The United States legislature is the body of elected representatives who make the law. It is a bicameral system, meaning that there are two different chambers of the legislature, each with different powers. In the United States, these are called the House of Representatives, considered to be the ‘junior’ chamber, and the Senate, which is considered the more prestigious and powerful chamber of the United States legislature.
What is the House of Representatives?
The House of Representatives is the primary lawmaking body in the United States, where the majority of bills originate from. They have broad powers to make legislation (laws) and are extremely powerful in acting as a check on the president’s power. The House of Representatives is made up of 435 representatives, who represent states by a proportion of the population. The number of representatives from each state can change if population changes, with California being the most well-represented state, having 55 members in the house. These all serve two-year terms, with elections in every presidential year and again during ‘mid-terms’ that are held two years after a presidential election.
What is the role of the House of Representatives?
The House – as it is often referred to – has the ‘power of the purse’, which means that they have the sole power to decide federal budgets. They are required every year to approve the spending plans of the executive branch (the president) and often become locked in negotiations and fail to pass a funding bill for the following year. This situation is known as gridlock, during which the government goes into shutdown and federal employees are not paid until a spending bill is passed. Usually, gridlock takes only a few days, but there are cases where it has run on for weeks. In 2018-19, the United States had its longest shutdown in history, lasting for over a month.
The House of Representatives is also the primary check on the power of the president, with committees used to scrutinize decisions made by the executive branch. This will ensure that the president cannot make decisions on his own, especially those that could have serious legal ramifications for the United States. One of the most famous examples is the House Rules Committee, who set the rules of debate for particular legislation and have a significant power over which bills are passed.
Another major power for the House of Representatives is its ability to impeach the federal officeholders. The president is the most famous example of an officeholder who can be impeached. The House passes articles of impeachment against the president before the Senate holds a trial to decide whether to convict. Three presidents have been impeached in the United States history: Andrew Jackson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump – none were convicted by the Senate.
What is the Senate?
The Senate is the other chamber of the legislature that is considered more prestigious than the House of Representatives. There are only two Senators per state, which counts in 100 Senators overall. They serve in six-year terms which are arranged that one-third of the Senators are taking part in an election every two years. It means that they are far less pressured by their constituents to act on local issues, so they tend to focus primarily on national, or international, affairs.
What is the role of the Senate?
The Senate has increased emphasis on the nation at large, as their most important additional powers are to hold an impeachment trial, to approve executive nominees (such as cabinet members and Supreme Court judges), and their ability to ratify (approve) federal treaties. Without Senate approval, the United States cannot conclude any treaties, for example, the Senate did not ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol Treaty, which was the first major piece of legislation to act against climate change – only the USA, Afghanistan and Sudan did not sign the treaty.
The Senate is also considered to be more prestigious because you must be older in order to become a Senator. The Constitution states that you must be at least 25 to serve in the House of Representatives, for the Senate it is 30, and presidents must be at least 35 years old. This creates a precedent which suggests that the Senate is the more powerful body and is proven by high treaty powers and the possibility of conducting impeachment trials.
Although the majority of bills originate in the House – due to having more members and committees in which to formulate legislation, the Senate also has the power to write legislation. In this case, the bill must be passed in both chambers of the legislature (House of Representatives and Senate), before being sent to the president, who can sign it into law. This creates a difficulty, as often the House and the Senate create amendments that result in the bills being written differently in both chambers. In this event, there is a reconciliation committee in both chambers, which allows for members of the House and the Senate to negotiate and bring the bills into line, so that they pass identical legislation that can be sent to the resolute desk for the president to sign.