The structure of Congress:

A bicameral institution

The Founding Fathers ensured that Congress had two chambers. The House of Representatives (or simply `House') awards political representation to states in proportion to their population — so larger states have more seats. In the Senate, there are two politicians per state, regardless of population . Congress was thereby able to apply a number of key principles required by the framers:

The membership of Congress

There are minor differences in the constitutional requirements for membership of each of the two chambers of Congress. While senators are required to be at least 30 years of age and to have been a citizen for 9 years, members of the House need only be 25 and to have been a citizen for 7 years.

Election cycle

Congressional elections take place every two years in November. All members of the House are on the ballot, but only one-third of Senators, so the party majority in either chamber can change every two years. Some congressional elections take place at the same time as the presidential election. Mid-term elections take place in the middle of a presidential term and occur every four years.

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).

Three US Presidents (Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump twice 2018 and 2020) and one Supreme Court Justice (Samuel Chase in 1804) have been impeached by the House.

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.

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. She was confirmed as Speaker again in 2020 but was forced to agree to a term limit.

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 right to confirm a presidential nomination by a 50% + vote. This appointment process has become more politicised in recent years, although a president can expect almost all of his or her cabinet members nominated. The extent of scrutiny depends partly on the nature of party control of the presidency and the Senate. The vast majority of presidential appointments are uncontroversial, except for those to the judiciary. 

Approve  and count the votes of the Electoral College

The votes are sent to the Senate and counter under the supervision of the Vice President. It was this largely ceremonial process which was interrupted by a mob attacking the Congress in 2020.

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.

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.

Structural differences between the Houses

House of Representatives

House representatives are specialists: they serve on one or two standing committees and their areas of specialism are often linked to the concerns of their district.

House representatives have fewer constituents than almost all senators (far fewer in some cases), so there is a closer relationship between them. As they are elected every 2 years, House members tend to be highly responsive to the views of their constituents.

The size of the House means its organisation needs to be more bureaucratic, with the Speaker in overall control, and with strict rules on debate on the floor of the chamber.


Senators are generalists: they usually serve on two or three standing committees, and are more concerned than House representatives with national and international issues.

 Senators represent a broader range of opinion than most House members. As they are elected for a 6-year term, they need not be as immediately responsive to constituents' views.

The Senate is traditionally more collegiate and consensual. There is no equivalent of the Speaker (the vice-president is president of the Senate but only takes the chair if a vote is tied), and it is less committee-based and less needful of rules, for example there is no limit on debate. It is more resistant to centralised leadership, and the power of the filibuster symbolises its individual nature.

The changing Senate

A number of factors have combined to change the traditional image of the Senate as an exclusive non-partisan club, detached from the raw politics of the House of Representatives. The rapidly increasing costs of Senate elections (the average winning candidate spent $10.2 million in 2012 according to, compared to $3.7 million in 1996) mean that, even with 6 years between elections, senators now have to spend as much time as possible in their states, fundraising for the next one. Most Senate votes are consequently scheduled between Tuesday and Thursday, and with senators spending most of the week outside Washington, traditional social bonds are weaker. A higher proportion of the Senate is now made up of former House representatives — for example, 48 of the 2012-14 senators had previously served in the House, 26 Democrats and 22 Republicans, whereas 30 years before, fewer than a third had — and they bring the more combative ethos of the House with them. In contrast, former governors, who tend to be less partisan, are now much fewer in number. Aides have proliferated in recent years and are often more ideological than the senators they serve, pushing them to take more entrenched positions.

The balance of power between the two houses can lie with either, dependent on the context.

In contrast, the House tends to be more partisan and, since all its members are elected simultaneously, can exhibit a strong sense of mandate. The frustrations House members sometimes feel with the slower pace and more centrist outlook of the Senate were expressed by Sam Rayburn, a Texas Democrat, who was House Speaker in the 1940s and 1950s and was famously quoted as saying: 'The Republicans are the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.'

Greater Senate influence was evident on a number of occasions during President Obama's first 2 years. The final healthcare legislation was based on the Senate version, which the House was forced to pass as it stood. The climate-change bill, which passed the House, subsequently died in the Senate. Press reports characterised House Democrats as 'expendable shock troops, able to move quickly and put pressure on the Senate to strike a deal'. '

However, if Congress (or just the House) is controlled by the opposing party to the president, the House will often take the lead in opposing him, and may attempt to move its own agenda forward. Given the right circumstances, the House can exercise considerable influence, and after the election of a Republican majority to the House in 2010, the president Obama's agenda, at least that part which requires legislation, was effectively stalled. After the Democrats regained control of the House in 2018 Trump's ability to adavnce a legislative agenda ended.