When the House and the Senate Are Controlled by Different Parties, Who Wins?
Posted November 7, 2018 6:59 p.m. EST
As the prospect of a divided Congress looms, many people have turned to Google in a frantic search for answers about what, exactly, the midterm election results will mean.
Who has more power: the House of Representatives or the Senate? What does the House control? What is the difference between the House and the Senate?
So here is our attempt at a quick civics lesson. (It’s late, though, and we’re tired, so catchy “Schoolhouse Rock” jingles are not included.)
The House of Representatives
The House consists of 435 representatives who are each elected to a two-year term. The number of representatives per state is proportionate to the state’s population, and each representative serves his or her district.
Like the Senate, the House is responsible for introducing bills and amendments, and members of both bodies serve on committees — such as those for the budget and the judiciary.
The House has the power to initiate impeachment proceedings for government officials, and it is the chamber that introduces spending bills, giving it greater sway over the power of the purse.
With a Democratic majority, the House will have the opportunity to introduce bills that could force senators to make a decision that could hurt their favor with voters.
“It’s a very alluring prospect for Democrats now to be able to put together bills which enjoy a lot of public support,” said Ross Baker, a professor of American politics at Rutgers University. “And then send it to the Senate to reject them.”
The Senate is often considered a more prestigious body, in part because there are far fewer senators than representatives but also because the Constitution gives the group unique powers.
There are 100 senators in total, two per state. Each is elected to a six-year term.
George Washington is said to have explained the purpose of the Senate as to be more deliberative than the House: “We pour legislation into the Senate saucer to cool it.”
The Constitution gives the Senate the power to approve presidential nominations, including Supreme Court justices. Senators are also tasked with approving treaties with foreign countries.
The Senate has a long history of closely watched investigative hearings. A Senate committee investigated the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, for example, as well as allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Clarence Thomas in the 1990s.
Although impeachment proceedings begin in the House, the matter is then sent to the Senate, whose chambers act as a courtroom for the trial. The Senate has the sole power to conduct impeachment trials, essentially serving as the jury, as it did when it acquitted President Bill Clinton in 1999.
At least two-thirds of senators have to find the president guilty to remove him from office.
Which body has more power?
Although the Senate and the House have a similar responsibilities to provide government oversight, the Founding Fathers gave them certain specialties, said Baker, the Rutgers professor.
“They have very distinct and separate functions to play,” he said. “In the Senate, it’s nominations and treaties, and in the House, it’s taxes and spending.”
Leading up to the midterm elections, House Democrats were preparing for an onslaught of hearings, subpoenas and investigations into nearly every corner of the Trump administration. The Democrat in line to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee also promised to open an investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct and perjury against Justice Brett Kavanaugh if the Democrats won a House majority.
President Donald Trump has leveraged the Republican majority in the Senate to remake the courts. Trump came into office with more than 100 judicial vacancies; relaxed Senate rules on confirmations have allowed him to fill them quickly. So far, he has filled at least 60 seats on the federal district courts, appeals courts and the Supreme Court. With the Senate now even more solidly under Republican control, additional appointments are likely to come.
In terms of presidential succession, the speaker of the House is second in line, after the vice president. The president pro tempore of the Senate follows after the speaker.
But on perhaps the biggest issue — that of impeachment — the outlook remains largely unchanged.
With a Republican majority in the Senate, it is unlikely that the House Democrats would try to impeach Trump, barring big developments in the special counsel’s investigation or elsewhere. They’d never win the case in the Senate.