The United States Constitution divides the powers of the federal government into the executive, judicial and legislative branches. The legislature enacts laws, the executive branch carries out those laws and the judicial branch ensures the legality of the laws. The legislative branch was modeled on the British system, which consisted of the House of Lords and House of Commons. The American version of the House of Commons is the House of Representatives, members of which have always been elected by the people. The Senate originally was more akin to the House of Lords, since senators were appointed by state legislatures rather than elected. A 1913 amendment changed the law, requiring senators to be elected.
Senators must be at least 30 years of age and a U.S. citizen for at least nine years. A representative must be at least 25 and a citizen for at least seven years.
Each state elects two senators regardless of its population. The House of Representatives, however, reflects each state’s population, since the number of representatives from each state is proportional to the population. Each state has at least one representative. Senators represent their entire states, but Representatives are elected from districts within the state. The Senate consists of 100 voting members, and the House consists of 435 voting members. Territories and the District of Columbia may elect delegates, but they do not have voting privileges except in committee.
If a seat becomes vacant in the House, a special election will determine the new representative. If the vacancy is in the Senate, the state’s governor may appoint a replacement without holding an election.
The House initiates all impeachment proceedings, but only the Senate has the power to try the cases. Each chamber has the power to establish its own procedural rules, censure or discipline its members and determine whether they are qualified and duly elected. Legislation for tax bills originates in the House, although the Senate may make amendments. Both chambers must pass the bill in identical form. The Senate has the power to participate in foreign policy, since the Constitution requires a 2/3 vote in the Senate before any treaty becomes effective. The Senate also “advises and consents” to presidential nominations to fill major executive or judicial positions.
The Senate often declares a session in recess rather than adjourning at day’s end, meaning that a legislative day in the Senate can encompass multiple calendar days. The House, however, typically adjourns each day it is in session. “Roll call” votes may only be requested in the House after the completion of a division or voice vote, but may be requested in the Senate at virtually any time. The House always restricts debate time, but an individual Senator may be given an unlimited amount of time for debate.