the House of Representatives, where only the candidate who received the most votes would become the representative, would eliminate the “excesses of factions.” In order to win the election, the candidate would have to appeal to multiple factions and thereby practice the art of compromise. Thus, radicalism would naturally be tempered by the need to win the votes of a diverse array of citizens.
Indeed, the Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution often took a dim view of common citizens, whom they feared were prone to radicalism and mob rule. This is why only the House of Representatives was given to the voters, with the Senate composed of men selected by state legislatures and the president chosen by the Electoral College. Although Madison’s argument that single-member districts would prevent the rise of radicalism has largely been borne out, there are still several US representatives today who may be considered “radical.” Some argue that gerrymandering has nullified Madison’s argument in Federalist No. 10 and allowed radical candidates to win House seats by not having to appeal to diverse groups.
Re-Election: Is the House Safer Than the Senate for Incumbents?
One perennial criticism of Congress is the lack of term limits. Unlike the president, who has been limited to two elected terms since the 22nd Amendment, members of Congress can serve as long as they are able to win re-election. Rates of re-election for incumbents are very high, often exceeding 85 percent. It is higher for the House than the Senate due to the prestige of Senate seats. Although both representatives and senators receive the same annual salary of $174,000, the prestige of being a senator attracts more competitive challengers who can unseat an incumbent.
Fewer high-caliber candidates are going to run for a House seat than a Senate seat, thus allowing representatives to hold their seats with less opposition. Some again blame gerrymandering, arguing that House incumbents in safe states (states where only one political party is considered able to win) have enjoyed decades of redistricting that reduce partisan competition. The advantages of incumbency are strong for both representatives and senators but likely stronger for representatives due to the fact that voters are less likely to know their challengers. Those seriously challenging incumbents for Senate seats are more likely to have widely-known public profiles, reducing incumbent senators’ advantages.