Residency Requirements for Congress

Why They Are Less Restrictive for the House of Representatives

U.S. Capitol building in Washington
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is where members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate work. Michael Marquand/Lonely Planet Images

The residency requirements for Congress contain one of the most unusual quirks in American politics: You don't even have to live in a congressional district to be elected to serve in that seat for the House of Representatives.

In fact, nearly two dozen members in the 435-member House live outside of their congressional districts, according to published reports. This sometimes happens because long-serving members see district lines redrawn and find themselves in a new district, The Washington Post noted.

What the Constitution Says

If you want to run for the House of Representatives, you must be at least 25 years of age, a citizen of the United States for at least seven years and "be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen,” according to the Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution

And that's it. There's nothing that requires a member of the House to live within their district's boundaries.

Notably Few Hurdles

According to the House Office of History, Art & Archives,

"The Constitution placed notably few hurdles between ordinary citizens and becoming a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The founders wanted the House to be the legislative chamber closest to the people—the least restrictive on age, citizenship, and the only federal office at the time subject to frequent popular election."

Members of the House are elected every two years, and generally, their re-election rate is very high.

Speaker Need Not Be a Member

Oddly enough, the Constitution doesn't even require the highest-ranking officer of the House—the speaker—to be a member.

When Speaker John Boehner stepped down the from the post in 2015, several pundits made the case that the House should bring in an outsider, even a dynamic (some would say bombastic) voice such as Donald Trump or former Speaker Newt Gingrich, to lead the disparate factions of the Republican Party. 

'Open to Merit'

James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers, stated:

“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.”

Senate Residency Requirements

The rules for serving in the U.S. Senate are a bit tighter. Though they, too, require members to live in the state they represent, U.S. senators are not elected by districts and represent their entire state.

Every state elects two people to serve in the Senate.

The Constitution also requires members of the Senate to be at least 30 years old and a citizen of the United States for at least nine years.

Legal Challenges and State Laws

The U.S. Constitution does not address residency requirements for local elected officials or members of state legislatures. It leaves the matter up to the states themselves; most require elected municipal and legislative officials to live in the districts where they were elected.

States cannot, however, enact laws requiring members of Congress to live in the districts they represent because state law cannot supersede the Constitution.

In 1995, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "qualifications clauses were intended to preclude the states from exercising any [power over Congressional requirements]" and, as a result, the Constitution "fix[es] as exclusive the qualifications in the Constitution."

At that time, 23 states had established term limits for their members of Congress; the Supreme Court decision made them null and void.

Subsequently, federal courts struck down residency requirements in California and Colorado.

[This article was updated in September 2017 by Tom Murse.]

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Gill, Kathy. "Residency Requirements for Congress." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, Kathy. (2020, August 27). Residency Requirements for Congress. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "Residency Requirements for Congress." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).