One half of the United States Congress, the House of Representatives is the “lower house” of the legislative branch of the federal government. Made up of 435 members, the House provides representation based on population, giving more clout to larger states. The primary duty of the House is to adopt legislation that changes federal law. But it also performs several other key functions. The authority to initiate tax increases or spending proposals rests with the House, along with the power to elect the President in case of a tie in the Electoral College. However, there is not a direct vote for President. Instead, each state is given one vote, no matter how many representatives it has. Impeachment proceedings also begin in the House, which decides whether the President or other federal officials should be indicted and tried by the Senate. In controlling the “purse strings” of Congress, the House often is criticized for wasteful spending, especially on “pork” projects that benefit constituents in representatives’ districts. Members of the House have also been known to get into serious scandals and controversies involving bribery and prostitution, among other troubles.
Prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the newly created federal government operated under the Articles of Confederation, which established a unicameral (one house) legislative body in which each state held one vote. Leaders from the original 13 colonies realized that this system would not work long-term for the nation, and in 1787, a Constitutional Convention was held. A great debate ensued between representatives of large states (e.g., Virginia) and small states (e.g., New Jersey) over how Congress should be structured according to the Constitution. Eventually, representatives to the convention agreed on the Connecticut Compromise, or “Great Compromise,” which set forth a bicameral Congress consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate.
The House (commonly called the “lower house”) would consist of varying members from each state based on population, while the Senate provided equal representation from each state. Members of the House would serve only two-year terms, while senators were given six-year terms.
When it was first established, the House consisted of 65 members, one for every 30,000 citizens. After the first national census the number rose to 105, and it grew steadily as the population increased and new states were added. In 1910, Congress fixed the membership at 435, and the decision was made to require a reapportionment every 10 years that shifted the number of representatives each state sent to Washington D.C., depending on changes in population.
While the House shares many of the same functions as the Senate, it diverges from its upper house counterpart in some key areas. Stemming from controversies that arose during England’s control of the colonies regarding unfair taxation, the House was given the so-called “power of the purse”—meaning, all actions involving the spending or raising of revenue would originate in the lower house.
The House also was given the power to elect the President in the event of a tie. Twice in its history the House has decided the winner of a presidential contest. In 1800, the campaign between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr was thrown to the House of Representatives, and after dozens of ballots, members selected Jefferson as President. In 1824, a four-way race involving Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay resulted in none of the candidates winning a majority of the electoral votes. The outcome was then decided in the House, where Adams was chosen as President.
House members were also given the responsibility of deciding whether the President, or other federal officials, should be impeached (removed from office). The House may approve articles of impeachment by a simple majority vote; however, conviction rests with the Senate, which requires a two-thirds vote. In its long history, the House has impeached 16 officials (with only seven convicted):
(In 1974, the House began impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon based on actions stemming from the Watergate controversy. However, Nixon resigned from office before the full House could vote on the articles of impeachment.)
In December 1998, the Republican-dominated House voted to impeach President Clinton on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power that arose from scandals involving his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones. Only five Democratic House members voted to impeach Clinton. It was only the second impeachment of a President in American history, following that of Andrew Johnson in 1868. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999.
The most powerful member of the House is the Speaker. This leadership post did not evolve into the force it is today until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rise of the Speaker’s influence began in the 1890s, during tenure of Republican Thomas Brackett Reed. Known as “Czar Reed,” he ruled the House with the philosophy that “the best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch.”
Other key leadership posts that developed during this time were the Majority Leader and Minority Leader. Each was created in 1899. While the Minority Leader was the head of the minority party, the Majority Leader remained subordinate to the Speaker.
The Speaker’s dominance over the House peaked during the reign of Republican Joseph Gurney Cannon, 1903 to 1911. At that time, the powers of the Speaker included chairmanship of the influential Rules Committee and the ability to appoint members of other House committees. These powers were curtailed in the “Revolution of 1910” led by Democrats and dissatisfied Republicans who opposed Cannon’s heavy-handed tactics.
For much of the 20th century, the Democratic Party dominated the House. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats often controlled two-thirds of the seats. Republicans enjoyed brief periods of House control until 1954, when Democrats again took over and maintained dominance for the next 40 years.
Democratic control came to an end in 1994 when Republicans led by Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) used its “Contract with America” campaign to sweep their way into power, much to the surprise of Democrats and many analysts. Speaker Gingrich promised to impose radical changes in the structure and size of the federal government—from downsizing the budget and eliminating federal agencies to imposing term limits—but most of these never materialized.
Republicans managed to control the House until 2006, when voter dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and numerous ethics scandals involving Republicans resulted in the Democrats returning to power. Leading the Democrats was Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), who was elected the first woman Speaker in House history in January 2007.
Republicans bounced back in the 2010 midterm election, regaining control of the House by adding 63 seats and erasing the gains that Democrats had achieved in 2006 and 2008. Republicans won control of the most House seats since 1946, and Democrats suffered the highest loss of a party in a House midterm election since 1938.
House History (House of Representatives)
History of the House of Representatives (by George B. Galloway)
Member Biographical Information (Chief Clerk’s Office)
The Size of the U. S. House of Representatives and its Constituent State Delegations (Thirty Thousand.org)
Slashing Congressional Spending, Part I: Congressional Pay, Pensions, Perks, and Staff (by Dan Greenberg, Heritage Foundation)
Congressional Sex Scandals in History 1974-1994 (by Ken Rudin, Washington Post)
The House of Representatives is made up of 435 members elected from throughout the country. Representatives, commonly referred to as a Congressman or Congresswoman, serve for two-year terms from districts within a specific state, such as 1st District, Arkansas. They must run for re-election before their terms expire, and unlike many lawmakers in state legislatures, members of the House are not subject to term limits that restrict how many times they can run for office.
The House of Representatives is first and foremost charged with adopting new laws that govern the United States. Most new laws start out as bills—documents that go through varying degrees of review and changes (called amendments) by lawmakers. Once a bill (also called a “measure”) is first introduced, it is assigned a number, preceded by the letters “HR” (for House of Representatives) and then printed where it is available for review not only by lawmakers but also by the public.
Bills are then assigned to at least one committee that examines what the proposed new law intends to do. If a committee does not approve the bill, or simply takes no action on it, the bill “dies” and cannot be considered any further. This does not mean, however, that the “meat” of the bill won’t resurface in another bill, as lawmakers are wont to do to keep pushing a proposal in the hopes of getting it adopted one way or another.
Bills that pass their initial committee may be subject to review by a second or third committee, depending on the subject matter of the bill. For new laws that will affect the raising or spending of money, bills have to go through one or more of the House’s finance committees, such as Appropriations. Once a bill is approved by all committees that see it, it is sent to the “floor”—meaning the chamber where the entire House of Representatives meets. If it is approved by a majority of members, it is then sent to the Senate, where the committee process begins all over again.
A bill must pass both bodies in the same form before it can be presented to the President for signature into law. If the Senate changes the language of the measure, it must return to the House for concurrence or additional changes. This back-and-forth negotiation may occur on the House floor, with the House accepting or rejecting Senate amendments or complete Senate text. Often a conference committee will be appointed with both House and Senate members. This group will resolve the differences in committee and report the identical measure back to both bodies for a vote. Conference committees also issue reports outlining the final version of the bill.
Only after it is approved by both the House and Senate is a bill sent to the President for approval or veto.
In addition to bills, the House considers joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions. Joint resolutions may originate either in the House or Senate. There is little difference between a bill and a joint resolution. Both are subject to the same procedure, except for a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For joint resolutions that seek to amend the Constitution, two-thirds of both the House and Senate must adopt it before being sent to individual states for ratification. They are not presented to the President for approval.
Concurrent resolutions are for changing the operations of both the House and Senate. These too are not presented to the President for action.
Simple resolutions are often used by the House to simply make a declaration of sorts, such as expressing concern over a problem without taking formal action by introducing a bill.
Key Distinctions from the Senate
Although the House and Senate can both introduce legislation, the authority to initiate tax increases or revenue expenditures rests with the lower house of Congress. Bills that perform either of these functions are first introduced in the House, although the Senate must approve such measures before they can be submitted to the President.
Another important power held by the House of Representatives involves the election of the President. In the event that a tie occurs in the Electoral College, members of the House are required to vote and decide the winner of the election. However, there is not a direct vote. Instead, each state is given one vote, no matter how many representatives it has.
Impeachment of federal officials also begins in the House. Although it is the Senate that votes to convict or acquit, no President or federal judge can be removed from office without the House first voting to approve articles of impeachment (similar to an indictment in criminal law). The Senate then decides whether an official has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The top official in the House is the Speaker. The position is filled at the start of each two-year term in a vote by the full House membership. The selection of the Speaker is generally determined by the majority party, and thus the Speaker is always a leading member of that party. The Speaker’s broad powers and privileges allow the majority to control the House’s legislative agenda.
The Speaker wields considerable power over the House. The position sets the rules of the House and adjudicates when procedural conflicts arise. Behind the scenes, the Speaker’s powers are even broader—appointing committee chairs, influencing the referral of bills to the committees, and deciding the timetables of bills. Bills favored by the Speaker will leave committee more quickly and come to an early vote.
The Speaker also plays a vital role in succeeding the President in the event he or she dies or is unable to carry out their duties. In this event, the Vice President assumes command of the Oval Office, but if the Vice President cannot, then the Speaker of the House takes control.
Ratings of Congress (American Conservative Union)
From the Web Site of the House of Representatives
Legislative Calendar (pdf)
One of the things that the House of Representatives is most famous for is pork. Officially known as earmarks, “pork-barrel spending” refers to special projects that benefit a representative’s home district. Each year, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a non-profit organization that seeks to eliminate government waste, mismanagement, and inefficiency, publishes the “Pig Book Summary” (pdf), which highlights the biggest pork projects approved by Congress.
According to CAGW, in FY 2010, Congress approved 9,129 projects to be added to 12 appropriations bills worth $16.5 billion.
Among the findings by CAGW were:
Hawaii led the nation with $251 per capita ($326 million). The runners up were North Dakota with $197 per capita ($127 million) and West Virginia with $146 per capita ($265 million).
More than $9.3 million was approved for 10 projects by House Agriculture Subcommittee chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), including: $1,454,000 for mosquito trapping research/West Nile Virus, Gainesville, FL; $401,000 for the Food Marketing Policy Center; and $300,000 for the Massaro Community Farm.
Thirty-three projects by Alan Mollohan (D-West Virginia), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Science, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies, totaled more than $17.9 million, including: $1,500,000 for natural stream design and restoration at the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources; $500,000 for the West Liberty Emerging Minority Business Leaders program at West Liberty State College; $406,000 for an anti-recidivism prisoner education program at Glenville State College; and $300,000 for the Great Science Online program at Wheeling Jesuit University.
More than $51.8 million was directed to 32 projects by House Defense Appropriations
Subcommittee member James Moran (D-Virginia), including $4,000,000 for the Proton Therapy Institute at Hampton University; $1,600,000 for secure remote monitoring systems; and $1,200,000 for an Army portable oxygen concentration system. Although no laws were said to have been violated, the recipient of the oxygen system earmark had five employees who donated to Rep. Moran’s campaign account at the end of 2009.
In FY 2008, House Appropriations Committee member Ray LaHood (R-Illinois) got $196,800 approved for green building technologies at Lakeview Museum in Peoria. CAGW cited a February 2, 2008, Rockford Register Star article in which LaHood said, “The reason I went on the Appropriations Committee, the reason other people go on the Appropriations Committee is they know that it puts them in a position to know where the money is at, to know the people who are doling the money out and to be in the room when the money is being doled out.”
Members of the House earn $174,000 annually, according to the Congressional Research Service. This means that approximately $75.7 million is spent each year to pay for the salaries of the 435 lawmakers.
In addition to paying lawmakers, millions are spent paying for the large number of staff employed by congressmen and congresswomen. In 2011, each member was entitled to spend a total of $897,437 to pay for up to 18 staffers to man offices in Washington D.C., and in home districts.
House members are also each given $243,745 a year to cover such things as travel, office rentals in home districts, and other expenses.
Then there are the staffers who support House committees. These personnel can earn a maximum of about $172,500 a year.
Other House personnel include the chief administrative officer; clerk of the House; sergeant at arms; legislative counsel; law revision counsel; parliamentarian; inspector general; director of interparliamentary affairs; director of emergency planning, preparedness and operations; general counsel to House; and chaplain. All of these positions can earn up to $172,500 a year.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Passed in the House (and Choice to Run It) Stirs Controversy
Republicans in Congress have waged a concerted campaign to prevent a new consumer protection agency from ever becoming a reality in Washington.
First, GOP lawmakers (and the banking industry) fought hard to prevent legislation from passing that established the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which was charged with protecting consumers from financial institutions that try to gouge them over credit cards, payday loans, mortgages and student and auto loans.
Some Republicans claimed the new agency would be as unpopular as the Transportation Security Administration, which operates airport screeners, while others wildly predicted the director of consumer protection would enjoy dictatorial powers.
Once Democrats managed to adopt the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009, Republicans turned to blocking the CFPB leader from taking control. They prevented Elizabeth Warren, President Barack Obama’s first choice to run the bureau, from being confirmed in the Senate.
So Obama selected another choice, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, and used his presidential authority to make a recess appointment and bypass Congress altogether.
Next, Republicans introduced legislation in 2012 that would give Congress direct control over the bureau’s budget, presumably so the GOP could eliminate its funding. Currently, the bureau is funded by the Federal Reserve. This bill is still pending in Congress, but Obama’s re-election, strengthened the CFPB’s position on forging ahead with consumer protections.
U.S. House Approves Consumer Financial Protection Watchdog (by Connie Prater, CreditCards.com)
Disinformation about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (by Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario)
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Future (by Steve Benen, Washington Monthly)
The GOP’s New Push To Defang the CFPB (by Suzy Khimm, Washington Post)
Tea Party in the House
Elected in November 2010, Tea Party congressional representatives have been a lightning rod for controversy during their first term in office.
Tea party members were determined in 2011 to prevent the House from approving an increase in the U.S. debt ceiling. Critics said the freshmen failed to appreciate the significance if the government did not raise the ability of the Treasury Department to borrow money. Tea party representatives insisted the worst thing was for the government to keep borrowing and demanded budget cuts to help pay for critical programs, such as disaster relief.
Democrats later blasted Tea Party Republicans for pushing anti-union legislation (H.R. 2587, the Jobs from Government Interference Act). The bill was focused on aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which had relocated a factory out of Washington State, where union workers had held strikes, and put it in South Carolina, a longtime non-union bastion.
The actions of the Tea Party cost them support among Americans. By 2011, only 19% of voters backed the new movement, according to a Pew Research Center survey. That percentage changed very little over the next year — in June 2012, it stood at just 21%.
Tea Party members also were criticized by fiscal conservatives. The Club for Growth issued a report card in 2012 that gave low marks to many freshman congressmen, including Tea Party “darling” Allen West, a Republican from Florida.
Warner Criticizes 'Tea-Party Crowd' (by Wesley P. Hester, Richmond Times-Dispatch)
David Obey's Debt Frustration (by McKay Coppins, The Daily Beast)
Tea Party Support for the Republican Congress Plunges (PoliticusUSA)
Tea Party PAC Gives Freshman House Republicans Low Grade (by Lauren Fox, U.S. News and World Report)
House Tea Party Republicans Continue Efforts To Bust Unions (by Congresswoman Betty McCollum, The Hill)
Tea Party Puts the Screws to House Republicans Over Debt Ceiling (by Eliza Newlin Carney, The Atlantic)
GOP “Freshmen Are in Good Shape” (by Susan Davis, USA Today)
House Votes to Remove Wildlife Areas from U.S. Protection
Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-California) proposed in 2011 to release large swaths of federal lands and open them up to mining, drilling, and recreational uses.
H.R. 1581 (the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011) would order the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service to release between 42 million and 58 million acres of land currently designated as wilderness study areas or protected from roadway development.
McCarthy said his “common sense bill” would free lands “held in regulatory limbo, which denies the American people full and appropriate access to them, and require they be managed for multiple-use.”
The Republican congressman said once released, the tracks would be locally stewarded by land managers, communities and stakeholders … consistent with existing environmental protections.”
The BLM opposed the legislation. Director Bob Abbey, along with Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources Harris Sherman, warned that supporters were relying on outdated studies to determine which lands should be released from federal control. He also noted the possible interests of mining companies in some of the parcels.
“H.R. 1581 is a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that fails to reflect local conditions and community-based interests,” Abbey testified before a House subcommittee.
Groups representing hunters were split over the bill. Some such as Hunter Advocacy for the Safari Club International favored the legislation, while the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a group of sportsmen’s organizations publicly opposed it.
As of September 2012, the bill was awaiting action in the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Bill to Release Wilderness Study Areas Creates Controversy (Wildlife Management Institute)
Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act: Some Places Are as Good as Gold (Red Lodge Clearinghouse)
Republican-Controlled House Votes to Cut NPR Funding
House Republicans in 2011 went after National Public Radio (NPR), which conservatives have long blasted for being too liberal, and voted to cut its federal funding. The legislation also prohibited public radio stations from using federal grant money to pay dues to NPR.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor claimed Americans didn’t want their tax dollars to support NPR content. “The problem is, we’ve seen NPR and its programming often veer far from what most Americans would like to see as far as the expenditure of their taxpayer dollars. That’s the bottom line. Nobody is on a rampage. Nobody is trying to say that we don’t like NPR for NPR’s sake,” Cantor said.
Democrats opposed the plan, arguing the GOP was trying to control the airwaves. “Under the guise of saving taxpayer dollars what they’re doing is silencing NPR—not because it saves money, but because it is not on the same ideological frequency of the extreme right,” Representative John Larson (D-Connecticut) said.
The effort to cut funding followed an embarrassing episode for NPR. A conservative activist video-recorded NPR fundraising executive Ron Schiller criticizing Republicans and Tea Party activists during a meeting. It was later revealed the video had been selectively edited to leave out important context for the controversial remarks. Nevertheless, Schiller stopped working for NPR, which also lost CEO Vivian Schiller who resigned because of the controversy.
U.S. House Votes to Cut NPR Funding (by Terence Burlij, PBS News Hour)
House Votes to Cut Federal Funding for National Public Radio (Politics Daily)
House GOP Unveils Plan To Cut NPR, Job Training And Education Programs (Associated Press)
Republican-Controlled House Votes to Cut Planned Parenthood Funding
Abortion once again became a focal point of controversy when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted in 2011 to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. The legislation would have chopped $330 million through the end of September for preventative-health services, including federal funding for contraception and cancer screenings, at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country.
Republicans insisted Planned Parenthood should not receive federal support because it offers abortion procedures. Opponents of the plan pointed out that Planned Parenthood is already prevented from spending any tax dollars on abortions because of the Hyde Amendment.
Before the vote, Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) brought the House chamber to stunned silence after telling lawmakers about her own experience with abortion. She went on to accuse Republicans of having a vendetta against Planned Parenthood. “Now you may not like Planned Parenthood, so be it,” Speier said. “There’s many on our side of the aisle that don’t like Halliburton. And Halliburton is responsible for extortion, for bribery, for 10 cases of misconduct in the federal database, for a $7 billion sole-source contract. But do you see us over here filing amendments to wipe out funding for Halliburton? No, because frankly that would be irresponsible. I would suggest to you it would serve us all very well if we moved on with this process and started focusing on creating jobs for the Americans who desperately want them.”
The effort to defund Planned Parenthood ultimately failed.
The following year, freshman Representative Bob Dold (R-Illinois) demonstrated that not all Republicans oppose abortion by introducing H.R. 5650, the Protecting Women’s Access to Health Care Act. The bill would prevent Congress from blocking Title X family planning funds to Planned Parenthood because some of its clinics provide abortions.
The Political Firestorm Over Planned Parenthood Cuts (by Peter Finocchiaro, Salon)
House Votes to Strip Planned Parenthood of Federal Funding (by Matthew Jaffe and John Parkinson, ABC News)
House Approves Planned Parenthood Funding, Cuts HIV Prevention Methods (by Matthew Cortina, Christian Post)
Bob Dold Introduces Bill To Protect Planned Parenthood Funding (by Laura Bassett, Huffington Post)
House Members Marked as Targets
As if the shooting of a congresswoman wasn’t controversial enough, Republican Sarah Palin added to the media storm in January 2011 because of her earlier talk of “targeting” Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona).
Giffords was meeting with constituents outside a Safeway in Tucson on January 8 when a gunman identified as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner opened fire, wounding the congresswoman and 19 others. Giffords was shot in the head and sustained brain damage, while two others, federal Judge John M. Roll and a nine-year-old girl, were killed.
Liberals blamed the attack on Palin for putting out a “target list” of Democrats she wanted voted out of office. The former Alaskan governor and vice presidential candidate used her political action committee, SarahPAC, to identify 20 congressional seats on her target list, which used the crosshairs of a rifle sight. She also encouraged supporters “Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!”
Palin issued a statement following the shooting in which she offered her condolences to Giffords’ family. But she did not apologize for the way the target list was presented to Republican supporters.
Giffords resigned from Congress in January 2012 in order to concentrate on her recovery.
Sarah Palin Gabrielle Giffords Controversy (by Tom Murse, About.com)
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Shot in Arizona, Was on Palin's Infamous "Target" Map (by Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing.net)
Gabrielle Giffords (Wikipedia)
After three decades of not getting along, Congress found a way in 2010 to be even more polarized. National Journal’s 2010 congressional vote ratings revealed what the publication was a new peak of polarization. It found that for only the second time since 1982, “every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than every Senate Republican—and every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than every Senate Democrat.”
After factoring in the voting records of the U.S. House, which already was more polarized than the Senate, 2010 stood out as the worst year yet in the long pulling apart of Congress. Experts said the great divide on Capitol Hill is a product of decades of gerrymandering and soaring deficits, which show no signs of going away.
“The world is looking to us for mature decision-making and they are not seeing it,” James Thurber of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, told Reuters. “We’re in a situation which is unique in our history. And it’s a very serious situation.”
Independent political analyst Charlie Cook said: “The polarization has gotten to an unprecedented place,” adding he sees no change in the intransigence of lawmakers through the next several years. This could mean more fiscal crises similar to those in 2011 when Republican lawmakers and President Barack Obama played a game of chicken over the deficit and the authorization to raise the debt ceiling, which allowed the government to borrow more money and pays its bills.
Pulling Apart (by Ronald Brownstein, National Journal)
Analysis: U.S. May Be Entering Age of Political Deadlock (by Tim Reid, Reuters)
The Credit Downgrade and the Congress: Why Polarized Politics Paralyze Public Policy (by Robert Stavins, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs)
Editorial: Political Polarization Is Not Cheap (USA Today)
An Update on Political Polarization (through 2011) (Voteview Blog)
Rude Remarks from Congressmen
Twice during President Barack Obama’s first term in office, Republican lawmakers made offensive and even racially oriented remarks toward the nation’s first Black president.
During the 2009 State of the Union address, Representative Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) shouted from his House chambers’ seat “you lie” when Obama said the healthcare reform legislation would not mandate coverage for undocumented immigrants. Following the speech, Wilson apologized to Obama for his “lack of civility.” But that wasn’t enough for Democrats, who controlled the House. On a mostly party line vote, the House passed a resolution condemning Wilson. The resolution marked the first time in the 220-year history of the House that a member was disciplined for speaking out during a presidential speech to Congress.
Two years later, another congressman, Republican Doug Lamborn of Colorado, got into trouble when he made a racist remark while discussing Obama’s economic policies. “Even if some people say the Republicans should have done this or that, they will hold the President responsible,” Lamborn said on a radio talk show. “I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby. You’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away. I don’t want that to happen to us, but even if it does, he’ll still get the blame because his policies will have failed the American people.”
Lamborn, ranked the most conservative House member by National Journal, later apologized in a letter to Obama for comparing him to a tar baby, a 19th century derogatory term for Black people.
Rep. Joe Wilson Yells Out "You Lie!" During Obama Health Care Speech (Huffington Post)
Congressman Calls Obama a Tar Baby (by Ron Ford, NewsyType.com)
Doug Lamborn Apologizes To Obama For 'Tar Baby' Comments (Huffington Post)
Global Warming Bill Controversy
For the first time in Congress, lawmakers in the House approved legislation in 2009 that sought to curb the release of greenhouse gases that add to global warming.
Majority Democrats had a difficult time cobbling together enough votes for the controversial plan. With industry opposed to the bill, some conservative Democrats and virtually all Republicans refused to endorse it. The final vote was 219 to 212.
Even environmentalists were split, with some groups opposing the bill because they said it did not go far enough to stem the problem.
The legislation could result in long-term and serious changes in many sectors of the U.S. economy, including electric power generation, agriculture, manufacturing, and construction.
A cap-and-trade system would go into effect that limits overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while permitting utilities, manufacturers and other polluters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves. The cap would tighten in future years as a means to prod emitters to adopt cleaner ways of making energy.
House Passes Bill to Address Threat of Climate Change (by John Broder, New York Times)
The U.S. House Of Representatives Approves Landmark (Bipartisan!) Climate Bill, 219 – 212. Waxman-Markey Would Complete America’s Transition To a Clean Energy Economy, Which Started With the Stimulus Bill. (by Joe Romm, Think Progress)
The Waxman-Markey Bill: A Good Start or a Non-Starter? (World Changing)
Sex Scandals Dog Florida Congressional Seat
In October 2008, it was revealed that Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Florida) had paid a former mistress more than $120,000 in hush money. A former aide to Mahoney, Patricia Allen, was threatening to sue the Congressman after their affair ended. Two years earlier, the freshman Democrat replaced disgraced Rep. Mark Foley (R-Florida), who was forced to leave his seat thanks to a sex scandal of his own involving House pages. Mahoney actually met Allen during the campaign for Foley’s seat, a campaign in which Mahoney promised “a world that is safer, more moral.” A Mahoney spokesman said that Allen resigned and that she “has not received any special payments from campaign funds.”
Congressman’s $121,000 Payoff to Alleged Mistress (by Emma Schwartz, Rhonda Schwartz and Vic Walter, ABC News)
Congressman Mahoney Admits to Multiple Affairs (by Emma Schwartz and Vic Walter, ABC News)
House Rejects, Then Approves Financial Bailout Plan
In a moment of historic importance, the House of Representatives rejected a $700 billion rescue of the financial industry in late September 2008. The vote came in stunning defiance of President George W. Bush and congressional leaders of both parties, who said the bailout was needed to prevent a widespread financial collapse. The failure was blamed on Republicans, 133 of whom turned against President Bush to join 95 Democrats in opposition.
Stock markets plunged in response to the “no” vote. The vote was called a “catastrophic political defeat” for President Bush, who went on television to gather political support for the recovery plan and lobbied House Republicans personally.
Four days later, the House reversed course and approved a somewhat modified version of the bailout plan. The change in vote was prompted by fears of a global economic meltdown and “inducements” that were added to the legislation by the Senate. Changes to the plan included a portfolio of $150 billion in popular tax provisions, including credits for the production of solar, wind, and other renewable energy, and an adjustment to spare middle-class families from paying the alternative minimum tax. In the end, 33 Democrats and 24 Republicans who had voted no the first time switched sides to support the plan.
Bailout Plan Wins Approval; Democrats Vow Tighter Rules (by David M. Herszenhorn, New York Times)
House Rejects Bailout Package, 228-205; Stocks Plunge (by Carl Hulse and David M. Herszenhorn, New York Times)
Ohio Congressman Convicted of Accepting Bribes
Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) pled guilty in October 2006 to corruption charges arising from the influence-peddling investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ney emerged from a month of alcoholism treatment to appear in federal court in Washington, where he admitted performing official acts for lobbyists in exchange for campaign contributions, expensive meals, luxury travel and skybox sports tickets. Ney also admitted taking thousands of dollars in gambling chips from an international businessman who sought his help with the State Department. Ney was the eighth person convicted in the federal investigation into Abramoff’s activities. A federal task force that included a dozen Justice Department prosecutors also investigated Abramoff's dealings with other congressional offices, including that of Rep. John Doolittle (R-California).
Ney Pleads Guilty to Corruption Charges (by Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi, Washington Post)
Congressman Convicted of Accepting Bribes
Former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-California) was sentenced in March 2006 to eight years and four months in federal prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes from at least three defense contractors. The sentence was the highest ever for a former member of Congress. The 64-year-old Cunningham pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. He also pleaded guilty to a separate tax-evasion violation for failing to disclose income in 2004. Hours after entering the pleas, Cunningham resigned from Congress in tears. It was also reported that some of Cunningham’s bribes may have been in the form of prostitutes hired by a defense contractor seeking to win a federal contract.
Prostitution Alleged In Cunningham Case (by Jo Becker and Charles R. Babcock, Washington Post)
If the House of Representatives is to meet the needs of a 21st century America, then it must undergo considerable reform, according to Jerry Climer, president of the Congressional Institute. Climer offers up a wide range of changes that should be implemented in both the composition and operation of the House.
First, congressional districts need to smaller to offer voters better representation in Washington D.C. Currently, the ratio is one representative for every 600,000 citizens. (In 1910, it was one for every 200,000.)
Also, candidates should be required to raise at least 75% of their total campaign funds from individuals within their home district. “This would return real control of congressional campaign funding to the local constituency and also slash the amount of outside special-interest money,” Climer argues.
Furthermore, candidates should not be allowed to carry surplus campaign funds from one election to the next.
The number and function of House committees should be reduced, leaving fewer than 10 standing committees. In a reformed House, permanent committees would consist of:
Other recommended changes include: All members should vote to elect members of all committees; membership on any one committee should be limited to 10 years; and members elected to committees should elect their own sub-committee and committee chairpersons by secret ballot. (Such a system would make the committee leadership more responsive to the membership, and less so to outside interests or to centralized leaders.)
A proposal to make the US Federal Government represent the people, instead of money (by Jerry Climer, The Congressional Institute)
Common Cause Urges Rules Changes for House
Concerned about the abuse of congressional rules and procedures that shut out minority views, in 2004 Common Cause joined with some House members to address certain problems. While the Republicans controlled the House, the organization found that conference committees often did not meet publicly; House votes were being held open long past their official time limits to allow the leadership to “twist arms” to get the vote results they want; and amendments proposed by Democratic members were killed by the House Rules Committee, often in late-night meetings.
To address these concerns, Common Cause got Reps. Martin Meehan (D-Massachusetts) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) to sponsor HR 5101, which would implement a series of rule changes for the House. These included: same-day consideration of Rules Committee reports; restrictions on late-night voting; new limits on voting time; and two-thirds voting requirement for certain waivers under the House rules.
Congressional Reform (Common Cause)
Health Care Reform
In April 2008, Democratic and Republican members of Congress debated the state of health care in America and ways it can be made more affordable and accessible. Julie Rovner of National Public Radio moderated the event, which was sponsored by the House Democratic Caucus and the House Republican Conference in cooperation with the Democratic Leadership Council and the Congressional Institute.
Democrat side: (Xavier Becerra, Marion Berry, Kathy Castor, Allyson Schwartz)
According to Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Florida), another 8.5 million Americans lost access to health insurance since 2001, bringing the grand total to 74 million in the country as a whole. Up to 9 million children do not have access to pediatricians. The premiums for family coverage now are up 78% since 2001. Family coverage now costs a family over $12,000 per year. Out-of-pocket costs are rising. Co-pays are going up and premiums are going up. “In addition to all of that, President Bush and the Republican colleagues have undermined, continue to undermine, our health care safety nets in this country.”
Castor insists Democrats want to create comprehensive solutions to provide quality, affordable health care. They want to spend more money to improve the primary care system, strengthen community health centers and make prevention education a priority. They argue that these changes will help reduce long-term costs facing the health care system.
They want changes that won’t force uninsured people into emergency rooms. They also want more access to online prescriptions for Americans and the right to negotiate fair drug prices for Medicare.
Republican side: (Charles Boustany, Shelley Moore Capito, Nathan Deal, John Shadegg)
Republicans don’t disagree that there is a serious problem with health care. But they insist on market-based solutions to fix things, not greater government involvement or more mandates. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Arizona) says that restoring tax fairness is essential. Individuals should be allowed to purchase health care coverage under the same tax treatment given to those who receive their care through their employer. This will help all Americans obtain affordable health care coverage. Today’s workers need to know that if they leave their employer they do not risk losing their coverage.
Further, individuals and small businesses should be allowed to take advantage of additional pooling mechanisms so they can purchase group coverage with the same cost saving benefits that large employers now enjoy. Medical liability reform is essential. Too often the interests of trial lawyers are put in front of the interests of patients and doctors. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated that over $125 billion could be saved if “reasonable medical liability reforms were adopted.” Americans should be able to have a health savings account (HSA) so they can put money aside for their ordinary health care expenses.
Recently housed Democrats further restricted HSAs. Republicans argue that patients, not Congress, should decide whether an HSA is right for them. “These reforms will lead to real patient choice. Not a government program. Not more rules and regulations.”
Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform (Brookings Institution)
Impacts of Health Care Reform: Projections of Costs and Savings (by Kenneth E. Thorpe, National Coalition on Health Care Reform (pdf)
Former House Speakers
Nancy Pelosi (2007-2011)
Dennis Hastert (1999-2007)
Newt Gingrich (1995-1999)
Thomas S. Foley (1989-1995)
James C. Wright, Jr. (1987-1989)
Thomas “Tip” O'Neill, Jr. (1977-1987)
Carl B. Albert (1971-1977)
John W. McCormack (1963-1971)
Joseph W. Martin, Jr. (1947-1949; 1953-1955)
Sam Rayburn (1940-1947; 1949-1953; 1955-1963)
William B. Bankhead (1936-1940)
Joseph W. Byrns (1935-1936)
Henry T. Rainey (1933-1935)
John Nance Garner (1931-1933) Garner served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933 until 1941. It was Garner who famously described the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
Nicholas Longworth (1925-1931)
Frederick H. Gillett (1919-1925)
James Beauchamp Clark (1911-1919)
Joseph G. Cannon (1903-1911)
David B. Henderson (1899-1903)
Charles F. Crisp (1891-1895)
Thomas B. Reed (1889-1891; 1895-1899)
John G. Carlisle (1883-1889)
J. Warren Keifer (1881-1883)
Samuel J. Randall (1876-1881)
Michael C. Kerr (1875-1876)
James G. Blaine (1869-1875) Baline ran for President in 1884 and was defeated by Grover Cleveland.
Theodore M. Pomeroy (1869). Pomeroy served as Speaker for one day on March 3, 1869.
Schuyler Colfax (1863-1869)
Galusha A. Grow (1861-1863)
William Pennington (1860-1861)
James L. Orr (1857-1860)
Nathaniel P. Banks (1856-1857)
Linn Boyd (1851-1856)
Howell Cobb (1849-1851)
Robert C. Winthrop (1847-1849)
John W. Davis (1845-1847)
John W. Jones (1843-1845)
John White (1841-1843)
Robert M.T. Hunter (1839-1841)
James K. Polk (1835-1839). Polk was elected President of the United States in 1844.
John Bell (1834-1835)
Andrew Stevenson (1831-1834)
Philip P. Barbour (1821-1823)
John W. Taylor (1820-1821)
Langdon Cheves (1814-1815)
Henry Clay (1811-1814: 1815-1820; 1823-1825)
Joseph B. Varnum (1807-1811)
Nathaniel Macon (1801-1807)
Theodore Sedgwick (1799-1802)
Jonathan Dayton (1797-1799)
Jonathan Trumbull (1791-1793)
Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg (1789-1791; 1793-1795)
John Boehner (pronounced “BAY-ner”), a staunchly pro-business conservative, has spent 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, rising to the top of the Republican Party leadership by making himself useful to those above him in the hierarchy and helping those below him. While promoting financial and procedural reform within the House, he has cultivated the friendship of corporate leaders and lobbyists in several industries, particularly companies in the fields of steel production, tobacco, financial services and insurance. During the run-up to the 2010 election, he was the number one fundraiser for the Republican Party, bringing in tens of millions of dollars.
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Nancy Pelosi began serving as Speaker of the House in January 2007, becoming the first woman to hold the position in House history. She vacated the position after the Republicans took over the House in January 2011.