Understanding the House and Senate
The U.S. Constitution is very clear about who can be elected as a member of the House or Senate. A House member must be a U.S. citizen of at least seven years’ standing and at least twenty-five years old. Senators are required to have nine years’ standing as citizens and be at least thirty years old when sworn in. Representatives serve two-year terms, whereas senators serve six-year terms. Per the Supreme Court decision in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton (1995), there are currently no term limits for either senators or representatives, despite efforts by many states to impose them in the mid-1990s.
House members are elected by the voters in their specific congressional districts. There are currently 435 congressional districts in the United States and thus 435 House members, and each state has a number of House districts roughly proportional to its share of the total U.S. population, with states guaranteed at least one House member. Two senators are elected by each state.
The structural and other differences between the House and Senate have practical consequences for the way the two chambers function. The House of Representatives has developed a stronger and more structured leadership than the Senate. Because its members serve short, two-year terms, they must regularly answer to the demands of their constituency when they run for election or reelection. Even House members of the same party in the same state will occasionally disagree on issues because of the different interests of their specific districts. Thus, the House can be highly partisan at times.
In contrast, members of the Senate are furthest from the demands and scrutiny of their constituents. Because of their longer six-year terms, they will see every member of the House face his or her constituents multiple times before they themselves are forced to seek reelection. Originally, when a state’s two U.S. senators were appointed by the state legislature, the Senate chamber’s distance from the electorate was even greater.
Also, unlike members of the House who can seek the narrower interests of their district, senators must maintain a broader appeal in order to earn a majority of the votes across their entire state. In addition, the rules of the Senate allow individual members to slow down or stop legislation they dislike. These structural differences between the two chambers create real differences in the actions of their members. The heat of popular, sometimes fleeting, demands from constituents often glows red hot in the House. The Senate has the flexibility to allow these passions to cool. Dozens of major initiatives were passed by the House and had a willing president, for example, only to be defeated in the Senate. In 2012, the Buffett Rule would have implemented a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on wealthy Americans. Sixty senators had to agree to bring it to a vote, but the bill fell short of that number and died.
Similarly, although the ACA became widely known as “Obamacare,” the president did not send a piece of legislation to Capitol Hill; he asked Congress to write the bills. Both the House and Senate authored their own versions of the legislation. The House’s version was much bolder and larger in terms of establishing a national health care system. However, it did not stand a chance in the Senate, where a more moderate version of the legislation was introduced. In the end, House leaders saw the Senate version as preferable to doing nothing and ultimately supported it.