Requirements to be a US Representative

Why So Much Simpler Than for the Senate?

Members of the US House of Representative voting
US House of Representatives Votes To Elect A New Speaker. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of Congress, and it currently counts 435 men and women among its members. House members are popularly elected by constituents in their home states; they don't represent the entire state, but rather specific geographic districts within the state. House members serve two-year terms, but what does it take to be a representative in the first place, besides money, legions of loyal constituents, charisma, and the stamina to make it through a campaign?

According to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, House members must be:

  • at least 25 years of age.
  • a citizen of the United States for at least seven years prior to being elected.
  • a resident of the state he or she is chosen to represent.

In addition, the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits any person who has taken any federal or state oath swearing to support the Constitution, but later took part in a rebellion or otherwise aided any enemy of the U.S. from serving in the House or Senate.

No other requirements are specified in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. However, all Members must take an oath to support the U.S. Constitution before being allowed to exercise the duties of the office.

Discussion

Why are these requirements for being elected to the House so much less restrictive than the requirements for being elected to the Senate?

The Founding Fathers intended that the House be the chamber of Congress closest to the American people.

To help accomplish that, they placed decidedly few hurdles that might prevent any ordinary citizen from being elected to the House in the Constitution.

In Federalist 52, James Madison of Virginia wrote that, “Under these reasonable limitations, the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.”

State Residency

In creating the requirements to serve in the House of Representatives, the founders drew freely from British Law, which at the time, required members of the British House of Commons to live in the villages and towns they represented. That motivated the founders to include the requirement that Members of the House live in the state they represent in order to increase the likelihood that they would be familiar with the people’s interests and needs. The Congressional district system and the process of apportionment were developed later as the states dealt with how to fairly organize their congressional representation.

US Citizenship

When the founders were writing the U.S. Constitution, British law banned persons born outside England or the British Empire from ever being allowed to serve in the House of Commons. In requiring members of the House to have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, the founders felt they were balancing the need to prevent foreign interference in U.S. affairs and keeping the House close to the people. In addition, the founders did not want to discourage immigrants from coming to the new nation.

Age of 25

If 25 sounds young to you, consider that the founders first set the minimum age to serve in the House at 21, same as the voting age.

However, during the Constitutional Convention, delegate George Mason of Virginia moved to set the age at 25. Mason argued that some should pass between becoming free to manage one’s own affairs and managing the “affairs of a great nation.” Despite an objection from Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson, Mason’s amendment was approved by a vote of seven states to three.

Despite the 25 year age restriction, there have been rare exceptions. For example, William Claiborne of Tennessee became the youngest person to ever serve in the House when he was elected and seated in 1797 at the age of 22, Claiborne was allowed to serve under Article I, section 5 of the Constitution, which gives the House itself the authority to determine whether Members-elect are qualified to be seated. 

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer and a former copy editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.