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Legislature, Structure of the House

congressional districts, Appropriations Committee, powerful people, economic diversity, administrative agencies

The House of Representatives is made up of 435 representatives—the number per state varies by population—elected every two years. Demonstrating the growth of the United States, today’s congresspersons represent more than 20 times the number of constituents as their predecessors did in the late 18th century. Today there is one representative for approximately every 621,000 residents, a much larger figure than the 30,000 residents the Constitution originally required for a congressional district. The framers of the Constitution intended that the congressional districts, which are usually substantially smaller units of representation than a state, would assure that all interests in the nation would be adequately represented. Thus these units reflect the geographic, social, and economic diversity of the American people.

The internal organization of the House is based on a system of committees and subcommittees. All representatives serve on several committees, and these committees consider all legislation before it is presented to the House as a whole. The committees work to transform ideas into detailed, complex bills.

The most important House committees are the Rules Committee, which decides when and for how long every bill will be debated and whether or not it can be amended; the Ways and Means Committee, which studies the president’s budget proposals and demands that administrative agencies justify their requests for money; and the Appropriations Committee, which allots money from the federal budget to support approved measures. Frequently the jurisdictions of committees and subcommittees overlap so that several subcommittees might examine a bill before it is voted on. For example, a single energy bill may be considered by the subcommittees on public works and transportation; science, space, and technology; and energy and commerce.

Because the committee process is very important, committee chairmen and chairwomen are some of the most powerful people in the House. In the past, committee chairs could prevent legislation supported by a majority from reaching the floor of the House. Chairs could either refuse to let a bill out of the committee or they could allot very little or no time for the committee to consider a bill. While committee chairs still retain some powers that regular committee members do not have—such as controlling when bills will be taken up and the hiring of committee staff—committee members are more likely to challenge chairs’ rulings. Until the 1970s representatives obtained committee chair positions through seniority—how many terms they had served. When the committees’ seniority rules were dismantled, committee members gained more freedom. Now committee chairs are elected by party caucuses.

Party caucuses (or conferences, as they are called by Republicans) are made up of all the House members of a party. At the beginning of each session of Congress, each caucus meets to select its officers and its nominees for House leadership positions. Caucuses also occasionally meet during a session to discuss the policies of the party and significant legislation. Caucuses can have significant influence on lawmaking, as the choice of a committee chairperson sympathetic to a certain piece of legislation often changes the fate of a particular bill.

The most powerful individual in the House is the Speaker of the House, who presides over the chamber, refers bills to committees, appoints representatives to special committees, and grants representatives the right to speak during chamber debates. The Speaker of the House is elected by the entire body and is always a member of the party with a majority of seats in the House. Other important posts in the House are the majority and minority floor leaders and their assistants, called whips. The floor leaders and whips are influential members whose function is to try to have representatives vote the way their political party suggests on key issues. Each party chooses its own floor leader and whips.

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