People are surprised to learn that I was the author of a bill proposing one of the most significant tax cuts ever proposed in Congress in the 1980s. Well, perhaps not in the way you might imagine.

Here’s how it actually happened. I introduced a proposal of entirely minor importance, under the reference HR 5829: it sought a tax relief for the church I attended in Washington, allowing it to avoid paying excessive tariffs on a carillon it had just imported from Europe. According to the division of responsibilities between the House and the Senate as provided by the Constitution, only the House has the initiative in tax legislation.

As the Senate was very supportive of a substantial tax reduction, especially during the 1980 election campaign, it seized upon my bill after it had been passed by the House and, keeping only the number, introduced its own text in the form of an “amendment,” providing for a broad tax cut. Thus, my modest proposal HR 5829 became the driving force behind the major tax debate that ensued in Congress that year. Needless to say, my office received more than one call from people intrigued by this affair. But the fact is that the division of roles and responsibilities between the House and the Senate, as described in the textbooks, has become increasingly blurred over the past few decades.

Of all the changes the Congress has undergone since its inception over two hundred years ago, undoubtedly the one affecting the Senate would surprise the founders the most. They had divided powers and responsibilities between the two chambers, leaving, for example, tax legislation initiation to the House and treaty ratification and presidential nominations to the Senate. But they also assigned them distinct roles in the legislative process.

The House, whose members were elected every two years, was supposed to be closely in tune with the needs, desires, and wishes of the American people and serve as their spokesperson. The Senate, whose members represented states with a six-year term, would be more above the fray: it would review laws passed by the House under the heat of popular passions and examine them more thoughtfully.

The founders were very clear about the distinct nature of the Senate. As George Washington explained, just as we pour coffee into a saucer to cool it, so do “we pour bills into the senatorial saucer to cool them.” Over the years, various changes have altered this essential role, notably the Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, providing that senators would also be directly elected by the people, making them no less sensitive to public opinion.

Nevertheless, members of the House probably still tend to see themselves more as local representatives working on local projects, maintaining close relationships with officials at the county and city levels, striving to maintain direct contact with voters through a multitude of town hall meetings, while senators tend to have more of a national stature image. Members of the House generally remain more responsive to immediate public reactions, while the Senate remains an assembly more inclined to deep reflection.

There are many other differences between the two chambers, whether it’s the larger percentage of votes needed to end debates and advance a bill in the Senate, or the tendency of senators to behave as generalists covering a wide range of issues, while members of the House are more likely to be highly skilled specialists in the narrower areas assigned to their committees. One essential difference lies in the number of members each chamber has.

With a much larger number of parliamentarians, the rules in the House are stricter, and the majority party has a much broader power to advance a bill: the majority has the upper hand in the procedure, and whoever controls the procedure controls the outcome of the vote. If the majority party in the House manages to maintain the cohesion of its members, the minority is practically sidelined.

Each member of the Senate, on the other hand, regardless of party affiliation, can largely intervene in the legislative process, being allowed to discuss any measure as long as they please and propose any amendment – even if they have no expertise in that area. In general, the operating rules of the House favor the majority so that the popular will prevails without the minority being able to silence it, while those of the Senate favor the minority, giving it the opportunity to slow down the majority’s momentum.

It is a constant that each of the two chambers sees the other as an obstacle to overcome in the legislative process, with members of the House often being frustrated by Senate procedures, and vice versa, especially when the text under consideration is of particular importance. It is almost a continuous joke among lawmakers to say that it is the other chamber that is messing up and responsible for the glitches in the legislative process. But there is also a genuine competition between the two chambers – with generally positive effects – each striving to be the first to tackle current issues, promote important legislation, and respond to the nation’s crises.

Although most citizens are not fully aware of it, our bicameral system, with its two chambers of equal power, gives our Congress a unique place compared to most other systems in the world. The respective roles played today by the House of Representatives and the Senate may not be exactly what the founders had envisioned, but significant differences remain, which generally improve the overall quality of the Congress’s work.

This text is an excerpt from the book “How the American Congress Works” written by Lee H. Hamilton.

We invite you to read the following article “Congress is doing more than it seems“.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *