The People on Capitol Hill
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The most important hill in America is not very steep. It is a gentle slope about 80 feet high in the center of Washington, D.C. People who work here call it "Capitol Hill" or just "The Hill."
The Hill is important because of the white stone Capitol building on top of the slope. Inside this building, the Congress of the United States meets to make the nation's laws.
Five Hundred Thirty-Five People with Different Ideas
Congress, like the nation itself, is made up of people who differ from each other. Some members of Congress agree with each other most of the time. Others disagree most of the time. But no two individuals in Congress either agree or disagree all of the time. This is the first important fact to keep in mind about the nation's lawmakers.
Look, for example, at Cardiss Collins and Orrin Hatch. They are as different as two people can be. In 1987 Cardiss Collins was a Democratic member of the House of Representatives. Orrin Hatch was a Republican member of the Senate.
The majority of citizens in Collins's Chicago, Illinois, district were black. Most of Hatch's Utah constituents were white. Collins believed in women's rights and more government aid for minorities. She consistently voted for legislation to protect the environment. Hatch believed in limiting government control and keeping taxes down. Hatch wanted more government funds to go to defense and less to social welfare programs. Collins preferred just the opposite.
And yet, as different as they were, Representative Collins and Senator Hatch sometimes voted for the same laws. Not very often, but once in a while.
There are 435 Representatives in one wing of the Capitol building, the House of Representatives. One hundred Senators are in the other wing, the Senate. Together, these two groups are called Congress. No law can be passed unless a majority of these lawmakers in both houses agree on it.
Despite all their differences, the people in congress realize the need to compromise. They bargain and trade with each other until enough votes can be found to pass a law. Every year, this process of give-and-take between 535 politicians creates over 500 laws, either new laws or changes in old laws.
Major Questions About Congress
The Constitution gives the Legislative Branch (Congress) first place in the United States system of government. It is the first branch to be mentioned. (Article I). It receives more than twice as many words as the Executive Branch (Article II) and over four times as many words as the Judicial Branch (Article III). Most questions about the organization and powers of Congress can be answered by studying Article I of the Constitution.
But first, before reading Article I, you should know the answers to four major questions:
1. Why do we have both Senators and Representatives, not just one or the other? There are two reasons. First, the people who wrote the Constitution were used to a two-house system of lawmakers. In England, the legislature had two houses. So did most of the American colonies.
Second, the writers of the Constitution saw this as a way of balancing the powers of the small and the large states. In the Senate, a state with a small population, such as Vermont, has two Senators. A state with a large population, such as California, has exactly the same number: two. But Vermont sends only one Representative to the House of Representatives, while California sends 45.
In other words, in the House, the voting power of a state depends on its population. In the Senate, however, the voting power of all states is the same.
2. Are there other differences between the Senate and the House? There are several very important differences. One house is much smaller than the other, and its members are elected for longer terms. One house has some power over treaties and Presidential appointments, while the other house has none. The house that lacks this power makes up for it with its special power over taxes and government spending.
The Vice-President presides (acts as chairperson) over one house. The presiding officer in the other house is the Speaker. Which house is which?
3. How do Congresspersons spend their time? The Constitution says nothing about this question. Members of Congress are not required to sit all day in their seats in the Capitol building. In fact, on most days, less than a third of their time is spent in the Senate or House chambers. That's why tourists see so many empty seats when they visit the nation's Capitol.
Senators and Representatives spend most of their time in the office buildings that surround the Capitol. They may be in their private offices answering letters or, more often, they are attending committee meetings. While in these meetings, they usually discuss the need for new laws.
When members of Congress are needed in the Capitol for a vote, bells and buzzers go off in every room of the office buildings. Then the lawmakers leave committee rooms and rush to catch a special underground train that takes them to the Capitol. Usually, they're on time to cast their vote or make a short speech.
4. Whom do Representatives represent? They represent the people who elected them to office. Senators represent all the people from their home state. Representatives represent people from their home districts. A district is an area within a state. The Constitution says the district may contain no fewer than 30,000 people. In 1987 the average district had a population of 519,000.
The people in a district are sometimes called a Representative's constituency. Within a constituency, there are different groups with different needs and opinions. A member of Congress tends to pay more attention to the needs of those groups that have the most voting power.
Facts About the Two Houses
How Many Members are There?
House of Representatives: 435
How is Membership Apportioned Among the 50 States?
House of Representatives: According to population. In 1987 smallest states sent one Representative. Largest state sent 45 Representatives.
Senate: Each state sends two Senators.
How Long is Each Member's Term of?
House of Representatives: Two years
Senate: Six years
Can a Member be Reelected?
House of Representatives: Yes. No limit to number of terms a member may serve.
Senate: Yes. No limit to number of terms a member may serve.
Are All Members Elected at the Same Time?
House of Representatives: Yes. Representatives are elected in even-numbered years (1984, 1986, 1988, etc.).
Senate: No. Terms of different Senators expire at different times. One third of Senators are elected in each even-numbered year.
What are the Qualifications for Membership?
House of Representatives: Must be American citizen for at least 7 years, 25 years or older, and a resident of state in which elected.
Senate: Must be American citizen for a least 9 years, 30 years or older, and a resident of state in which elected.
Who is the Presiding Officer?
House of Representatives: Speaker of the House
Senate: Vice-President of the United States
What are the Rules of Conducting Business?
House of Representatives: House may decide its own rules.
Senate: Senate may decide its own rules.
What are its Special Powers?
House of Representatives: Considers all revenue bills (taxes and appropriations) first. Decides who shall be President in case no candidate receives majority vote. Votes on impeachment of federal officials.
Senate: Confirms treaties by two-thirds vote. Confirms President's appointments by majority vote. Votes on whether to remove from office federal officials impeached by House.
Adapted from The Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, Scholastic Inc., 1989.