USS Clueless - House and Senate and Commons and Lords

Stardate 20040706.1950

(Captain's log): Tom writes:

I live in Northern Ireland and really appreciate the way you explain the working of the US government and was wondering of you could explain this: how is it that riders can be attached to bills going through the Senate? This seems to me, an outsider I admit, to be an odious way of blackmailing the Senate to pass a bill and bypasses the openness of debate on the merits of the amendment.

Please understand I am not criticising how Americans govern themselves. It may be that there are advantages to this system that aren't apparent to me. I would really like to know.

I think you may be under the impression that the US Senate is America's equivalent of the British House of Lords, with our House of Representatives corresponding to the House of Commons.

I don't fully understand the British system. The way it was explained to me is that as a practical matter Commons has all the power. Bills which pass Commons are sent to Lords, and Lords can vote to approve or reject the bill, and can vote to amend the bill. But regardless of what they do, the bill will then go back to Commons, who can vote to reverse any changes Lords made, and can vote to approve the bill even if Lords rejected it. Lords doesn't have any real power to directly prevent adoption of legislation. All they really can do is to try to focus attention on anything in a bill they think is particularly pernicious.

The role of the House of Lords in the UK is not at all similar to the role of the Senate in the US Congress. Constitutionally speaking, the House and Senate are considered more or less peers. The Senate is generally thought of as the senior chamber. There are some differences between them, though.

The biggest difference between the House and Senate has to do with their numbers and how their members are elected. The Constitution says that each state shall have exactly two US Senators. The 17th Amendment says that each Senator will be elected by state-wide popular vote. In 1959 Hawaii and Alaska became states, raising the number of stars on the flag to 50, and since then there have been 100 Senators.

Since there will always be an even number of Senators, the Constitution states that in cases of ties, the Vice President has the power to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Unlike Senators, the number of Representatives is not directly specified by the Constitution. The Constitution requires that each state must have at least one Representative, and each House district must have at least 30,000 people in it according to the most recent census. Aside from that, it's pretty much up to the House itself to decide the number of Representatives. In 1910, the House adopted rules fixing the number of Representatives at 435, which are divvied out to the states based on their populations as of the last census.

There are a small number of powers uniquely assigned to the Senate. The President has the power to negotiate and sign treaties, but treaties have to be ratified by a 2/3rds vote in the Senate in order to go into effect. The Senate also has to approve by simple majority nominees for federal judgeships, nominees for cabinet positions and certain other appointed positions in the Executive branch. The House is not involved in these matters (at least, not formally).

In the impeachment process, it is the House that impeaches. An impeachment is analogous to an indictment. It forces a trial. The trial is held before the Senate, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. A small group of Representatives (usually from the House Judiciary Committee) prosecute the case. The federal officer who was impeached may send his own lawyers to defend him. After the trial, the Senate votes on whether to convict. If they do the impeached government official is removed from office, but there are no other direct consequences.

Impeachment in the House requires a simple majority. Conviction in the Senate trial requires 2/3rds vote.

The only power uniquely granted to the House is listed in Article I, Section 7:

All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

For most practical purposes, especially with respect to legislation and budgeting, the two chambers are essentially peers. For a bill to become law, it has to pass both chambers. It then goes to the President, who can approve it, veto it, or do nothing. If he approves it (by signing on one line), it becomes law. If he vetoes it (by signing on a different line), it is returned to whichever chamber originated it, and they may decide to drop it, or to try to override the veto. If ten days pass and he doesn't do either of those, it becomes law without him.

Aside from tax measures, any bill can originate in either chamber. That chamber will debate it, perhaps amend the original proposal, send it to sundry committees, and if the chamber eventually votes to approve it, it goes to the other chamber.

The other chamber might well not approve it at all. (They might not even consider it seriously.) Or they may choose to amend it and pass the amended version.

It's not uncommon for the same text to be introduced into both chambers more or less simultaneously, but they're not formally considered the same bill. What that reall

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004