The U.S. House of Representatives

E Pluribus Unum in Action

USA, Columbia, Washington DC, Capitol Building
Tetra Images/Henryk Sadura/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

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.

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 re-election.

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 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.

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer who also works as a copy editor for the Camden Courier-Post. She formerly worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about books, religion, sports, music, films and restaurants.

Updated by Robert Longley