Surprising Things You Never Knew About the House of Representatives
We know it’s the lower house of Congress and that it helps make laws, but, for many of us, that might be the extent of what we know about the House of Representatives. It’s a shame, really. The Senate is stodgy and boring and the Supreme Court is just way too exclusive (though it has its surprises, too). The president is, well, the president, but the House is where it’s at. They’re the hip, happening ones. The bold and brash ideologues of American government and, frankly, things get way more interesting there than anywhere else on the Hill. Don’t believe us? Just check out these fifteen facts you never knew about our esteemed public servants, and then maybe give your rep a call.
1. The House decides the presidency if nobody wins an electoral majority
According to the Constitution, if no candidate in a presidential election wins a majority of the electoral votes, the decision goes to the House of Representatives. Since the ratification of the twelfth amendment — the one that designates separate ballots for president and vice-president and keeps mortal enemies from having to serve together in the White House — the House has only had to decide an election once. In 1825 they awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams over an enraged Andrew Jackson.
Next: The House hits the small screen
2. House sessions have been televised for forty years
The first live, televised House session aired in 1979. The first member to address the House, after a prayer by the chaplain and being recognized by Speaker Tip O’Neill, was Tennessee’s Al Gore, who would later be elected vice-president under Bill Clinton in 1992. The Senate, meanwhile, lagged a bit behind its younger, more tech-savvy sibling and did not have its first televised session until seven years later in 1986.
Next: Believe it or not, sometimes they disagree
3. Representatives once had to vote 133 times to decide on their leader
In 1856, Nathaniel Banks won the position of Speaker of the House on the 133rd ballot, which was the most votes ever required. This was largely due to the state of chaos in which Congress found itself in the leadup to the Civil War. Traditional voting blocs had splintered over the issue of slavery, and in addition to the usual Democratic and Republican parties (however different they may have looked from the ones we know today), there were also the last surviving remnants of the Whig party and the earliest influences of the short-lived Know-Nothing party.
Next: ID, please?
4. The age requirement wasn’t always enforced
The Constitution requires any members of the House to be at least 25 years old, but in 1797, a 22-year-old, William Charles Cole Claiborne, was elected from Tennessee and served until 1801 — apparently without any legal challenge. Although the youngest, he was not the only person under the age requirement to have served in either the House or Senate in the earlier days of our country when public records weren’t so well kept.
Next: I’m just a bill, sittin’ here on Capitol Hill
5. All tax bills originate here
While it’s common knowledge that any law has to be passed by both the House and the Senate (and signed, of course, by the president), what’s less well known is that any bill dealing with taxes must begin in the House. This is due to what’s known as the “origination clause” in the Constitution, which states specifically that “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”
Next: Weapons not allowed — except this one
6. The House has a mace
Under the authority of the Speaker of the House, there is a ceremonial mace that can be employed to restore order when those tax bills — or impeachment proceedings — make members particularly feisty. Though it’s never been used actually to wallop somebody over the head, it has been presented by the Sergeant At Arms, at the direction of the Speaker, on a number of occasions. The mere sight of it, fortunately, has been enough to calm tempers.
Next: A straight-shooter with upper management written all over him
7. Speakers of the House don’t (usually) become president
Although the Speaker of the House is next in line to the presidency behind the vice president, only one Speaker of the House has actually gone on to the top job: James K. Polk. Polk served as the Speaker from 1835 to 1839 before leaving Congress to become governor of Tennessee. He reemerged into national politics in the 1844 presidential election, running and winning as a relatively unknown candidate of the Democratic party.
Next: More than just a slap on the wrist
8. Members can be expelled
It isn’t common, but it can happen. A two-thirds vote of its members can get a representative expelled from the House. In our country’s entire history, this has only happened to five men, three of whom were expelled during the Civil War for disloyalty to the Union. The fourth was expelled in the 1980s for a bribery conviction, and the most recent, James A. Traficant, was expelled in 2002 by a whopping 420 to 1 vote for a host of misdeeds including a conspiracy to commit bribery, obstruction of justice, and racketeering.
Next: Not without its occupational hazards
9. Some representatives do give the ultimate sacrifice
While many congressmen have died while in office, Leo Ryan’s death in 1978 was unique in the line of duty. A representative from California, Ryan was investigating activities in the Jonestown commune in Guyana on behalf of a constituent whose son had died there in suspicious circumstances. As Ryan was preparing to leave the area in the company of some defecting commune members, other Jonestown members opened fire on their plane, killing Ryan and four others. That same evening, the Jonestown commune became an international tragedy when over 900 people died in a mass suicide/murder.
Next: No longer bigger, but hopefully still better
10. There haven’t always been 435 members
The original House of Representatives had 65 members, and new members were added as the country expanded and the population grew. The House reached its current size in 1911, and a law was passed in 1929 to cap it at 435 members. This law, the Permanent Reapportionment Act of 1929, also dictated how the members would be divvied up among the states after every ten-year census.
Next: Call me, beep me
11. The House had the first Capitol telephone
The very first telephone in the U.S. Capitol Building was — you guessed it — in the lobby of the House of Representatives in 1880, just four years after its invention by Alexander Graham Bell. Originally handled solely by the Doorkeeper of the House, within two years the volume of calls had grown so large that a page was hired to help. Eventually, telephones became staples in offices across the capital, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Next: So much for stately decorum
12. It isn’t always the docile place you’d expect
Some of the biggest congressional conflicts occurred, unsurprisingly, in the leadup to the Civil War. In 1858, a Pennsylvania Republican and South Carolina Democrat came to fisticuffs over the prospect of Kansas joining the Union and its subsequent free state/slave state question. Over 30 more members of the House joined in the fight. If you’re thinking this sounds like a great opportunity to whip out that mace we’ve heard so much about, you’re right: It was indeed brandished by the sergeant-at-arms and order was restored, but not before at least one prominent congressman lost his wig.
Next: Glass ceiling, meet fist
13. They elected their first female Speaker in 2007
Though the first woman was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916 — and was also, coincidentally, the only member of Congress to vote against both World Wars — now, over a century later, we are finally in the era of the first female Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco’s district in California, became the first female Speaker in 2007, and Democratic members of the House reelected her to the position in 2019 after regaining the majority from Republicans in the 2018 midterms.
Next: Equal, schmequal
14. The House doesn’t represent the population equally
Although the House is supposed to represent the states proportionately, this doesn’t mean that each member represents the same number of people. Because the total number of representatives is fixed and each state has to have at least one, we end up in situations like the current one. Montana, the largest state with a single representative, has its entire population of 1,050,493 people represented by one House member. Meanwhile, the next smallest state, Rhode Island, has two representatives for its 1,059,639 people, meaning that each one represents only 529,820 people, giving each Rhode Islander nearly twice the representation of a Montanite.
Next: How’s that for job security?
15. Representatives (almost) always win
Sometimes it feels like we’re in a constant election cycle, with talk of campaigns starting up almost before the previous one has finished. With their six-year terms, senators, at least, have a few years in office before having to think about another contest. Members of the House, though, are up for election every two years, leaving you wondering when they have time to make any laws. Don’t feel too bad, though, with a 93% reelection rate for incumbents, they shouldn’t need to spend too much energy on their campaign.