Answering my own questions since 2001

What are the Differences Between the House and Senate?

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there’s been plenty of news about the American mid-term election. I realized, to my small shame, that I don’t know much about the American Congress. Unlike a number of my Canadian peers, I’ve never been a follower of domestic US politics, so it’s never mattered very much to me. 

Today, though, I actually read through the Wikipedia entries for the House of Representatives and the Senate. I learned how they’re formed, how their members are elected and what their main duties are. I was less successful, though, in determining the major differences between the two houses.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about the origins of the two houses:

The Framers of the Constitution created a bicameral Congress out of a desire to have two houses to check each other. One house was intended to be a “people’s house” that would be very sensitive to public opinion. The other house was intended to be a more reserved, more deliberate forum of elite wisdom that represented the state legislatures. The Constitution provides that the approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation. The exclusive powers enumerated to the Senate in the Constitution are regarded as more important than those exclusively enumerated to the House.

I also found this About.com page which offered a similar theme:

Have you ever noticed that major bills are often debated and voted on by the House in a single day, while the Senate’s deliberations on the same bill take weeks? Again, this reflects the Founding Fathers’ intent that the House and Senate not be carbon-copies of each other. By designing differences into the House and Senate, the Founders assured that all legislation would be carefully considered, taking both the short and long-term effects into account.

I now understand why the houses were designed as they were (reinforcing, once again, how moot Canada’s Senate is). I’m still kind of unclear on the practical differences. Do any Americans or knowledgeable Canadians want to wade in?

21 Responses to “What are the Differences Between the House and Senate?”

  1. Jeff

    The Senate has fewer members (100) making each vote carry more weight. This also means that the larger number of citizens that you represent are more likely to pay attention to how you vote.

  2. Richard

    Every seat in the House of Representatives is up for election every 2 years, and each member of Congress represents about the same population (give or take, just like Canada’s Parliament). The bigger the state, the more members of Congress.

    Senators, on the other hand, run every 6 years. That’s why you never see 100 races for the Senate each year, generally about a third, since the terms are staggered. I haven’t heard of two races for Senate in the same state, so if there’s a race this year, the other Senator from the state has either 4 or 2 years left on their term.

    Looking at it another way, Jeff: Senators from smaller states have more power than Senators from larger states. It’s not “fair” that Rhode Island, a state with a population 1/30 the size of California, gets an equal vote as the Sunshine state? Not that the Senate is designed to be fair.

    Darren, check out the checks and balances section of the Congress Wikipedia page. It goes into some of the differences in terms of powers between the two (Congress is the word describing both the Senate and the House of Representatives), like how only the House can impeach a President but requires the Senate to convict him, and the latter approves of cabinet and court appointments, and ratifies treaties signed by the President.

  3. Chad

    Senate – 2 votes for every state. Rhode Island and Vermont carry the same weight as New York and California.
    House – 435 representatives based upon population (New York and California have more weight than Rhode Island and Vermont).
    The House controls the introduction of legislation on issues of taxation and budget (among other things). The House typically only introduces bills that are likley to pass based on party lines (or predetermined support) and therefore they do not result in extensive debate (bills pass in 1 or 2 days).
    The Senate debate (lasting a week or more) is a result of a less clear majority as well as the need to respond to actions by the House.
    It all goes back to the system of checks and balances. The big states (NY & CA) can not push around the little states (RI & VT) because they control the House, they still have to get Senate approval.
    If both houses approve a measure, then it goes to the President.
    The Judicial Branch (the final level of checks and balances) only gets involved when the others can not “play nice” with one another.

  4. Dan

    If you are forced to run for elections every 2nd year, in local ridings, you will have to take a much more populist measure. You represent your district first, and it could be a mainly democratic or republican riding or it could be a swing area, but your say is proportionate to your vote. Your duty is to your riding foremost.

    If you are elected to the senate, you have a degree of job security, and are seen as a responsible check on the populist house. Not only that, but you have a partner in crime, who depending on the winds may very well be your only party mate, and are seen as the vested protector of states rights. You are an equal among equal.

    The roles are modelled after ancient rome in which you had the plebs and the senate. The senate being a check on the irrationality of the common person.

    The other main difference is the senate has stronger age and citizenship requirements, (even though youth rarely get elected to either) so it positions itself as a body of experience.

    As a voter, you’ll likely want your house rep to be someone who will fight your causes, but choose a senator who you trust.

  5. brem

    In that sense, the American senate is not that different, at first glance from the Canadian senate. Basically, they are a second instance that ratifies the house decisions (or not).

    The main difference being that the American senators are elected and not partisanly nominated until death or retirement occurs.

    Also, the American senators might have more exclusive powers, but I’m not exactly sure what, so I’ll shut up now.

  6. Steve Kirks

    As an American reader, I’ll weigh in:

    The Senate is more powerful and more deliberate than the House for two reasons: fewer possible votes and longer tenure. In the House, as a representative, you can afford to vote more with your constituents rather than your party. In the Senate, that kind of behavior would prevent you from building a base of power to use as leverage when you *needed* something, say an appropriations bill that gives your state money for roads at the expense of others.

  7. Derek K. Miller

    In practical terms, perhaps the U.S. founders expected the political spectrum to be more diverse in both houses; presumably the time when things work most as those founders might have intended is when one party has the majority in one house, and the other party in the second. That might produce deadlock, but it’s also a fine example of “checks.”

    It certainly is interesting that a system explicitly designed to provide multiple levels of consideration and diversity of opinion morphed rather rapidly into one where two parties overarching the actual political structure control it entirely without any smaller ones, while more “monopolistic” ones like Canada’s — essentially a single branch of government with hangers-on — has multiple parties involved.

    And then there are all those even more hodgepodge systems like Israel’s, where majorities are rare and multi-party coalitions and alliances the norm.

    Is there a political axiom that all such systems tend to evolve so that the heads of government have roughly the same amount of control, by either widening or narrowing the number of parties that have viable chances of election? I have no poli sci training, so maybe that’s an obvious idea, but I haven’t heard of it.

  8. Andy K

    It may be somewhere in all those links, but nobody mentions the historical reason: compromise. My understanding of the Constitutional Convetion (from recent biographies of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin) was that it was a big discussion between big states and little states. Large ones wanted proportional representation (by population), small ones wanted equal representation (fortunately for them they had equal influence in the CC in order to force the issue). The idea of balance-of-power was the rationalization, and fortunately, it is the enduring result. Note that senators were elected by state legislaturess (in a manner of their own choosing) until 1914.

    In a way, a bicameral legislature reflects the reality of the US as a union of somewhat-sovereign states. Obviously, the population of any large country is not homogenenous and the regional divisions we call states and you call provinces reflect that. People feel affinity for those in their area, and local politics (big city or big state) often dominate.

    The bicameral legislature might be an echo of ancient Rome, but I think it was the result of independent parallel development in the US. France has a bicameral legislature based on Rome’s (and their Senate is elected by a regional mayors) and it sounds the same on paper, but it works nothing like in the US. I don’t understand the mechanics of Canada’s government to compare what you have there.

  9. Derek K. Miller

    I think this is roughly how ours works: in Canada we follow the British model to a large degree. Members of parliament are elected one per riding (constituency) in a first-past-the-post system, and their riding boundaries are drawn by non-partisan bureaucrats based on Census numbers, trying to maintain roughly (sometimes very roughly) similar numbers of people per riding. Urban ridings can be tiny; rural ridings such as those in the North can encompass significant fractions of the entire area of the surface of the Earth.

    The prime minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in the parliamentary House of Commons, but must also be an MP elected to one of those seats, and appoints a cabinet from (almost always but not exclusively) among MPs of the same party.

    Instead of a House of Lords, we have a Senate whose members are appointed for what used to be lifetime but are now age-limited terms (I think the age is 75?) by the prime minister, so it is made up largely of a mix of patronage cronies of the past several prime ministers. Their numbers are based on a combination of population, provincial representation, and historical anomaly, but they represent only their provinces, not specific towns or ridings.

    The titular head of state, the Governor General, is appointed by the Queen of England as recommended (i.e. decided) by the prime minister, and can in extreme circumstances dissolve Parliament and force an election. Supreme Court judges are also appointed directly by the PM, as far as I understand it.

    In other words, the prime minister and the ruling party have remarkable power when they have a parliamentary majority, although the Supreme Court is more independent than it would seem, and there are traditions of widespread consultation around many things that the PM could theoretically decide solo.

    PMs can resign or be forced out by their own parties, in which case the party chooses a new leader and things continue on with that person as the new prime minister — no new election. Elections do not occur on a regular schedule but at the whim of the government, with a maximum term of about five years.

    And that’s our federal system in a nutshell.

  10. Jarrod

    The Australian system, for anyone interested, is roughly halfway between the Canadian and US systems. Everthing #9 said about Canada goes for Australia too, except that our Senators are elected by the people on rolling terms like in the US. Our Senate is (like the US) also intended to represent the Australian states, so that you get the same arguments over small states (eg Tasmania) having the same say in the Senate as big States (NSW or Queensland).

    The Australian Senate tends to spend longer debating Bills than the House, and often runs committees of inquiry into particular Bills or reform proposals. Senators would have traditionally voted on State interests, but my impression is that it’s largely party interests today.

    Our head of state is also a Governor-General like Canada, appointed by the Queen (who’s technically the Queen of Australia from our point of view, just as she’s the Queen of Canada from your point of view – even if she also happens to be the Queen of England). We don’t have quite the same “progressive” approach to appointing G-Gs here though – no Asian or black women, just old white men.

  11. George in Denver

    So far NONE of the answers clearly and concisely explained the differences between the two bodies and why both exists. People are so lost…it’s sad!

  12. Andy K

    George, I don’t want to get into a meta-discussion, but at least some of us tried. Let me try again.

    Darren’s links explain all of the major differences, I tried to add a bit of historical perspective, and others have given int’l comparison. Yet it is true that the question “what is the practical difference” remains. I would say that beyond all those documented differences, there is none. The US constitution is just set up so that, in the basic case, laws are agreed to by the majority of two large committees and one extra person (the president). I’m sure insiders will tell you that how all that power is exercised (how they are lobbied and how they respond, how they handle elections, etc.) is vastly different between the two, but I think it just boils down to being a built-in redundancy.

  13. Darby

    Here’s the concise version:

    The House is full of numbskulls – you don’t have to be much smarter than your average used car salesman to get elected there.

    The Senate is for executives – you have to be smart (and more polished) to get elected there.

  14. Juan

    Wow, I learned a lot from you guys. Hi, I am an aspiring Politician and I was very interested in all of your knowledge. Keep up the good work!

  15. Jenni

    As a Canadian, I will put my two sence in. In a way I see the point that the senate may have more power with less voters, but the main difference between the two I feel is fair representation. The Senate has 2 Representitives from each state regardless of polulation of the state. The members of the house of commons are elected in relation to population. Provinces with a larger population are given more representitives, thus more fairly representing the population of the country. This is necessary as Canadas system of goverment has your elected representitives voting on the behalf of the constituants concerning all laws and policies bening passed (the general public rarely has an oppertunity to vote directly for a bill other than in case of referendum.)

  16. Tina

    House- The House tends to be more more centralized, more formal and has a stronger leadership.
    Rules committee fairly powerful in controlling time and rules of debate (in conjunction with the majority leader). More impersonal. Power less evenly distributed. Members are highly specialized. Emphasizes tax and revenue policy. Seniority important in deteremining power.
    Senate­- The Senate tends to be less centralized, less formal and has a weaker leadership.
    No rules committee; limited on debate come through unanimous consent or cloture of filibuster. More personal. Power is more evenly distributed. Members are generalists. Emphasizes foreign policy. Seniority less important in determining power.

  17. Tina

    What’s the difference between the leaderships??

  18. Eseleose

    I think the question is very essential and I think it is worth getting a lawyer to explain in deed the practical differences between these two bodies.

    What exactly does the senate delibraterate upon as different from that of the House of reps?

    what are the lines of divide in their respective responsibilities to the public?

    Well, from all the comments posted so far, I think the senate acts as a check to the powers of the executive arm of government whilst the house of reps basically deals with issues of public interests like probes as they affect the citizen.

    I think this still needs some clearing out.
    Thanks.

  19. Monark

    This was an awesome discussion. Initially I was not knowing anything about the houses but now I know atleast the main difference and how it works.
    Thanks a lot.

  20. Shania

    hi

    This topic was an very good. Now i no what the differences are.

    thanks a lot it really helps

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