What Is the US House of Representatives?

16 December, 2018

Many news stories about the United States government tell about Congress and American lawmakers. The U.S. Congress is the nation's legislature. It is made of two parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives is called "the House" for short. And sometimes it is called "the People's House."

That term was chosen as a nickname because the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787 set few restrictions on who could serve there. They wanted the House to be as close as possible to everyday Americans.

One of the writers of the Constitution, James Madison, wrote about the House years later. He noted, "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."

In other words, House members can be born in the United States or in any other country. They can be as young as 25 years old, or -- as some members have been -- into their 90s. They do not have to be rich. And they do not have to belong to any religion.

However, in reality, for many years only free white men were permitted to serve as lawmakers. Women and other groups had limited legal rights, to say the least. However, as laws changed over time, members of the House also changed.

The website of the U.S. House of Representatives notes, "The House's first African-American member was elected in 1870. The first Hispanic member took office in 1877, the first woman member in 1917, the first Asian-American member in 1957, and the first African-American woman member in 1969."

The country's Constitution-writers also made the terms for House members short, compared to the president and senators – only two years. One reason is so House members would have to stay in close contact with the people who live in the area they represent. Otherwise, voters would soon have a chance to push them out of office.

Speaking of voters...

One of the other central ideas about the House of Representatives is that known as "proportional representation." The idea was that each member of the House would represent 30,000 U.S. citizens. That situation would enable states with large populations to send more lawmakers to Congress.

But the Constitution-writers of 1787 struggled with how to count a state's population. At that time, more than 650,000 enslaved people lived in the country. After much debate, the Constitution-writers decided the enslaved population would be only partly counted for legal and tax purposes. The decision is known as the 3/5 compromise.

The first U.S. House of Representatives had 67 members. As the country's population grew, the number of House members increased – from 105, to 142, and so on. After the approval of constitutional amendments following the Civil War, most formerly enslaved people were fully counted in the state's population.

The House continued to grow into the 20th century. Finally, in 1929, lawmakers officially limited the total number of House members to 435. Today, each member of the House represents about 700,000 people.

What do members of the House do?

Members of the House, along the senators, develop national laws. They also help voters who live in their districts deal with problems related to the government.

And members of the House have other important jobs. They can investigate people with government ties who are suspected of wrongdoing. For example, members of the House have looked into cases of bribery, corruption, and abuses of power.

In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee demanded information from private citizens suspected of communist activity. But critics said the committee had gone too far. In time, the Supreme Court limited Congress' power to investigate issues related to the law, instead of people's private beliefs.

Over its history, the House has brought impeachment charges against government officials, including presidents, more than 60 times. But only a few officials were removed from office. Of those, some were federal judges accused of being drunk at court.

‘Power of the purse' and war powers

Members of Congress also have what some call "the power of the purse." In other words, they control how the government spends public money.

The House of Representatives website explains that the Constitution-writers wanted to put spending decisions in the hands of the people's representatives in Congress.

Similarly, the Constitution-writers did not want the chief executive to decide alone whether to take the country to war. They wanted to make war difficult to enter. They also wanted to prevent the president from going to war because of political or personal interests. So they wrote that the Congress had the power to declare war.

But in truth, lawmakers have only officially "declared war" 11 times. The last time was in 1942. Since then, Congress has simply approved the use of military force.

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

merit - n. a good quality or feature that deserves to be praised

profession - n. the act of declaring or saying something openly

proportional - adj. having a size, number, or amount that is directly related to or appropriate for something

impeachment - n. the charge of a crime done while in office

purse - n. an amount of money that a person, organization, or government has available to use

executive - n. a person who manages or directs other people in a company or organization