The United States government is set up as a bicameral legislature according to Article I, Section I of the U.S. Constitution. The word bicameral has Latin roots meaning two houses. Therefore, our federal government is divided into two houses or two chambers, as it is sometimes called.
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how did the founders of our government decide on a bicameral legislature in the first place?
At the time of the original colonies and budding new states, people had different ideas about governing in their different states. Proportional representation was popular with some at the time as it gave the larger states greater influence in the federal government. On the flip side, proportional representation put the smaller states at a disadvantage as they were given less jurisdiction in governing decisions. As this caused greater and greater controversy, two plans were proposed for the federal government: the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan.
The Virginia Plan was proposed by Virginian James Madison in 1787. This plan directly favored the big states. The plan urged for three branches of government, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. Additionally, it called for two houses of government, one with officials elected by the people and one with officials elected by the state legislatures. Basically, the Virginia Plan suggested the use of population as the bases for distributing seats among the states.
That same year, William Paterson proposed the New Jersey Plan. Its goal was to keep one vote per state so that equal representation for all states could exist. This plan was in direct support of the smaller states of America. Having a one vote per state policy meant that the smaller states had just as much jurisdiction as the larger states and ensured that policy would be beneficial for all. This plan was also in support of having an intra-branch check to distribute balance and order within the two houses of the legislature. With a check system in place, both houses were free to have their own responsibilities and size.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, both of these proposed plans were similar in nature, however, one favors the larger states and the other favors the smaller states. Obviously, choosing one plan over the other would create even more tension among the people, but a way of governing had to be instituted.
I give you: the Great Compromise by Roger Sherman in 1787. This compromise stated that the United States Government would be a bicameral legislature meaning it would have a House of Representatives based on population and a Senate consisting of two members from each state.
Let’s look a little more in depth at each of these chambers of congress.
To serve in the House of Representatives, you must be at least 25 years old. You also have to have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years. Because this is a state representative position, you must be a legal resident of the state you wish to represent. Members of the House are elected by the people, and all states have at least one representative. A system called apportionment or redistricting is used to determine how many representatives a state gets. This process involves distributing representatives according to each state’s population based on the decennial census that is taken. Currently, there are 435 members seated in the House of Representatives based on the 2010 census.
Now we know how Representatives got into the House, but what exactly do their responsibilities include?
Members of the House have a few different responsibilities. They can impeach government officials, including the president. Members could actually decide the outcome for presidential elections if there were ever a time the electoral college couldn’t agree on the candidate. Additionally, the House is responsible for all bills that raise taxes.
To serve in the United States Senate the requirements are little more strict. You must be at least 30 years old and have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years. Like in the House, to serve in the Senate you must be a legal resident of the state you wish to represent. Senators are elected by the people, and all states have two senate members for a total of 100.
In congress, the Senate holds impeachment trials, ratifies treaties with a ⅔ vote, and votes to confirm or deny the appointments of executive officers. The Senate also has the power for writing and passing laws. Overall, these are huge responsibilities that our members of Congress take on. If anything, learning about the responsibilities and election processes are all the more motivation to get out in the world and educate yourself on the world of politics!
Things to remember:
Bicameral means there are TWO chambers of Congress.
Those TWO chambers are the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House is based on population; the Senate is set at two members per state.
Both chambers are directly elected by the people, although senators were originally elected by state legislatures.
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