House of Representatives

AuthorRobert F. Drinan, S.J.

Page 1305

The House of Representatives was born of compromise at the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787. Early during the Convention, the VIRGINIA PLAN, favored by the larger states, proposed a bicameral legislature in which states would be represented on the basis of wealth or population. New Jersey and other small states balked at this plan and proposed maintaining a unicameral legislature in which each state would have equal representation. The present structure of Congress was accepted as the heart of the GREAT COMPROMISE. In the SENATE each state was guaranteed equal representation, while in the House, representation was to be determined by each state's population, excluding Indians but including three-fifths of the slave population.

The compromise served dual purposes: it resolved a major conflict between the delegates, and it created one of the CHECKS AND BALANCES within the Congress to guard

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against the flawed legislation that might come from a unicameral legislature. The House of Representatives was planned to reflect populist attitudes in society.

Article I, section 2, of the Constitution establishes the structure of the House. Members are chosen every second year. By law, this occurs the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered calendar years. The frequency of elections was expected to make House members particularly responsive to shifting political climates. The Framers believed this influence would be balanced by requiring legislation to be passed by the Senate and House together. Senators are elected for six-year terms, with a third of the seats contested in each biennial election. The two-year term in the House was a compromise between those favoring annual elections and others, including JAMES MADISON, who favored elections once every third year. Subsequent attempts to set House terms at four years have failed. Opponents of such plans believe that having all congressional elections coincide with presidential elections would make House candidates unduly vulnerable to the effects of coattail politics. There is no limit to the number of terms a representative or senator may serve.

The Constitution requires that representatives be chosen by "the People of the several States," as opposed to the indirect election of the President and Vice-President by the ELECTORAL COLLEGE, and the original plan called for election of senators by the state legislatures. The SEVENTEENTH AMENDMENT now requires direct election of senators. The precise method of direct election is not constitutionally determined. Until...

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