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House of Representatives

The First U.s. House Of Representatives, 1789–1791: Setting Precedent For Future Lawmakers

Today the U.S. House of Representatives is known as an institution with established traditions and procedures. It has 435 members, standing committees, rules for evaluating legislation, and well-defined relations with the Senate, the president, and the executive agencies of the federal government. However, the structure and operations of the House have not always been well established. In 1789, as it began the task of creating laws for a new nation, the House had no precedent to guide it.

The House of Representatives first convened April 1, 1789, in New York City. Representatives slowly made the long journey to New York, and the First House eventually reached a total of sixty-five members. Fifty-five representatives belonged to the FEDERALIST PARTY, and ten allied themselves with the Anti-Federalist party.

The new House members were not without experience in legislative matters. Fifty-two had served in a state legislature, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, or the Constitutional Convention. Their legislative experience proved invaluable during this First Congress, because the Constitution gave them only limited guidance on how to establish the House. It was up to the representatives to work out the details of an effective lawmaking body.

On its first day in session, the House elected its officers, choosing Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania, as its first Speaker. On succeeding days it established rules relating to debate, legislation, committees, and cooperation with the Senate. It also defined the duties of the Speaker, modeling that position after the Speaker of the English House of Commons. The Speaker was to preside over House sessions, preserve order, resolve disputed points, and appoint certain committees.

The lack of precedent made operations difficult for the First House. JAMES MADISON, of Virginia, a principal Framer of the Constitution and a leading member of the First House, complained, "In every step the difficulties arising from novelty are severely experienced …. Scarcely a day passes without some striking evidence of the delays and perplexities springing merely from the want of precedents." Madison was confident that the House would resolve its problems, however, concluding, "Time will be a full remedy for this evil."

The House gradually found ways to improve the problems cited by Madison and others. One important solution was the development of committees. The first legislation passed by the House was created by the Committee of the Whole—that is, the entire House acting as one large committee. Representatives soon found that this was a cumbersome way to pass legislation. When meeting as the Committee of the Whole, they could consider only one piece of legislation at a time. Moreover, the chamber often became bogged down by seemingly endless debate as each member sought to join the argument.

The House responded to this predicament by creating temporary committees to research and draft legislation, forming a separate committee for each bill. This relieved the entire chamber of the necessity of debating every detail of each piece of legislation. The contemporary House, by contrast, has permanent, or standing, committees, each of which handles many bills. The sole standing committee to come out of the first House was the Committee on Elections.

With these and other changes, the First House of Representatives was able to accomplish many tasks of vital importance to the young nation. Together with the Senate, it passed sixty statutes, including laws that founded the Departments of War, Treasury, and Foreign Affairs. The House also established its power to give limited orders to executive agencies, such as when it requested Secretary of the Treasury ALEXANDER HAMILTON to report on issues such as the federal debt, plans to promote manufacturing, and the establishment of a national mint. No less important, under the leadership of James Madison, it drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the BILL OF RIGHTS.

The House has changed greatly in more than two centuries, but the foundation built by the first representatives remains. Their innovations have become flexible traditions that allow the House to maintain order even as it evolves and adapts to new situations.

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