by Karl Kurtz
At a professional development leadership seminar for social studies teachers last week, Donald Ritchie and Fred Beuttler, deputy historians respectively for the U.S. Senate and House, presented interesting contrasts between the House and the Senate. For veteran Congress-watchers or scholars it may have been old hat, but for those less immersed in the ways of Congress it was a useful primer presented in interesting and engaging fashion.
Ritchie emphasized how the Senate is not a majoritarian body in a variety of ways. He pointed out that the 10 largest states are home to over half the population of the country, but they have only 20 of 100 votes in the Senate. He said that the requirement for 60 votes to shut off debate means that any controversial issue requires votes from both political parties in order to pass. This has become more difficult as the parties have polarized and there is greater unity within party caucuses. Partly because of the super-majority requirement, the Senate does the bulk of its business by unanimous consent. This results in giving both individual members (who can block unanimous consent) and the minority party (who can block the closure of debate) significant power in the Senate.
By contrast, Beuttler said that the majority party in the House has enormous power. If you have 218 votes in the House, you can do anything you want to. As an example, he pointed out that the Constitution does not define the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that constitute an impeachable offense. In effect high crimes and misdemeanors become whatever 218 members of the House determine them to be. The gatekeeper for the House in controlling its agenda and the rules of debate on any bill is the Rules Committee, an instrument of the speaker and the majority party. Virtually all votes in the Rules Committee are along party lines. He suggested that if you could imagine what would happen in baseball game if the home team could write its own rules for each game, then you could understand the power of the Rules Committee and the majority party.
I can't think of any state legislature that has as stark a contrast between house and senate as the U.S. Congress does. Many states are like the Congress in that revenue bills must originate in the house, while senates have more responsibility for advice and consent to executive appointments. But most differences between the two chambers in the states are more matters of style than rules. Because of their smaller size, senates tend to be more collegial and informal bodies than houses, which must rely on more formality and stricter rules to manage a larger number of people. There are some states that have super-majority rules on budget bills, but these apply to both chambers, not just one as in the case of the Congress. And filibusters are rare in state Legislatures, unlike the U.S. Senate where they are omnipresent as a threat, if not in actual practice.
The first photo is a hand-painted engraving of "U.S. Senate, 1850" by Peter F. Rothermel from U.S. Senate Art and History. The second is an oil on canvas, "Old House Chamber, circa 1838," by Allyn Cox from the Office of the Clerk's web site.