House of Representatives

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House of Representatives

The lower chamber, or larger branch, of the U.S. Congress, or a similar body in the legislature of many of the states.

The U.S. House of Representatives forms one of the two branches of the U.S. Congress. The House comprises 435 members who are elected to two-year terms. The U.S. Constitution vests the House with the sole power of introducing bills for raising revenue, making it one of the most influential components of the U.S. government.


According to Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, a member of the House must be at least twenty-five years of age and a U.S. citizen for seven years before his or her election. In addition, representatives must reside in the state that they represent. Members of the House are generally called congressmen, congresswomen, or representatives.

During the First Congress (1789–91), the House had sixty-five members, each representing approximately 30,000 people. Until 1929 the law required the number of members in the House to increase in proportion to the national population. That year Congress passed the Permanent Apportionment Act (46 Stat. 21, 26, 27), which limited the size of the House to 435 representatives. During the 1990s each House member represented an average of 572,000 people.

Reapportionment or redistribution of House seats—a process whereby some states lose House representatives while others gain them—occurs after census figures have been collected. The Constitution requires that a census be conducted every ten years (art. 1, § 2). Each state must have at least one representative.

Puerto Rico elects a nonvoting resident commissioner to the House for a four-year term. Nonvoting delegates from American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands are elected to a two-year term. These special representatives are allowed to participate in debates and vote in committees.


House committees are responsible for most of the work involved in the creation of new laws. After a bill is introduced in the House, it is referred to a committee. The committee studies the bill and may hold public hearings on it or suggest amendments. If the bill has the support of a majority of committee members, it is reported to the House, which then debates it and votes on it. The Committee on Rules determines how long a bill may be debated and the procedure by which it is amended.

The number of standing, or permanent, House committees has varied over time. In 1800 five standing committees existed. By 1910 the number of standing committees had increased to sixty-one. Between 1950 and the 1990s, the total stabilized at nineteen to twenty-two. During the 104th Congress (1995–97), there were nineteen standing committees in the House: Agriculture; Appropriations; Banking and Financial Services; Budget; Commerce; Economic and Educational Opportunities; Government Reform and Oversight; House Oversight; International Relations; Judiciary; National Security; Resources; Rules;

The First U.S. House of Representatives, 1789–1791: Setting Precedent for Future Lawmakers

Today the U.S. House of Representatives is known as an institution with established traditions and procedures. It has 435 members, standing committees, rules for evaluating legislation, and well-defined relations with the Senate, the president, and the executive agencies of the federal government. However, the structure and operations of the House have not always been well established. In 1789, as it began the task of creating laws for a new nation, the House had no precedent to guide it.

The House of Representatives first convened April 1, 1789, in New York City. Representatives slowly made the long journey to New York, and the First House eventually reached a total of sixty-five members. Fifty-five representatives belonged to the Federalist Party, and ten allied themselves with the Anti-Federalist party.

The new House members were not without experience in legislative matters. Fifty-two had served in a state legislature, the Continental Congress, or the Constitutional Convention. Their legislative experience proved invaluable during this First Congress, because the Constitution gave them only limited guidance on how to establish the House. It was up to the representatives to work out the details of an effective lawmaking body.

On its first day in session, the House elected its officers, choosing Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania, as its first Speaker. On succeeding days it established rules relating to debate, legislation, committees, and cooperation with the Senate. It also defined the duties of the Speaker, modeling that position after the Speaker of the English House of Commons. The Speaker was to preside over House sessions, preserve order, resolve disputed points, and appoint certain committees.

The lack of precedent made operations difficult for the First House. James Madison, of Virginia, a principal Framer of the Constitution and a leading member of the First House, complained, "In every step the difficulties arising from novelty are severely experienced …. Scarcely a day passes without some striking evidence of the delays and perplexities springing merely from the want of precedents." Madison was confident that the House would resolve its problems, however, concluding, "Time will be a full remedy for this evil."

The House gradually found ways to improve the problems cited by Madison and others. One important solution was the development of committees. The first legislation passed by the House was created by the Committee of the Whole—that is, the entire House acting as one large committee. Representatives soon found that this was a cumbersome way to pass legislation. When meeting as the Committee of the Whole, they could consider only one piece of legislation at a time. Moreover, the chamber often became bogged down by seemingly endless debate as each member sought to join the argument.

The House responded to this predicament by creating temporary committees to research and draft legislation, forming a separate committee for each bill. This relieved the entire chamber of the necessity of debating every detail of each piece of legislation. The contemporary House, by contrast, has permanent, or standing, committees, each of which handles many bills. The sole standing committee to come out of the first House was the Committee on Elections.

With these and other changes, the First House of Representatives was able to accomplish many tasks of vital importance to the young nation. Together with the Senate, it passed sixty statutes, including laws that founded the Departments of War, Treasury, and Foreign Affairs. The House also established its power to give limited orders to executive agencies, such as when it requested Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to report on issues such as the federal debt, plans to promote manufacturing, and the establishment of a national mint. No less important, under the leadership of James Madison, it drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

The House has changed greatly in more than two centuries, but the foundation built by the first representatives remains. Their innovations have become flexible traditions that allow the House to maintain order even as it evolves and adapts to new situations.

Science; Small Business; Standards of Official Conduct; Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans' Affairs; and Ways and Means.

Each committee has an average of eight to ten subcommittees. Committee membership is determined by a vote of the entire House, and committee chairs are elected by the majority party. The House may also create special committees, including investigative committees.


The Speaker of the House has the most powerful position in the House and is traditionally the leader of the majority party. The Speaker interprets and applies House rules and refers bills to committees. Party leadership positions in the House include the majority and minority leaders, or floor leaders, and the majority and minority whips.

The elected officers of the House include the clerk, the sergeant at arms, and the doorkeeper. The clerk oversees the major legislative duties of the House. He or she takes all votes and certifies the passage of bills, calls the House to order at the commencement of each Congress, administers legislative information and reference services, and supervises television coverage of House floor proceedings. The sergeant at arms, a member of the U.S. Capitol Police Board, is the chief law enforcement officer for the House. The sergeant maintains order in the House and arranges formal ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations and joint sessions of Congress. The doorkeeper monitors admission to the House and its galleries and organizes the distribution of House documents.

Further readings

U.S. House. 1994. Committee on House Administration. History of the United States House of Representatives, 1789–1994. 103d Cong. 2d sess. H.Doc. 103-324.


Apportionment; Congress of the United States; Constitution of the United States.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, government. The popular branch of the legislature.
     2. The Constitution of the United States, art. 1, s. 2, 1, provides, that "the house of representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of, the several states; and the electors of each state, shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature."
     3. The general qualifications of electors of the assembly, or most numerous branch of the legislature, in the several state governments, are, that they be of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, and free resident citizens of the state in which they vote, and have paid taxes: several of the state constitutions have prescribed the same or higher qualifications, as to property, in the elected, than in the electors.
     4. The constitution of the United States, however, requires no evidence of property in the representatives, nor any declarations as to his religious belief. He must be free from undue bias or dependence, by not holding any office under the United States. Art. 1, s. 6, 2.
     5. By the constitutions of the several states, the most numerous branch of the legislature generally bears the name of the house of representatives. Vide Story on Constitution of the United States, chap. 9 1 Kent's Com. 228.
     6. By the Act of June 22, 1842, c. 47, it is provided,
     Sec. 1. That from and after the third day of March, one thousand eight hundred and forty-three, the house of representatives shall be composed of members elected agreeably to a ratio of one representative for every seventy thousand six hundred and eighty persons in each state, and of one additional representative for each state having a fraction greater than one moiety of the said ratio, computed according to the rule prescribed by the constitution of the United States; that is to say: within the state of Maine, seven; within the state of New Hampshire, four; within the state of Massachusetts, ten; within the state of Rhode Island, two within the state of Connecticut, four; within the state of Vermont, four; within the state of New York, thirty-four; within the state of New Jersey, five; within the state of Pennsylvania, twenty-four; within the state of Delaware, one; within the state of Maryland, six; within the state of Virginia, fifteen; within the state of North Carolina, nine; within the state of South Carolina, seven; within the state of Georgia, eight; within the state of Alabama, seven; within state of Louisiana, four; within the state of Mississippi, four; within the state of Tennessee, eleven; within the state of Kentucky, ten; within the state of Ohio, twenty-one; within the state of Indiana, ten; within the state of Illinois, seven; within the state of Missouri, five; within the state of Arkansas, one; within the State of Michigan, three.
     7.-2. That in every case where a state is entitled to more than one representative, the number to which each state shall be entitled under this apportionment shall be elected by districts. composed of contiguous territory, equal in number to the number of representatives to which said state may be entitled, no one district electing more than one representative.
     8. For the constitutions of the houses of representatives in the several states, the reader is referred to the names of the states in this work. Vide Congress.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.