Member of Congress

Member of Congress in the United States

Member of Congress Definition

A member of the senate or house of representatives of the United States.


Formal Qualifications

The Constitution says that a member of the House:
(1) must be at least 25 years of age,
(2) must have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and
(3) must be an inhabitant of the State from which he or she is elected (Article I, Section 2, Clause 2; see also Article I, Section 6, Clause 2).

Longstanding custom, not the Constitution, also requires that a representative must live in the district he or she represents. The custom is based on the belief that the legislator should be closely familiar with the locale he or she represents, its people, and its problems. Rarely, then, does a district choose an outsider to represent it.

The Constitution makes the House “the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members” (Article I, Section 5, Clause 1). Thus, when the right of a member-elect to be seated is challenged, the House has the power to decide the matter. Challenges are rarely successful.

The House may refuse to seat a member-elect by majority vote. It may also “punish its Members for disorderly Behavior” by majority vote, and “with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”

Historically, the House viewed its power to judge the qualifications of members-elect as the power to impose additional standards. It did so several times. In 1900 it refused to seat Brigham H. Roberts of Utah because he was a polygamist– that is, he had more than one wife. In Powell v. McCormack, 1969, however, the Supreme Court held that the House could not exclude a member-elect who meets the Constitution’s standards of age, citizenship, and residence. The House has not excluded anyone since that decision.

Over more than 200 years, the House has expelled only five members. Three were ousted in 1861 for their “support of rebellion.” Michael Myers (D., Pennsylvania) was expelled in 1980 for corruption. Myers had been caught up in the Abscam probe, an undercover FBI investigation of corruption. Most recently, the House ejected James Traficant (D., Ohio) in 2002. Mr. Traficant had earlier been convicted of several counts of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Over time, a few members have resigned to avoid almost certain expulsion.

The House has not often punished a member for “disorderly Behavior,” but such actions are not nearly so rare as expulsions. Most recently, the House voted to “reprimand” Barney Frank (D., Massachusetts) in 1990 for conduct stemming from his relationship with a male prostitute. Mr. Frank, an avowed homosexual, has been easily reelected by the voters in his congressional district every two years since then.

The Speaker of the House left Congress under a cloud in 1989. Jim Wright (D., Texas) resigned his seat after the House Ethics Committee charged him with a number of violations of House rules. Most of those allegations centered around Mr. Wright’s financial dealings with individuals and companies with an interest in legislation before the House.

Informal Qualifications

The realities of politics produce a number of informal qualifications for membership in the House– beyond those qualifications set out in the Constitution. These additional qualifications vary somewhat from time to time and from State to State, and sometimes from one congressional district to another within the same State.

Informal qualifications have to do with a candidate’s vote-getting abilities. They include such factors as party identification, name familiarity, gender, ethnic characteristics, and political experience. The “right” combination of these factors will help a candidate win nomination and then election to the House. The “wrong” ones, however, will almost certainly spell defeat.

The Job

One leading commentary on American politics describes Congress and the job of a member of Congress this way: “Congress has a split personality. On the one hand, it is a lawmaking institution and makes policy for the entire nation. In this capacity, all the members are expected to set aside their personal ambitions and perhaps even the concerns of their constituencies. Yet Congress is also a representative assembly, made up of 535 elected officials who serve as links between their constituents and the National Government. The dual roles of making laws and responding to constituents’ demands forces members to balance national concerns against the specific interests of their States or districts. ” (Burns, et al., Government by the People)

Members of Congress play five major roles. They are most importantly legislators and representatives of their constituents. Beyond these roles, they are also committee members, servants of their constituents, and politicians. You will take a close look at their lawmaking function in the next two chapters. In this Encyclopedia, we consider their representative, committee member, and servant functions.

Members of Congress Platform

The Lawi platform of U.S. Members of Congress is here.

Browsing the Platform by Congress

Most popular Congress were:

Congressional Member Organizations

Legal Materials

Congressional Member Organizations (CMOs) are organizations of U.S. Senators and/or Representatives, such as the House Republican Conference or the Congressional Black Caucus. A list of CMOs is posted by the Committee on House Administration.

Materials written by CMOs from 1991 to 2001 were indexed and published in a microfiche service called Congressional Member Organizations and Caucuses: Publications and Policy Materials by the Congressional Information Service.

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