The U.S. House of Representatives

E Pluribus Unum in Action

USA, Columbia, Washington DC, Capitol Building
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The United States is a large, fractured, diverse and yet still unified nation, and few government bodies reflect the paradox that is this country better than the House of Representatives.

Key Takeaways: U.S. House of Representatives

  • The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the two legislative bodies in the United States federal government.
  • The House is currently made up of 435 representatives—referred to as congressmen or congresswomen—who serve an unlimited number of two-year terms. The number of representatives from each state is based on the state’s population.
  • As required by the Constitution, representatives must reside in the state from which they are elected, must have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and be at least 25 years old.
  • A representative’s primary duties include introducing, debating, and voting on bills, proposing amendments to bills, and serving on committees.
  • The House has the exclusive powers to initiate all tax and spending bills and to impeach federal officials. 

Metrics of the House

The House is the lower of the two legislative bodies in the U.S. government. It has 435 members, with the number of representatives per state dependent upon that state's population. House members serve two-year terms. Rather than represent their entire state, as Senate members do, they represent a specific district. This tends to give House members a closer link to their constituents—and more accountability, since they have but two years to satisfy voters before having to run for reelection.

Also referred to as a congressman or congresswoman, a representative’s primary duties include introducing bills and resolutions, offering amendments and serving on committees. 

Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, all sprawling but sparsely populated states, have just one representative each in the House; tiny states like Delaware and Vermont also send just one representative to the House. By contrast, California sends 53 representatives; Texas sends 32; New York sends 29, and Florida sends 25 representatives to Capitol Hill. The number of representatives each state is allotted is determined every 10 years in accordance with the federal census. Although the number has changed periodically through the years, the House has remained at 435 members since 1913, with shifts in representation occurring among different states.

The system of House representation based on district population was part of the Great Compromise of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which led to the Permanent Seat of Government Act establishing the nation's federal capital in Washington, DC. The House assembled for the first time in New York in 1789, moved to Philadelphia in 1790 and then to Washington, DC, in 1800.

The Powers of the House

While the Senate's more exclusive membership may make it seem the more powerful of the two chambers of Congress, the House is charged with a vital task: the power to raise revenue through taxes.

The Power of the Purse

The Constitution grants Congress— and the House of Representatives in particular—the “power of the purse,” the power to tax the people and spend public money to fund the operations of the national government. In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Massachusetts’ delegate Elbridge Gerry said that the House of Representatives “was more immediately the representatives of the people, and it was a maxim that the people ought to hold the purse-strings.”

In giving the House the power to tax and spend, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were, as they often were, heavily influenced by British history and custom. In the British Parliament, the House of Commons—the equivalent of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress—has the exclusive right to create taxes and spend that revenue, which is considered the ultimate check on royal authority. Indeed, the American colonists’ revolutionary cry of “No taxation without representation!” referred to the injustice of London imposing crippling taxes on them without the benefit of a voice in Parliament.

The constitutional provision making Congress the ultimate authority on government spending was approved by the Constitutional Convention with little debate. The framers were unanimous that Congress, as the representatives of the people, should be in control of public funds, not the president or executive branch agencies. Once again, this strongly-held belief was rooted in the framers’ experiences with England, where the king had wide latitude over spending the money once it had been raised.

The House of Representatives also has the power of impeachment, in which a sitting president, vice president or other civil officials such as judges may be removed for "high crimes and misdemeanors," as enumerated in the Constitution. The House is solely responsible for calling for impeachment. Once it decides to do so, the Senate tries that official to determine whether he or she should be convicted, which means automatic removal from office.

Leading the House

House leadership rests with the speaker of the house, usually a senior member of the majority party. The speaker applies House rules and refers bills to specific House committees for review. The speaker is also third in line to the presidency, after the vice president.

Other leadership positions include the majority and minority leaders who monitor legislative activity on the floor, and the majority and minority whips who ensure that House members vote according to their respective parties' positions.

The House Committee System

The House is divided into committees in order to tackle the complex and various matters on which it legislates. House committees study bills and hold public hearings, gathering expert testimony and listening to voters. If a committee approves a bill, it then puts it before the entire House for debate.

House committees have changed and evolved over time. Current committees include those on:

  • agriculture;
  • appropriations;
  • armed services;
  • the budget, education, and labor;
  • energy and commerce;
  • financial services;
  • foreign affairs;
  • homeland security;
  • House administration;
  • judiciary;
  • natural resources;
  • oversight and government reform;
  • rules;
  • science and technology;
  • small business;
  • standards of official conduct;
  • transportation and infrastructure;
  • veterans' affairs; and
  • ways and means.

In addition, House members may serve on joint committees with Senate members.

The "Raucous" Chamber

Given the shorter terms of House members, their relative proximity to their constituents and their larger numbers, the House is generally the more fractious and partisan of the two chambers. Its proceedings and deliberations, like those of the Senate, are recorded in the Congressional Record, ensuring transparency in the legislative process.

Updated by Robert Longley

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Your Citation
Trethan, Phaedra. "The U.S. House of Representatives." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Trethan, Phaedra. (2021, September 3). The U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved from Trethan, Phaedra. "The U.S. House of Representatives." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).