The powers of the House and Senate compared

The distribution of power within Congress

The exclusive powers of each chamber

The House has exclusive power to...

The exclusive powers of the House of Representatives reflect this body's original role as the voice of the people. These powers are as follows:


Impeachment does not mean removing a politician from office. Rather it means the House wanting to bring formal charges against a public official because, in their view, there is sufficient evidence of `Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.' (Art. II Sec. 4).

Two US Presidents (Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998) and one Supreme Court Justice (Samuel Chase in 1804) have been impeached.

Elect the president if no candidate has over 50% of Electoral College Votes (ECV) With only two parties seriously contesting presidential elections, it is possible (though unlikely) for each candidate to get 269 ECVs. This power has only been used twice: in 1800 and 1824. Each state has one vote in the House, voting as a bloc.

Begin consideration of all money bills Most legislation can begin in either chamber (many bills effectively pass through both at the same time), but all revenue-raising bills (those imposing taxes) must pass through the House first. Given the sensitivity of taxing people, the Founding Fathers wanted to give

the House, the only elected chamber at the time, more influence over taxation than the Senate. This power is not very significant today as all House decisions still have to be accepted by the Senate, which can amend or reject House decisions.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the single most high-profile politician in Congress. He or she acts as presiding officer of the chamber, is responsible for the planning and implementation of the legislative agenda, and has the power to decide which committee to refer bills to.

The Speaker is elected by the entire membership of the House of Representatives and was not traditionally a partisan figure. However, effectively, the Speaker is the nominee of the majority party, and, as the parties polarised from the 1980s onwards, increasingly the Speaker's role became to promote their party's agenda, particularly when the White House was controlled by the opposing party.

Different Speakers have different styles. Dennis Hastert, who was Speaker from 1999 to 2007, operated very much behind the scenes, while the House majority leader Tom DeLay .(the Hammer') drove the Republican agenda through the House. His successor, Nancy Pelosi, partly because for the first 2 years she was countering a Republican president, sought a much higher public profile as an opposition leader to the president, and delivered as many floor speeches in the first 16 months of her tenure as Hastert delivered in 8 years. She was succeeded in turn in January 2011 by John Boehner, who was not able to exercise the degree of control of previous Speakers. This was mainly because among the new intake of House Republican members are a number of Tea Party-affiliated members who are fiercely hostile to 'business as usual' in Washington, and have been determined to block any attempt by their leader to compromise with the Senate and the president.

Challenge to Speaker Boehner

Boehner quits

 Speaker Boehner was not  helped by the elimination of earmarks, which previously gave the leadership some carrots to entice their members, and the rise of groups such as Club For Growth and Heritage Action for America means they now exercise as much if not more influence over members' votes as he does. Boehner was succeed by Paul Ryan 2015-17.

March 2017 the defeat of the American Health Care Act- designed to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obama care) was largely due to opposition from the House Freedom Caucus- a Tea Party inspired group who see Trump's bill as not going far enough. This is a blow to Paul Ryan and more evidence of a decline in the power of the Speaker.

In 2017 Democrats regained control of the House and Nancy Pelosi became Speaker again.

The Senate has exclusive power to...

The Senate's exclusive powers reflect the original role of this house as a deliberative body. These powers are as follows:

Try an impeachment case

If the House impeaches a public official there is a trial in the Senate. A two-thirds Senate vote is then required to remove someone from office. Clinton was impeached but not removed from office, mainly because of the result of the mid­term elections in 1998, which saw the Democrats increase their share of seats in the House. The Republican failure to gain seats in the Senate was largely seen as public reaction against the

ongoing Republican pursuit of Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair. Johnson and Chase survived the attempt to remove them in the Senate.

Elect the vice president, if no candidate has over 50% of ECV

Much like the House power to select the president, this power has rarely been used.  To elect the vice-president if there is no overall majority in the Electoral College.

Ratify treaties

All treaties negotiated by the president are subject to confirmation by the Senate, requiring a two-thirds vote. Obama achieved ratification of the START treaty in 2010, a deal with Russia to scale back nuclear arsenals. The last Senate

rejection was in 2012, of an Obama-backed treaty on disabled rights, which gained the support of only 61 Senators. The role of treaty ratification has been eroded by the president's use of executive agreements.·      To ratify all treaties negotiated by the president, two-thirds majority required

Confirm executive appointments (advice and consent)

Over 1200 senior appointments — cabinet members, some senior members of the EXOP and all federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices — are scrutinised, usually through Senate committee hearings, with the Senate having

The filibuster  is not found anywhere in the constitution but was adopted as procedure by the Senate in 1806. Prior to this, debate could be ended through a simple majority vote but, thereafter, senators were able to speak for as long as they wished to. In the twentieth century, the power of the filibuster was attenuated, with the adoption of a rule that debate could be ended through a two-thirds majority vote, later reduced to 60. What is not always appreciated is that modern-day filibusters do not consist of any individual senator actually talking for any length of time at all. Through a procedure adopted in 1975, with the intention of keeping the floor of the chamber clear for other business, all that is needed is the announcement of a threat to filibuster for a 60-vote majority to be required to pass the threatened legislation. However, an old-style filibuster may still take place - mostly for publicity purposes, such as Rand Paul's 13 hour filibuster to hold up the renewal of the Patriot Act (2015)

Or the Democrat's June 2016 filibuster as a protest at the lack of progress on gun control legislation.

Rand Paul Filibuster

2016 Democrat Filibuster

Are the chambers equal in power?

The two chambers are theoretically equal, each having exclusive powers and both having joint powers. The Senate gets called the 'Upper' House; this is not accurate — officially.

The Senate can claim to be more important for a number of reasons. Senators are elected for six years rather than two. Senators represent the whole state, not just part of it. The Senate is smaller and Senators, therefore can become more prominent. Senators have been serious Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidates. President Obama was a Senator, Vice-President Biden also. House members become Senators, but virtually never the other way around. The Constitution gave exclusive roles to the Senate which may be seen as higher status, such as conducting impeachment trials, ratifying treaties and agreeing to executive and judicial appointments. The title has more prestige. Senators are seen as more experienced politicians. Senators have the ability to filibuster bills.  They are on average older than their counterparts in the House, and have an older minimum age to be selected, according to the Constitution. If a Washington politician has ambitions for higher things, then the Senate will provide a better springboard.

The concurrent powers of Congress Congress is given the following concurrent powers by the Constitution: ■ Legislation. Article I gives all legislative power to Congress with both chambers’ approval required for legislation to be enacted. Congress can amend legislation and has the ability to reject presidential proposals for legislation. For example, in 2017, the American Healthcare Act, an attempt to reform Obamacare, was eventually accepted by a House vote but continued to struggle to gain support in the Senate. Without support from both chambers it would be impossible to repeal Obamacare. ■ Amending the Constitution. This power is shared with the states, with two- thirds of each chamber of Congress being required to change the US Constitution. ■ To declare war. While there is a constitutional ambiguity here, given the president’s position as commander-in-chief, the Founding Fathers gave Congress the power to begin military confl ict.

Arguments to say that the House is more important may be as follows.

They are equal in legislative power-No bill can become law unless the House agrees to it. It's also true that finance bills have to start in the House. The Speaker is next in line to the Presidency, after the Vice-President. There is no single figure in the Senate with the stature of the Speaker of the House. The House tends to deal with issues that are of day-to-day importance to the electorate. Two-year terms make them closer to the voters in their area. The House is mentioned first in the Constitution. It is the House that decides on an impeachment trial. If there is no decision in the Electoral College, the House has to choose the President. It could be argued that the representational function in the House has to be stronger than that of the Senate given the more frequent elections. They are all elected every two years which gives them the most current mandate.  Gerrymandering has created many ‘safe’ districts in the House

In the end, however, neither part of Congress can function effectively without the other.