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The Structure of Congress


The Structure of Congress, page 2

page 1 of 3

Article I of the Constitution describes the legislative branch, called Congress. After hashing out the terms of the Great Compromise, the framers created a bicameral legislature, with a lower chamber called the House of Representatives and an upper chamber called the Senate.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is meant to be “the people’s house,” or the part of government most responsive to public opinion. Each state’s representation in the House is based on population, with each state getting at least one member. California has the most members (54), while several states, including Delaware, Vermont, Montana, and Alaska, each have only one member. Every member of the House represents a district within a state, and each district has roughly the same population (roughly 660,000 in 2006). Membership in the House is capped at 435.

To keep them responsive to the people, House members face reelection every two years, and the entire body is elected at the same time. A person must be twenty-five years old and a resident of the state he or she represents in order to run for a seat in the House.

The Senate

The framers envisioned the Senate as a body of statesmen who make decisions based on experience and wisdom, not on the unpredictable whims of the people. As a check on excessive democracy, only one-third of the Senate is elected every two years. The framers hoped that staggered elections of only portions of the Senate would prevent a single popular faction from taking control of the whole Senate in a single election. The framers of the Constitution were often wary of public opinion, so they attempted to structure the national government such that the public could never take control of it at one time. Also, because both the Senate and House must pass identical versions of a bill, the Senate can check any democratic excesses in the House.

Representation in the Senate is equal for every state: Each state has two senators. Senators serve six-year terms. The length of the term is supposed to insulate senators from public opinion and allow them to act independently. For nearly a hundred years, senators were appointed by the legislatures of the states they represented. The Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, gave the people the power to elect their senators directly. To serve in the Senate, a person must be at least thirty years old and live in the state he or she represents.

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