Congress: The Senate and House of Representatives
While the President functions as the executive power in the United States, the legislative power lies with the Congress. In this section you can read about how Congress is structured and how elections for Congress work.
The Congress is the national parliament in the U.S. It is divided into two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Here, politicians are elected from all of the 50 states in the U.S. In Denmark there is only one chamber in the parliament. That is Folketinget. Denmark used to have two chambers as well, until Landstinget closed after a constitutional amendment (grundlovsændring) in 1953.
A bill must receive a majority of the votes in both chambers of Congress for legislation to be passed in the U.S. You can learn more about this on our page about the legislative process.
In the Senate, there are two representatives from each state. That is a total of 100 Senators. That means that the same number of Senators represent the least populated state of Wyoming as the most populated state of California. To illustrate the contrast, Wyoming has only 0,5 million inhabitants, while California has 39 million.
To become a candidate for the Senate you must be at least 30 years old. Additionally, any candidate must have been a citizen of the U.S. for a minimum of 9 years, and must be a resident of the state in which they run for office. Elected Senators serve a term of six years. However, elections for Senate do not work the same way as Danish elections for Folketinget. In Denmark, all politicians are up for re-election at the same time. In contrast, elections in the Senate are held every two years. This means that only 1/3 of the Senators are up for re-election each time. But two Senators from the same state are never up for re-election at the same time. Therefore, every state has two elections for Senate in a period of six years.
As with the presidential election, being elected Senator is a long process. Primary elections are held in spring in each state where the parties decide which candidate is going to represent them at the election. In several states the primary election is the most decisive because either the Republicans or Democrats have such a strong hold on some states that the candidate they choose to represent them will be a certain winner of the actual election. At the election it is the candidate that gets the most votes that will become one of the states two Senators.
House of Representatives
The other chamber in Congress, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members. The House also contains an additional 6 representatives of American territories (including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico). However, these are not allowed to vote. Out of these 435 seats, each state has a certain number of representatives, based on their population size. Each seat in the House corresponds to approximately 750,000 people. Thus, a state with 7.5 million inhabitants would have 10 seats in the House. Consequently, the smallest states only have one seat in the House, while California has 53 seats. The number of seats allocated to each state is up for evaluation every 10 years, when the U.S. Census Bureau (comparable to Danmarks Statistik) conducts a Census for the entire United States. The total number of seats must always equal 435 though.
In order to run for office a candidate must be at least 25 years of age. Additionally, a candidate must have been a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years. Candidates also have to be residents of the state (but not necessarily the congressional district) in which they are running for office.
Elections for the House are held every two years, but, in contrast to the Senate, every member of the House is up for re-election each time. Thus, members of the House only serve two year terms. Every state has the same number of congressional districts as it has seats in the House. Congressional districts each consist of approximately 750,000 people. The candidate who receives the most votes in each district gets to represent the district in the House.
In the next section, we will dive into the American legislative process. In doing this, we will elaborate on the function of the U.S. Congress and its chambers and touch upon the overall role of Congress in the U.S. political system.
- Compare how Folketinget works in Denmark with how Congress works in the U.S. Which differences and similarities are there?
- In your own words, explain how elections for Congress are conducted.
- Close to 40 million people live in California. Seven states have less than 1 million inhabitants. Do you think it is fair that California has 53 seats in the House of Representatives when seven of the small states have only 1 seat? Why/why not?
- Do you think it is fair that every state gets two seats in the Senate even though some states has a very large population compared to others. Why/why not?
- What do you think about that there is a minimum age to be elected for office in the U.S. (25 years old for the House, 30 years for the Senate, and 35 years for presidency)? Which advantages and disadvantages do you see in having a lower age limit as this for taking office?