The United States House of Representatives.

Steve Wiener, Michael Knoedl
  • Author
    Steve Wiener

    Steve Wiener holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has taught undergraduate classes in ancient and modern political theory, philosophy of history, American political thought, American government, the history the American Civil War, the philosophy of consciousness and rural populist movements in the American Midwest. He has over 20 years experience teaching college students in the classroom, as well as high school students and lifelong learners in a variety non-traditional settings.

  • Instructor
    Michael Knoedl

    Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Learn about the U.S. House of Representatives. Discover how the number of Representatives is determined, and how Members of Congress are elected. Updated: 07/24/2021

Table of Contents


Congress: Upper and Lower House

The United States Constitution was adopted by Unanimous Consent of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787. The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify it. After ratification, the first elections were set for a period running from December 15, 1788, to January 10, 1789, and the new federal government would begin under the new Constitution on March 4, 1789. The Constitution provided for a Legislative Branch, an Executive Branch, and a Judicial Branch representing what the Founders saw as the three functions of government; making laws, enforcing or executing laws, and interpreting laws.

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The House of Representatives

Article One of the United States Constitution established the Legislative Power of the federal government. It states simply, All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Article I of United States Constitution

US Constitution


The Constitution established the qualifications of representatives. There are only three qualifications.

  • A Representative must be at least twenty-five years old.
  • A Representative must be a citizen of the United States.
  • A Representative must be an inhabitant of the State and District they will represent

The Constitution established that Representatives would be elected every two years in even-numbered years by the ''People of the State.''

The Election Process and Term of Office

Representatives serve two-year terms. Senators serve six-year terms. Why the difference? The Founders considered the House of Representatives to be the People's House. Representatives were elected by the people, while Senators were elected by several State Legislatures. (The 17th Amendment later established the direct election of Senators). Because the Founders were apprehensive about the passions of ''factions,'' groups of citizens inflamed by some or other temporary issue, the Senate was to be the Representative of their State and thereby able to be more dispassionate, while House members would be directly influenced by their voters. Basically, the purpose of the House of Representatives was to represent citizens, the purpose of Senators to represent States.

While the Constitution sets the term of office at two years, it left the election process itself to each state. In all states, candidates must file to run for office by a certain date prescribed by state law. The state also sets the date for a primary and a general election. The purpose of the primary election is to choose the candidate from each party who will run for the office in the general election. Because U.S. Congressional elections, like other federal and state elections, are primarily funded through private means, new Members of Congress have stated that their orientation session included instructions to begin fundraising for their election on their first day in office. If there is a vacancy in the House of Representatives, the Governor of that State will appoint a Representative to serve until the next election.

House Membership and Leadership

In order to determine the number of Representatives in Congress and how Direct Taxes would be apportioned to the states, the Constitution outlined a census process to determine the populations of several States. The Constitution stated that The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at least one Representative. One of the major deficiencies of the Constitution involved this enumeration. To determine the number of Representatives the population counted would include ''the whole number of free Persons,'' including indentured servants, excluding Native Americans who were not citizens, and '' three-fifths of all other Persons.''. All other persons were slaves. This provision allowed states with very large numbers of slaves to use 60% of the number of slaves in the calculation of how many Representatives those states would have, even though, of course, none of those slaves were considered citizens of the United States.

After the first census was taken and apportionment of Representatives, there was one Representative for about every 37,000 people. For about one hundred thirty years that ratio stayed fairly constant through the various censuses and reapportionments. In 1929, the law authorizing the 1930 census capped the number of members of the House of Representatives at 435. Today, one Representative represents about 747,000 people, quite a distance from what the Founder envisioned.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the definition of the House of Representatives?

The House of Representatives is one part of the Legislative Branch of the United State government. The other part of the Legislative Branch is the Senate. The House is thought to be "the People's House."

What is the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives?

A member of the House of Representatives is considered to be the direct representative of the people of her or his district. The Senate, made up of two Senators from each state, and originally elected by the state legislature (although since the 17th Amendment elected by popular vote) is considered to represent the States rather than people. Today, however, that difference is blurred, and the major difference between the House and the Senate are their rules of conduct and the fact the Representatives serve two year terms and Senator six year terms.

How long is a term in the House of Representatives?

The term of a Representative in Congress in two years. The reasoning behind the relatively short term of office compared to the Senate is to allow citizens to hold their Representative accountable every two years for fulfilling their promises.

What happens in the House of Representatives?

The House of Representatives has two basic functions.

  • To pass legislation to meet the needs of its constituents.
  • To conduct oversight of the Executive Branch

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