Brief History of the US House and Senate

In terms of formal education, my parents were uneducated. But they never let a lack of education get in the way of learning. Conversations around the kitchen table, the weather, fish quotas, cost of food, King Frederick IX, etc., set the tenor of my enthusiasm for learning. Others, growing up in circumstances where learning something new represented a threat to the status quo, found the desire to learn from outside sources, teachers, blogs, and books.  

The best time to learn is when something catches our interest. A trip to Belarus, we google Belarus history, culture, food, and traditions. Occasionally, it’s something we hear on the news, for example, the powers of the US House vs. the Senate. These frequent news debates take me back to a conversation with a friend, Christine D. The part of the chat that remains in memory is that she said, “I’m a Federalist.” Although I didn’t offer it up at that moment, I’m more of an anti-Federalist, I think. Not absolutely sure. I meant to learn the early history of our country better, including the difference between Federalists and anti-Federalists, but never got around to it. Eventually, prompted by persistent press coverage, I was motivated to relearn US history of the late 18th century.

In 1781, 13 states ratified the Articles of Confederation. (The Constitution replaced it in 1789.) The Articles of Confederation operated under a single-body legislature that evolved into the House and the Senate under the Constitution. The transition required lengthy debates, referred to as the Great Debates.

Thomas Jefferson was an anti-federalist

There were two sides during the Great Debates at the constitutional convention (1787), the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists wanted to ratify the Constitution as it was written, the anti-Federalists did not, but for different reasons.  One group of Anti-Federalists opposed it on the grounds it would fail to protect individual rights. Another claimed it threatened the sovereignty of the states. Then some argued that a centralized government meant a return to the despotism of Great Britain they had fought hard to remove themselves from. (Constitutionfacts.com)

George Washington was broadly sympathetic to the Federalist program, but he remained officially non-partisan during his entire presidency. Wikipedia

Tempers and temperatures heated up. Nine states refused to ratify the Constitution until their concerns were addressed, the most important one was the question of representation. Should all states have equal power or should it be based on population numbers? After exhausting arguments and reams of paper, quills, and ink, they agreed on a two-house legislative body, the House and the Senate. 

Professor Dan Cassino (Civics 101) provides some back story. “They [founding fathers] didn’t like the people at all. They even called democracy mobocracy because they didn’t like the idea of the people actually running anything. The reason we have the House of Representatives is to give the people a voice, but to make sure that voice can’t actually do anything.” The founding fathers saw the common folks as people always “ready to jump on any bandwagon with pitchforks and torches and protest against anything.” Case in point, “In the 19th century, the first major third party in American politics was the anti-Masonic party.” It was a party devoted entirely to a conspiracy theory, the Masons were murdering people in upstate New York. For crying out loud–borrowing my friend Becky’s favorite expression–feeding conspiracy theories to your followers has been going on for a long time. (Why We Still Care About America’s Founders) (NYTimes)  

It seems this idea, to have two legislative bodies in one house, is much like the Brits with their House of Lords and their free-flowing House of Commons. Our Senators are in the House of Senators, but we don’t call it that. We just call it the Senate. When we say the House, we mean the House of Representatives. 

Key differences between the two houses are the length of terms and the number of members. The current House has 435 members elected every two years and distributed by state population. The 100 senators, two for each state, are elected (mostly) every six years. There is one Congressperson per 600,000 to 700,000 people. When we read Millennials are moving to Lynchburg, Virginia, Oshkosh-Neenah, Wisconsin, etc., they are bringing economic prosperity AND political power to that state.(The 10 Best Cities for Millennials in 2019) (MentalFloss.com) (Federal Representation)

Both houses have to pass legislation before it goes to the president to be signed into law. But only the Senate has the constitutional responsibility to confirm all Presidential appointments, including Supreme Court Justices, and advise and consent the White House on treaties.  

The House holds the power of the purse. All appropriation bills must begin in the House. The Senate does not have the authority to approve funding for federal government programs. The framers left it up to the people to decide how our tax money is spent. Also, articles of impeachment for any elected federal official go through the House of Representatives. If the articles are passed in the House, the trial is held in the Senate.   

Voting is also different. The House is a majority rule, 50 percent plus one. The Democrats now with a 36 seat majority can do what they want (within reason). For something to pass in the Senate, 60 percent have to agree. This requires a great deal of consensus and coalition building even for the party in the majority. Like the British House of Lords, the Senate is more of a camaraderie feeling, versus the “bandwagon with pitchforks and torches and protests against anything” approach in the House. But I bet the House is more fun.

The Senate has something called filibusters, a strong arm tactic that blocks or delays action on a bill. Senator Strom Thurmond once talked against a civil rights bill in the 1950s for 24 hours and 18 minutes, officially the longest filibuster speech in the history of the Senate.

The House of Representatives has so many members, and most of them like to hear themselves talk, that it came up with what’s called the Rules Committee. This is where decisions are made whether a bill will ever come to the floor. There is no time to allow for a back and forth on any bill. The best representatives can hope for is what’s called a closed rule. A Democrat talks for 15 minute and then a Republican talks for another 15. Then you have an up or down vote on the bill. The Speaker of the House decides which bill comes to the floor, so many bills are never voted on. GovTrack.us is an independent website that allows us to track the status of legislation in the US Congress and get an up close view of what our senators and representative are working on. (GovTrack.us)  

C-SPAN (youtube) is a great place to watch senators give their spiel. The camera remains on the speaker for the entire time. Do you know why? It’s because there is nobody else there, in the Senate. They are talking to themselves. Where are all the other Lords, I mean senators? Well, they have stuff to do, committee hearings, raising money, campaigning, hair appointments, massages, and putting lunch dates on their Google calendar. In all fairness, I read that many of them work from sunrise to sunset. But I can’t verify it, which doesn’t make it untrue, just unverifiable.

To run for the House, you need local name recognition and ability to mobilize people to knock on doors and host house parties to introduce you. To run for the Senate, you need to raise millions of dollars. Republican Rick Scott of Florida spent $64 million of his own money to win a seat in the US Senate. (USAToday.com)

Our present Congress is the most diverse ever. Seated at the country’s negotiation table of the 116th Congress, we have men and women of many races. These faces around the table align with the changes in our democracy. Because, as the late Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, is quoted saying, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re likely on the menu.” (Politicfact.com)

2 thoughts on “Brief History of the US House and Senate

  1. Hmmm – just not sure what to think at this first reading. Seems like a messed up system that doesn’t really foster working together to come up with solutions that are a result of earnest discussion (defined as speaking AND listening to understand) and compromise. I do like the diversity that is appearing in Congress but hope this results in more cohesion versus devision. Thank you so much for all your research.

    1. You are so welcome. A little history puts perspective on things. Usually, I end up worrying less. For homo sapiens to get along has always been an up and down proposition. If you see that as normal, there’s nothing to worry about.

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About edithandersen49

Girls compete with one another. Women empower and uplift one another.