House Versus Senate

As you learned, the House and Senate are two distinct chambers. Although both bodies compose a single bicameral legislature, each serves a different purpose. We've learned that these institutional differences stem from several things: the size of the bodies, the powers prescribed to each in the Constitution, the use of rules, and the leadership structure. Over the course of two centuries, other differences have evolved as well.

The Prestige Factor

During the early years of the Republic, service in the House was considered more prestigious than the Senate. The disparity in size between the two chambers wasn't nearly as large as it is today, and only House members were elected directly by the people (senators were chosen by their state legislature). In fact, it wasn't unusual for senators to give up their seats in order to run for the House.

Moreover, unlike the present, most of the important debates of the early nineteenth century took place in the lower chamber, where the great orators and debaters of the day served. This was so much the case that President John Quincy Adams, upon losing his bid for re-election in 1828, returned to Massachusetts and subsequently won a seat in the House of Representatives. He served there until his death.

The balance of prestige between the chambers has shifted over the years, owing to the change to direct election of senators, which began in 1913, and the growth of the House to its current size of 435. These days, it's very common for representatives to “graduate” to the Senate (almost a third of the current Senate has served in the House), while it's unheard of for a senator to seek a House seat. For politicians with national ambitions, the Senate has served as a viable steppingstone to the presidency and vice presidency.

Do you know how many former senators have served as vice president since World War II?

Seven: Alben Barkley (Harry Truman), Richard Nixon (Dwight Eisenhower), Lyndon Johnson (John F. Kennedy), Hubert Humphrey (Lyndon Johnson), Walter Mondale (Jimmy Carter), Dan Quayle (George H.W. Bush), and Al Gore (Bill Clinton). During that same time, only two representatives were even nominated for the second spot by either of the major parties: Tom Miller in 1964 (Barry Goldwater), and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 (Walter Mondale).

Media Attention

For most House members not in a leadership position, getting the attention of the media is a full-time (and usually fruitless) task. Most reporters and broadcasters have little interest in covering the daily toiling of a representative unless it involves scandal or a gaffe.

Senators, on the other hand, are regulars on the six o'clock news and Sunday talk shows, particularly those from the larger states like California and New York, where they're thrust into the national spotlight simply by holding office. Even small-state and junior senators have little trouble getting media coverage on a regular basis.

This ability to garner media attention gives senators a national platform from which to advocate policy, raise money, increase their awareness among the electorate, and lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign (should that be his or her ambition).

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