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United States House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is the lower house of the United States Congress, whose upper house is the United States Senate.

House of Representatives chamber

Members of the House are elected for a term of two years. The 435 seats in the House are apportioned among the fifty states by population, as determined by a decennial census. Members are elected from districts through a first past the post method. Consequently, disputes over the boundaries of the districts, which must be redrawn after each census, can be particularly contentious. Subject to constitutional requirements established by case law, and in some states to review by the United States Department of Justice to ensure compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, the government of each state draws the boundaries for the House districts within the state's borders.

If a vacancy occurs in a House seat between elections, it may be filled only by a special election.

Presently the state delegations in the House range from fifty-three members for California, to one each for Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. There are also delegates without voting rights (except in committee votes) from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Apportionment of House seats among the states changed slightly with the 108th Congress elected on November 5, 2002, which took office in January, 2003. That Congress, and the four that follow, have been reapportioned on the basis of the April 1, 2000, United States Census. (See complete apportionment numbers in United States Congress.)

The House is presided over by the Speaker of the House, who is elected from among the members. In matters of legislation it is essentially co-equal with the Senate, with the exception of the rule provided by the Constitution that all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.

Because of the large size of the House of Representatives, much of the power of the House is in the committees. The House Committee on Rules is particularly powerful because each bill submitted to the floor of the house must have a rule assigned by the committee which limits the amount of debate and more importantly specifies what amendments can or cannot be allowed in the course of the debate. The rule approved by the Rules Committee is subject to acceptance or rejection by a vote of the full House.

Another important committee is the House Committee on Ways and Means which is responsible for taxation and is particularly powerful because of the constitutional requirement (in Article 1, Section 7) that bills raising revenue shall originate in the House. The House Committee on Appropriations is another important committee whose power derives from its ability to consider funding for government projects.

Unlike senators, most House members have little individual power, and typically will ally themselves in informal caucuses with other members from similar districts.

The House chamber is located in the north wing of the United States Capitol, in Washington, DC.

Table of contents

History In New York City on April 1, 1789 the House held its first quorum and elected Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania as the first House Speaker.

During the 108th Congress (2003-2005)


+Republicans: 229 -Independent: 1 (Bernie Sanders[?] (I-VT) is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.)
*Democrats: 205 +

A Cable TV Viewer's Guide to the House Minding the House can be a rewarding experience for those with time to spare.

Since about 1980 or so, C-SPAN, the cable television network, has televised the House proceedings live. Also, the Official Reporters of Debates take down every word spoken on the House floor, and the heavily redacted transcripts of the proceedings can be found in the Congressional Record[?]. (The Congressional Record is also printed daily.)

The House, when in session, generally convenes at 12:00 Noon (Eastern Time) and continues until adjornment late in the day. The first thing one notices about the House chamber is that most of the seats in the chamber are empty most of the time. Most Members of Congress ("members") are usually busy attending committee meetings, working in their offices, or doing other things while the House is in session. If there is a floor vote, or a quorum call, the electronic voting system is activated and a sequence of bells rings throughout the House side of the Capitol and in the House office building complex. When the bells ring, members flock to the House floor, typically travelling the one-block distance from their offices by foot or by electric trolley. During the last few minutes of the 15 minutes usually allotted for an electronically recorded vote, the chamber fills with members and just as quickly empties again after the vote. It can be politically damaging at home if a member misses too many votes, and the political leadership therefore tries to schedule votes during times when members are likely to be around. Sometimes several votes are held all at once at the end of the day. Fridays usually mean short sessions, no sessions, and/or no votes. This is so that members who live on the other side of the country can fly home for the weekend. Members also have to punch in for quorum calls, which can be demanded by any member if (as is usually the case) fewer members than a quorum are present on the floor.


Members vote by inserting a plastic voting card, which doubles as a photo ID, into terminals located on the backs of seats in the House chamber. The member presses a red button to vote "No" or "Nay," a green button to vote "Aye" or "Yea," and a yellow button to vote "Present" (i.e. the member abstains from voting) or to register his or her presence at a quorum call. Members' names are displayed on a blue, backlit panel above the Speaker's chair, and when a member votes, a red, green, or yellow light appears adjacent to his or her name. Displays on the side walls of the chamber display a running vote total.

If the voting system is down, either the clerk calls the roll and members enunciate their votes, or a "teller" vote is held in which the members fill our red or green or yellow voting cards and give them to the clerk.

A Typical Day's Proceedings

Every two years at the beginning of a session of Congress, the House adopts the same Rules of the House as was in force during the preceding Congress. But most of the rules in the book are hopelessly antiquated and are ignored.

At 12:00 Noon, the Speaker walks into the chamber and gavels the House to order. The Chaplain, or some guest clergy member from someone's home district, offers a prayer. After the prayer, a period for "one-minute speeches" takes place. A member who wishes to give a one-minute speech is recognized by the Speaker: "For what purpose does the gentleman [gentlewoman] from [state] arise?" "I ask unanimous consent to address the House for one minute and to revise and extend my remarks." "Without objection, it is so ordered. The gentleman is recognized."

(If the Speaker of the House does not feel like presiding for whatever reason, he appoints a member of his party as Speaker Pro Tempore.)

Two things of note:

  1. Much House business is conducted by "unanimous consent." Any member may object, but nobody usually does.
  2. To "revise and extend" one's remarks means that the member may submit remarks in written form to be printed in the Congressional Record. What the member puts in the Congressional Record may be longer or shorter or completely different from what was actually said on the floor -- the only verbatim account of the proceedings would be a videotape recorded from C-SPAN.

After the one minute speeches, the House might typically proceed to consider a "rule," or a resolution stating how much time is allotted to debate a particular bill. Rules are made by the Committee on Rules. (In the press, it is the House Rules Committee or the House [Blank] Committee, officially it is the Committee on [Blank].) A rule may provide that amendments to the bill are allowed (an "open rule") or restricted (a "closed rule").

A rule might say something like this:
House Resolution 999
"Resolved, that at any time after the adoption of this resolution the Speaker may declare the House resolved into the Committee of the Whole House on the state of the Union for consideration of the bill H.R. 9999, the [XXX] Act. General debate shall be confined to the bill and shall not exceed one hour equally divided and controlled by the chairman and ranking minority member of the Committee on [XXX] . After general debate the bill shall be considered for amendment under the five-minute rule. At the conclusion of consideration of the bill for amendment the Committee shall rise and report the bill to the House with such amendments as may have been adopted. Any Member may demand a separate vote in the House on any amendment adopted in the Committee of the Whole to the bill. The previous question shall be considered as ordered on the bill and amendments thereto to final passage without intervening motion except one motion to recommit with or without instructions."

What all this means is, that the House first forms itself into the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union. When sitting as the Committee of the Whole, a quorum is 100 members instead of 218, and a limit of five minutes of debate are allowed for or against any specific amendment to the bill being considered. You can tell whether the House is convened as the House or the Committee of the Whole by noting the position of the Mace (the pole with the silver eagle on top which is situated on the left side of the Speaker's podium). If the Mace is placed atop its pedestal, the House is in session; if placed in a lower position, this means the Committee of the Whole is in session. (The Mace is not visible in the above photo of the House chamber, indicating that the House was not then in session.)

After all the amendments to the bill are voted on, and before the bill itself is voted on, there is usually a "motion to recommit" the bill back to the committee from whence it came (to kill the bill). The vote on a motion to recommit is usually more indicative of how Members really feel about a bill than the final vote on passage. Many members who are against a bill will vote for the motion to recommit and then vote to pass it once the vote to recommit is lost. That way they can tell the constituents back home about how they favored the legislation all along.

After the day's business, and before adjournment, there is a period called "special orders" during which members may reserve time, as much as an hour, to speak. There is nobody in the chamber at 8 P.M., but the cameras don't usually show the empty seats: the members can play to the C-SPAN audience, especially if the member's district is on Pacific time.

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