Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress of the Confederation was a unicameral body in which each state was equally represented, and in which each state had a veto over most action. After eight years of a more limited confederal government under the Articles, numerous political leaders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton initiated the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which received the Confederation Congress's sanction to "amend the Articles of Confederation". All states except Rhode Island agreed to send delegates.
Representation of all political parties as percentage in House of Representatives over time
Historical graph of party control of the Senate and House as well as the presidency
The issue of how to structure Congress was one of the most divisive among the founders during the Convention. Edmund Randolph's Virginia Plan called for a bicameral Congress: the lower house would be "of the people", elected directly by the people of the United States and representing public opinion, and a more deliberative upper house, elected by the lower house, that would represent the individual states, and would be less susceptible to variations of mass sentiment.
The House is referred to as the lower house, with the Senate being the upper house, although the United States Constitution does not use that terminology. Both houses' approval is necessary for the passage of legislation. The Virginia Plan drew the support of delegates from large states such as Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, as it called for representation based on population. The smaller states, however, favored the New Jersey Plan, which called for a unicameral Congress with equal representation for the states.
Eventually, the Convention reached the Connecticut Compromise or Great Compromise, under which one house of Congress (the House of Representatives) would provide representation proportional to each state's population, whereas the other (the Senate) would provide equal representation amongst the states. The Constitution was ratified by the requisite number of states (nine out of the 13) in 1788, but its implementation was set for March 4, 1789. The House began work on April 1, 1789, when it achieved a quorum for the first time.
During the first half of the 19th century, the House was frequently in conflict with the Senate over regionally divisive issues, including slavery. The North was much more populous than the South, and therefore dominated the House of Representatives. However, the North held no such advantage in the Senate, where the equal representation of states prevailed.
Regional conflict was most pronounced over the issue of slavery. One example of a provision repeatedly supported by the House but blocked by the Senate was the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to ban slavery in the land gained during the Mexican–American War. Conflict over slavery and other issues persisted until the Civil War (1861–1865), which began soon after several southern states attempted to secede from the Union. The war culminated in the South's defeat and in the abolition of slavery. All southern senators except Andrew Johnson resigned their seats at the beginning of the war, and therefore the Senate did not hold the balance of power between North and South during the war.
The years of Reconstruction that followed witnessed large majorities for the Republican Party, which many Americans associated with the Union's victory in the Civil War and the ending of slavery. The Reconstruction period ended in about 1877; the ensuing era, known as the Gilded Age, was marked by sharp political divisions in the electorate. The Democratic Party and Republican Party each held majorities in the House at various times.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw a dramatic increase in the power of the Speaker of the House. The rise of the Speaker's influence began in the 1890s, during the tenure of Republican Thomas Brackett Reed. "Czar Reed", as he was nicknamed, attempted to put into effect his view that "The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch." The leadership structure of the House also developed during approximately the same period, with the positions of Majority Leader and Minority Leader being created in 1899. While the Minority Leader was the head of the minority party, the Majority Leader remained subordinate to the Speaker. The Speakership reached its zenith during the term of Republican Joseph Gurney Cannon, from 1903 to 1911. The powers of the Speaker included chairmanship of the influential Rules Committee and the ability to appoint members of other House committees. These powers, however, were curtailed in the "Revolution of 1910" because of the efforts of Democrats and dissatisfied Republicans who opposed Cannon's arguably heavy-handed tactics.
The Democratic Party dominated the House of Representatives during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945), often winning over two-thirds of the seats. Both Democrats and Republicans were in power at various times during the next decade. The Democratic Party maintained control of the House from 1955 until 1995. In the mid-1970s, there were major reforms of the House, strengthening the power of sub-committees at the expense of committee chairs and allowing party leaders to nominate committee chairs. These actions were taken to undermine the seniority system, and to reduce the ability of a small number of senior members to obstruct legislation they did not favor. There was also a shift from the 1990s to greater control of the legislative program by the majority party; the power of party leaders (especially the Speaker) grew considerably.
The Republicans took control of the House in 1995, under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich attempted to pass a major legislative program, the Contract with America, on which the House Republicans had been elected, and made major reforms of the House, notably reducing the tenure of committee chairs to three two-year terms. Many elements of the Contract did not pass Congress, were vetoed by President Bill Clinton, or were substantially altered in negotiations with Clinton. However, after Republicans held control in the 1996 election, Clinton and the Gingrich-led House agreed on the first balanced federal budget in decades, along with a substantial tax cut. The Republicans held on to the House until 2006, when the Democrats won control and Nancy Pelosi was subsequently elected by the House as the first female Speaker. The Republicans retook the House in 2011, with the largest shift of power since the 1930s.