What is the essential difference between the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives?
The design of the U.S. Congress is consistent with the basic principle of government endorsed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution: that dividing government into units which must share power with one another provides a check against tyranny. The division of the Congress into two chambers to avoid legislative tyranny emanates from this basic principle of divided government and shared power. Neither can make law without the consent of the other.
Our Founding Fathers understood that a Congress divided against itself would not be an efficient institution. They voted for caution over efficiency. They knew they were creating a legislative process that would be cumbersome and difficult to navigate. They did so deliberately, choosing to protect against bad laws, even if it meant enacting good laws would be hard as well.
The House, with its entire membership standing for election every two years, was designed to be the chamber closest to the electorate. Constantly running for re-election means that Representatives come to know their constituents well, and, it was hoped, would therefore be more likely to reflect accurately the views of the local citizenry and advocate for the needs of their districts. They are also more likely to be sensitive to changes in popular sentiment as it occurs.
However, it was feared that these same characteristics might also lead to a short-term view of what constitutes good public policy. The framers did debate whether what was popular would always be the wisest course for the nation. So they designed the Senate to protect against the popular passions of the moment.
The Senate is a continuing body; only one-third of Senators run for re-election at any one time. They are in office for six years before they have to face their electorate again. This continuity and the longer six year term was meant to enable Senators to resist the pressure of immediate popular opinion and be able to serve as a restraining influence — or a court of appeals — for House action. The framers expected Senators to be older, wiser, and more deliberative than Representatives, and able to take a longer term view of what makes good public policy.
Although likely to be apocryphal, a famous story about the need for a different purpose for the Senate than for the House is reputed to have been voiced by George Washington to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had criticized even the concept of a U.S. Senate and questioned the need for it. Washington supported the concept of two chambers. "Why," asked Washington, "did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" [That was the custom at the time!] "To cool it, " replied Jefferson. "Even so," said Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."
Under the U.S. Constitution, the two chambers are equal. Neither can make law without the other. Colloquial references to the two as an "upper body" and "lower body" are misnomers, arising from the fact that when Congress first met in New York City (as well as later in Philadelphia), the Senate chamber was located a floor above the House. [See the Q and A on the “First Congress”.]
Although they are equal, the Constitution does give certain exclusive powers to each chamber. Nominees chosen by the President to serve as judges, ambassadors, cabinet officers, and senior executives must be confirmed by the Senate. Treaties negotiated with foreign nations must be ratified by the Senate. The House has no formal role in either process.
However, the House is given the authority to originate all revenue (tax) bills, and through historical precedent, this has been extended to all appropriations (spending) bills as well. Although these money bills must begin in the House, the Senate has full opportunity to debate and modify the legislation sent over to it by the House and, as with all bills, both chambers must pass a bill before it can continue on to the President.
Even though the two bodies are equal, many will argue that Senators enjoy more individual power than do Members of the House. This is true for two reasons: visibility and internal parliamentary procedures. First, Senators do have greater visibility. This stems largely from our media culture. It is easier for an individual to stand out in a group of 100 than in a group of 435. Also, Senators become better known because they around for longer terms and they represent more people. They are more recognizable and given more visibility in our media outlets as a result.
Second, Senators work in a chamber that favors the parliamentary rights of individuals. There are numerous options to take actions alone, even in the face of opposition from party leaders. Representatives do not have the same capability. House procedures absolutely favor the majority and give them almost complete control over the chamber. There is nothing of substance a lone Representative can accomplish on his own. In the House, strength comes from numbers.