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US Congress | Key Differences between The Senate and House of Representatives

US Congress | Key Differences between The Senate and House of Representatives

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us congress

With all this talk of another financial fiscal cliff dominating the news I thought I’d educate myself a bit more on how Congress works. How is it that the House of Representatives and the President are deciding the budget? Where does the Senate come in? Who has more power? I thought we just went through this fiscal cliff last year so why are we being dragged through it again? These are a few questions I’ve asked myself and for some of you possibly the same.

I also realized that I don’t know enough about Congress and how our government works and that’s a bit embarrassing. It’s been a good decade since I studied this stuff and over time I just forgot some minor details that are important to know. Along with being a responsible voter this is another area I want to be more educated on. I do hold our politicians responsible for the direction of our country. With that in mind it finally dawned on me that perhaps I should hold myself accountable in understanding what their jobs are and what they’re each responsible for. So as I learn I thought it be a perfect article for those of you that are also somewhat curious.

The United States Congress: The Senate and House of Representatives

I usually hear that the Senate represents our Nation’s best interests while the House each states or the geographic areas that elected them. Senators serve 6 years and their positions are normally considered more prestigious and they go on to become President or Vice President. House members are elected by geographic areas and only serve 2 years. In a way they’re constantly campaigning and this helps them stay in touch with the people. Senators give advice to the President on presidential appointments and can also confirm or reject them. For example, the Supreme Court and international positions like US Ambassadors and UN positions. The House handles our government’s revenue and spending. This is why they are currently in discussions with the President over our fiscal budget.

If you’re wondering how a bill becomes a law it happens when either house proposes one and the other votes in agreement with a majority vote. The president then signs it or vetoes it (see vetoing powers below for more details).

Congress is made up of 2 houses; the upper house, Senate and lower house, House of Representatives. Both are located in Washington DC, our capitol. We vote for every position in congress. A total of 535 members; there are 100 in the senate and each serves 6 years and 435 in the House of Representatives where they serve 2 years.

Why 2 branches of Congress and why does the House have more members?Seal_of_the_United_States_Congress

Our first congress was formed by twelve members from the thirteen British Colonies. On July 4, 1776 (Independence Day) the Second Continental Congress met to adopt the Declaration of Independence and the name United States of America was born. You probably remember this era…the Revolutionary War. Shortly after winning, our Founding Fathers realized Congress needed to be split into two to adequately represent the nation so they created two overlapping government powers. In order to keep one from abusing its power two separate spheres of authority were formed. The two branches of congress were formed in order to create a sort of check and balances within the legislature. The institutional differences stem from several things like the size of the bodies, the powers prescribed to each in the constitution, the use of rules and the leadership structure.

Key Differences: Our Founding Fathers did not want them to be carbon copies of each other
  • Length of term: The House runs for election every two years. The Senators are elected for six year terms
  • Minimum age requirement: The house is 25 while the senate is 30
  • The House is elected by and represents limited group of citizens living in geographically defined districts within each state.
  • The Senators are elected by and represent all voters of their state.
  • The House considers how a bill will impact the people of their district while Senators tend to consider how the bill will impact the nation.
Balanced Government

A key to understanding congress is balance. Our Founding Fathers wanted to keep the government in balance. They did this by balancing institutions against each other and by balancing powers among the three branches: Congress, the President and the Supreme Court. No one part of government dominates the other.

Powers of Congress

According to the Constitution congress can “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the forgoing powers and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United State or in any department or officer thereof.” The Constitution is what sets forth the powers of congress and over the years amendments have been added.

  • Lay and collect taxes, duties, imposes and exercise taxes to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.
  • Authorize taxation on citizens, spending and taxation on income taxes
  • Borrow money on the credit of the United States
  • Regulate commerce with foreign nations and among states and coin money
  • Issue patents and copy rights
  • Fix standards of weights and measures
  • Establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court
  • Admit new states into the Union
  • Oversee other government branches including any investigations of the President
  • Exclusive power of removal allowing impeachment and removal of the president, federal judges and other federal officers.
  • Exclusive power to declare war, raise and maintain the armed forces and make rules for the military.
Veto Power

I don’t know about you but when I hear the word “veto” I get excited that something big is going to happen. I often didn’t give thought into whether a veto was right or not…one reason I’m working on becoming more knowledgeable. So, the Constitution gives the power of veto to congress along with the president. Vetoes are often used to make changes to bills so that all branches of the government are in agreement or at least the majority of them are. Once a bill is submitted to congress they vote on whether or not to pass the bill along to the president. Once it goes to the President he has three options, sign it into law, veto it, or ignore it. He has ten days to sign the bill or it has to go back to congress. If the president vetoes it and it goes back to congress it can still be passed into law by a 2/3 majority vote. With 435 members in the House it takes 290 approvals and in the Senate it only takes 67 votes since they only have 100 members. If there’s a split vote in the Senate than the Vice President casts the deciding vote.

So what do you think? That wasn’t too tough was it? I honestly do feel that all men should know more about this before being so quick to blame our nation’s leaders. How do we know who to hold responsible if we don’t know their separation of duties? For our financial deficit the President is ultimately responsible since he holds the most power but it’s us, the people, who vote him in. Along with Senators and House members of Congress that still have a say in our nations direction. If I’m going to be honest I have to say that I’ve probably spent more time playing fantasy football than tuning into Washington DC. I’m not saying the amount of time needs to be equal, but the weight of knowledge and time invested in that should be.




  1. Good post John. My undergrad was in History, so I’ve liked following politics for some time. I often have wondered what the Founding Fathers would think of our current situation. Something tells me they would not care for it much.

    • I agree John! I think one of the biggest problems now is that our politicians don’t know how to relate to the common man. The majority of them grew up comfortably and worked professions like law. We need more diversify in DC.

  2. Todd Mayfield says

    I always like knowing the “why” behind government and the thinking of it’s structure hundreds of years ago. Thanks John!

  3. Before the political process got so, well, political and back when serving your constituents wasn’t a 6 figure salary, representatives used to live together in boarding houses. The system was set up to encourage Congressmen from different parts of the country and different political beliefs to get to know each other and better understand each other’s view points.
    It seems to me that something like that would be better than how Congress behaves now.

    • I agree! Politics has become prestigious and self-gaining. I don’t think that’s how our Founding Fathers envisioned it being. It’s supposed to be positions of serving fellow Americans and not lining ones pocket.

  4. I enjoyed reading this article. It clarified a lot of things I was a little hazy on.

    I have a question about the vote in the houses to pass a bill over a presidential veto. You mentioned that the House and Senate both need a majority of votes to overcome the veto, but the numbers you cite are both more than a majority, 290 for the House and 67 for the Senate..

  5. Great post!
    Another interesting fact is that the Senate was actually designed for bills to be hard to pass. The idea of a bicameral (2 bodied) Congress was to ensure that laws weren’t made at ridiculous rates, but to require much cognitive planning to ensure the best result.

    The idea of the Senate being the place where bills are typically stopped is echoed through monetary bills only being allowed in the House. The House is constructed to be more active, while the Senate is more contemplative.

    • Very good points! I remember reading that this set up also evolved over the first couple decades after Independence. Our Founding Fathers did a good job and certainly had the future in mind.

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