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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: The two chambers of Congress were designed to please different interests, and those differences still ruffle feathers today

From left, Ernest Williams, Max Schachter, Dr. Moira Szilagyi, Amy Swearer and police chief Jeri Williams are sworn in as witnesses on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Protecting America’s Children From Gun Violence” on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C.  (ANNA ROSE LAYDEN/The New York Times)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?

The United States has a two-chamber, or bicameral, legislature: the Senate and the House of Representatives, which are set up different ways under the Constitution.

It was the result of “the Great Compromise” the Framers of the Constitution reached to balance competing interests of the 13 states that made up the new nation.

At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the new nation’s Congress had a single chamber established by the Articles of Confederation and with limited powers. It could settle disputes between states, conduct foreign affairs and wage war, but couldn’t levy a nationwide tax, raise an army or enforce laws. Each state sent delegates to the Confederation Congress, but delegates cast a single vote for their state and any new law needed approval of at least nine of the 13 states.

Four years after the American Revolution ended, the Confederation Congress was struggling to meet the needs of the new nation, and a constitutional convention was called to make changes. The delegates wrote a whole new constitution, and the first article dealt with Congress.

Large states wanted a Congress with the number of representatives from each state based on population. Smaller states wanted a Congress in which each state had equal say in laws governing the new republic.

The two-chamber compromise attempted to give both sides something they wanted. Seats in the House of Representatives would be determined by population, although each state was guaranteed at least one. Seats in the Senate would be equally divided, with two to each state.

As former British subjects, many Americans were familiar with the two chambers in Parliament: the House of Commons, where members are elected, and the House of Lords, where membership was an inherited right of the nobility. But the new nation didn’t have nobility, so the framers gave the right of selecting senators to the states.

Members of the House would be sent to Congress by direct election every two years. They had to be at least 25 years old.

Members of the Senate would be chosen by each state’s Legislature and serve six years, with elections staggered so that a third of the members’ terms expired every two years. They had to be at least 30 years old.

James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, explained the differences for senators in the Federalist Paper No. 62, saying they would be older, have more knowledge and “stability of character,” and that allowing the states to select the members to that chamber gave them “an agency in the formation of the federal government.”

The differences between the chambers would guard against what he called “improper” legislation, he wrote.

“No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people and then a majority of the states,” Madison wrote. The Senate would be less likely “to yield to the impulse of violent passions and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.”

The arrangement sometimes could cause problems by allowing smaller states to block legislation, he conceded, but governments are more likely to get into trouble by passing too many laws than by not passing enough.

The first Congress had 65 representatives and 26 senators. Both grew as the nation did, and the number of representatives eventually was capped at 435 in 1929. States can lose or gain House seats every 10 years after the census is conducted. After the 2020 U.S. Census, a House member represents about 761,000 people, on average.

But each state still gets two senators, whether it’s California with nearly 40 million people or Wyoming with about 577,000 people, causing some to complain the Senate is anti-democratic. The Framers of the Constitution would likely agree, because they were creating a republic and the Senate was set up as a check on the more democratic House.

In the late 1800s, some states began allowing voters to choose their senators, and the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1912, required popular election of senators in all states.

Although a law requires a simple majority in each chamber, the Senate has a rule allowing one or more members to filibuster, or block some types of legislation with the threat of unlimited debate, unless at least 60 senators agree to block that move. The House had a similar rule until 1842.

That means a simple majority in the House can pass almost any legislation, but a super-majority is needed in the Senate to allow a vote on controversial bills when one party holds only a slim majority. An example of that recently was the tough gun control legislation House Democrats were able to pass that wasn’t considered by the Senate. That chamber instead passed a more conservative bill that offered support for mental health care and “red flag” laws if states want to adopt them. The House then passed the Senate bill, even though many Democrats described it as inadequate, because it was that or nothing.