A Guide to the Legislative Branch of US Government

Quick Cheat Sheet About the House and Senate

US Capitol Building and Dome (East Front) - Washington DC
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Before any bill is even debated by the full membership of the House or Senate, it must first successfully make its way the congressional committee system. Depending on its subject and content, each proposed bill is sent to one or more related committees. For example, a bill introduced in the House allocating federal funds for agricultural research might be sent to the Agriculture, Appropriations, Ways and Means and Budget Committees, plus others as deemed appropriate by the Speaker of the House. In addition, both the House and Senate may also appoint special select committees to consider bills relating to specific issues.

Representatives and Senators often try to be assigned to committees they feel best to serve the interests of their constituents. For example, a representative from a farming state like Iowa might seek assignment to the House Agriculture Committee. All representatives and senators are assigned to one or more committees and may serve on a variety of committees during their terms in office. The congressional committee system is the "burial ground" for many bills.

The US House of Representatives

Known as the "lower" house of the legislative branch, the House of Representatives currently has 435 members. Each member gets one vote on all bills, amendments and other measures brought before the House. The number of representatives elected from each state is determined by the state's population through the process of "apportionment." Each state must have at least one representative. Apportionment is recalculated every ten years according to the results of the decennial U.S. census. Members of the House represent the citizens of their local congressional districts. Representatives serve two-year terms, with elections held every two years.


As specified in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, representatives:

  • Must be least 25 years of age
  • Must have been a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years
  • Must be a legal resident of the state he or she is elected to represent

Powers Reserved to the House

  • To vote on charges of impeachment
  • To initiate bills involving the raising of revenue, such as tax bills and the annual appropriations (spending) bills of the annual federal budget

House Leadership

  • Speaker of the House
  • Majority Leader
    Leads the majority party (the party with the majority of votes in the House)
    Assists the Speaker of the House in making committee appointments
    Schedules floor debate on bills
    Creates and maintains the House agenda
  • Minority Leader
    Leads the opposition party (the party with the minority of votes in the House)
    Confers with the Majority Leader
    Formulates minority party response to the majority party policy and agenda

The US Senate

Known as the "upper" house of the legislative branch, the Senate is currently comprised of 100 senators. Each state is allowed to elect two senators. Senators represent all citizens of their states. Senators serve 6-year terms, with one-third of the senators elected every two years.


As specified in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, senators:

  • Must be at least 30 years of age
  • Must have been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years at the time of their election to the Senate
  • Must be a legal resident of the state they are elected to represent

Powers Reserved to the Senate

Senate Leadership

  • The Vice President of the United States: Serves as president (presiding chairman) of the Senate
  • President Pro tempore: Presides over the Senate in the absence of the vice president; Is selected by the majority party
  • Majority and Minority Leaders: Lead their respective party delegations; maintain the Senate agenda
  • Majority and Minority Whips: Attempt to make sure party members vote for bills supported by their party.