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Comparison Between the US Congress and the UK Parliament


The United States and the United Kingdom can be considered among the greatest policy holders of the International community. Despite the close relationship between the two countries, their forms of government show great differences both in the structure and functions. This is very clear in the legislative formation of the two countries where the United States is made up of the Congress which is comprised of the Senate and the House of representatives while the United Kingdom is made of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. While it is evident that the US legislative formation was based on the UK counterparts, the issue of time has led to differences. However, the fact that the US formation was based on the UK counterpart, it is therefore evident that there could be similarities. As a result, this paper will give an in-depth comparison between the US Congress and the British Parliament. This will be achieved by pointing out the differences and the similarities which come in terms of memberships, qualifications of members, the role of the government leaders and party leaders, the role of the speaker, the different committees and their roles, the consideration of the floor and finally the Second Chambers.

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The United States legislative powers are bestowed to the Congress which comprises of the Senate and the House of representatives. Each State has two senators each having a single vote and is chosen by the Legislature. The Senators serve for six years unless otherwise. The Senators are chosen at a period of two years. This happens in such a way that those Senators of the first Class are expected to vacate during the second year while the Second Class is expected to vacate after the forth year before the Third Class of Senates evacuates after the sixth year. This formation allows for a choosing of Senators after every two years. On their part, the UK parliament consists of two major branches. There are the House of Lords which has six hundred and eighteen seats which are made up of about 500 life peers, approximately 92 hereditary peers and 26 Clergy. The second branch is the House of Commons which has seats amounting to six hundred and forty six. This number was first started in the 2005 General elections. If the House is not dissolved prematurely, the Members are elected to serve for five years. The Members are also elected by the popular vote [1]

Differences and Similarities

To start with the paper will identify the major differences as pointed out by the two legislative arms. As mentioned above, the US structure of the legislative arm was purely based on the structure of the British one. However, the last two centuries have witnessed great diversions as the policies and needs of each country tries to look for the best way to satisfy their citizens. One of the greatest differences is the fundamental or basic purposes of the two houses. In the British system, the House of Commons is primarily the body of the government that deals with forming and maintaining of the government. This is a role that ensures that the policies and all the activities of the government are well acceptable and are properly strategized and implemented. The members of this chamber are ministers and their deputies derived from the party that forms the majority in the house.

The US structure is completely different from this. On their part, the House of Representatives is a forum which is completely different from the executive branch. This is purely a forum formed for the primary role of oversight and legislative work. While the House of Commons come up with policies that they implement, the House of Representatives views and opinions may well be very different from those of the government elect which is the executive and the presidency. This is to say that ones a policy is passed in the UK the government policy can be taken as the policy of the House of Commons. As a result, there are very few considerations by the House of Commons that are outside the government sanction that can impact on major policies. On their part, the US House of representative works as a funding organ for the maintenance and continuation of the programs put forward by the government. Contrary to the British formation, the US formation can allow for great exploits by a single member or an individual party leader. Such people can make great changes on a major policy that could be different from the other members [6].

Another difference between the two legislative arms is evident in terms of the office term and the elections timing. In the UK, the Parliament Act of 1911 dictates that the sitting parliament will not stay in the house for more than five years.

House of Commons and the US House of Representatives. CRS Report for Congress.

As Petersen (2005) states, “the duration of a parliament might not exceed five years from the date on which the current parliament first convened” However, the date of the elections has not been cast in stiff iron a frame that makes it not flexible. Instead, the dates in the recent years have been determined by the government in question. The government has the mandate to announce the date of the general elections only that the announcement must be made within thirty days of the announcement. In addition, there must be a formal request by the parliament to the crown for the dissolving of the parliament. Accordingly, the recent years have witnessed elections being held after a span of four years. A good example was the 2005 general elections that were announced on April fifth and fixed for May fifth. After the request by the parliament to the Crown for the dissolving of the parliament, the parliament was dissolved on April 11. This marks a great difference from the US counterparts. In their system, it is not the role of the government to announce the date of a general election. Instead, the date is fixed on the Tuesday after November’s premier Monday of each even numbered year. The law also specifies the date for the party leaders and is usually within the election year’s first six months. After this election, the National Party Organizations then assume the role of assisting the chosen candidate in his campaigns.

Apart from the differences in the date of elections, the date by which the party leaders are elected also shows another great difference.

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While the US Party leader is elected within the first six months of the election year, the leaders in the British system are selected far much before the elections. The Candidates for the House of Commons are elected by Constituency Committees which are on their part comprised of party activists within the different localities. In the selection of the Candidate, the Party Organizations might try to influence the candidate to be elected but this is not the case because the candidate is usually a product of the preferences from the local committees and it is only during rare cases that the Party Organization can refute the preferences of the local committee members and chose a different candidate. This occurs when the Party Organizations feel that the policies of the party are likely to be at stake if the proposed candidate is chosen [1]

Within this provision of the date of elections and the Candidates, there occur some similarities. As well known, there are cases where the elected candidates usually end up losing their lives due to sicknesses or accidents. These are natural occurrences that the human beings cannot have a say. In addition, the representative may resign or any other event that may occur to leave a vacancy. As a result, the seat usually remains vacant. This calls for a by-election so that the vacant seat is filled. This poses one of the similarities. Both Constitutions call for a replacement of a candidate in case of a vacancy. This is achieved through special elections. In the British system, a by-election is called by the House of Commons. This has to happen within three months after the vacancy has occurred. On their part, the House of Representatives in the also call for a replacement in case of a vacancy.

However, the differences in the laws of the different states usually result into varying durations of the special election starting from the day the vacancy occurs. If the vacancy occurs just a short period to the general elections, both the US and the UK allow for the region to stay without a representative until the period of the general elections [1]

Sizes form the other point of difference that is exhibited between the US and the British legislative branches. In the UK, the size of the members of the house is determined by the statutes of the country. In the 2005 elections, the number of members of the House of Commons was 646 all of these were elected from the various electoral districts. However, the number of members can be altered to be more or less than the statutory specification. For example, in the 2001 elections, the number of members of the House of Commons was 659. In other cases, some thirteen constituencies from Scotland had a consolidation and hence resulted into an equitable representation between the seats for the English and the Scots. Earlier, the English had a 707 MP representation until the Irish Free State was formed in the 20th Century and in 1950, the number of the members of the House of Commons was 625. There are speculations that the number might change before the next elections owing to the Boundary Commission for England’s decision to alter and adjust the boundaries. The new alterations would result in either a higher number or a lower number of the members of the House of Commons. On the other has, the House of Representatives has remained fixed for about a hundred years. Since 1910, the United States Law has fixed the number of members of the House of Representatives at 435.

Later in 1959 and 1961, two more seats were created so that Alaska and Hawaii would have their own representatives. In addition to these, the District of Columbia and other insular possessions of the United States are represented by four representatives who are nonvoting members. Finally, Puerto Rico is represented by a Resident Commissioner who is elected after every four years. In the House of Commons, such positions are not analogous [6].

The average number of members of the country represented by one member of the House provides another difference between these two legislative bodies. Basing on the population of the two countries and the number of members of the House, the US seems to have a bigger population of people under one representative. For example, the UK with its approximate population of 60 million people has more than 91000 people within a Constituency which is represented by a single Member of Parliament. This is greatly lower than the 670000 population under a single US House District. In addition to the Number of people within the electoral regions, another representation difference comes in terms of the origin of the representative. For example, the representative in the UK system can be from any region provided that he is a British citizen. This is a different case compared to the US. According to the Laws specified by the US Constitution, the representative of a region must be a dweller of the same region. The representative must be residing in the area with which he represents (The US Constitution).

The age limit of the representatives marks another difference between the US and the UK legislative organs. The representatives in the United States must have attained 25 years of age. This is slightly higher than the specifications in the UK where the Member of the House of Commons must have attained the age of 21. On their part, the Senators must be at least 30 years of age. In case of naturalization, citizens naturalized to the British citizenship can immediately seek for elections. This is different from their United States counterparts where a naturalized citizen can only be a member of the House of Representatives after being a citizen for seven years while nine years are needed for a senator [6].

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A difference in the House of Commons and the House of Representatives comes in terms of the body endowed with the responsibility of electoral district adjustments. In the UK, an Electoral Commission was formed in 2000 and was bestowed with the responsibility to recommend for changes in the number of constituencies and also in the recommendations of boundaries of the constituencies. Within the same role are the four boundary committees that recommend to the Electoral Commission before the former comes up with the consolidated recommendations that are then forwarded to the Home Secretary. Without any adjustments, the Home Secretary then passes the recommendations to the Parliament. Eventually, the boundaries take effect in the General election that follows the recommendations.

This procedure is different from the US structure. In the United States of America, the size of the House of Representatives is basically depended on the population of each state as brought forward in the decennial census. Redistricting and reapportioning of seats can only occur if the Congress decides to make changes. Incase of failure by the legislature to come up with an act that to reapportion the boundaries, the Courts then take the responsibility of redistricting the regions. This marks the difference because the decisions in the United States must include the Courts while those made by the Electoral Commission cannot be challenged by the Judiciary [6].

The Prime Minister functions as the head of the Government. He is usually the head of the majority party or Coalition within the House. The Cabinet is on its part formed by the members of the House of Commons that are from the majority party. This is not cast in iron frames either. It is also flexible. At some points, the members of the House of Lords have also been given positions in the Cabinet and served as ministers. In addition, a non parliamentarian can also be designated a role within the Parliament under the banner of “life peer” It is the role of Cabinet members to ensure that they support the opinions of fellow ministers and also the government publicly. Opposition to the government decisions or decisions by other cabinet members will mean that the cabinet member resigns. On their part, the US constitution does not allow a Sitting Member of the Congress to serve in the Cabinet of the President simultaneously. This is referred to as “incompatible office” Despite this, senior Members of the Congress have been appointed to Cabinet positions by the President.

However, to accept the position, the Members have to resign their positions in the House of Congress. A good example can be taking from Norman Mineta who had to resign from the House of Representatives to take up the position of Secretary of Transport in 2003 [1].

The roles of the Party Whips in the two legislatures differ slightly in terms of the amount of duties bestowed to them. The Whips in the House of Commons are given more responsibilities as compared to their counterparts in the House of Representatives. In addition to the role played by both the whips, the British whip has the role of notifying the members on the importance of votes in an upcoming voting session. It is the role of a “one-line-whip” to ensure that he requests the members to be present during a certain activity within the House. On his part, a “two-line-whip” plays the role of ensuring that the probability of an occurrence of a division of a vote is reported. Finally, the “three-line-whip” announces the importance of attendance of all members because of a very important session in the parliament like the passing of a vote of no confidence or passing of the budget. If a party member fails to attend after the three-line-whip has announced the importance of the exercise, the member is likely to face disciplinary measures. In the UK, the whips also act as the authorities involved in the recommendation of the parliament committees. Also they are responsible for the recommendation of Mps to serve the role of subcabinet positions.

It is also their role to recommend for the spokes person for the opposition. This position offers a point of difference between the American and the British structures. While the British system gives more emphasis on the discipline of a member of party, the same is not emphasized in the US. It is rare for Members to be punished in the United States for having or voting against the government’s position in a given decision or policy. The only available punitive measures could be personal and might be achieved through assignment denial, denial of leadership positions or the denial of membership of important committees [7].

Other than the roles mentioned above, other roles of the chief whip are similar both in the United States and the UK. The role of the whips as the link of communication between the leaders of the party and the leadership of the government and other rank-and-file members runs common between the two countries. In addition to this, upcoming chamber notices are sent to the members through the notices by the whip. It is also the role of the whips in both the US House of Representatives and the UK House of Commons to inform members of their respective party organization meetings. These roles make up among the similarities between the US and the UK in terms of their legislative structural formation [6].

The role of the speaker of the House offers another difference in the Houses. In the House of Commons, the speaker is in most cases elected from the majority party in the House. The speaker is expected to be an impartial member who does not show any inclination to any of the parties. On his election, the Speaker ceases to be a member of the party and his role becomes actively participating in private meetings with MPs in a very neutral position. Further still, the re-election of the speaker to the parliament is direct because opposition parties are not expected to field a candidate against him. In the event of retirement or resignation, the speaker is given a seat in the House of Lords. This is a traditional culture within the UK government. During the election of a Speaker, the longest serving Member of Parliament who has not been in a Ministerial position, also referred to as the “Father of the House”, acts as a presiding officer. After discussions by the Opposition, the back benchers and the Party leaders, appropriate candidates are chosen. The presiding officer then calls upon an MP to nominate his favorite candidate. The MP is then seconded by another before the nominated candidate is given space to accept or refuse his appointment. If he accepts, the house of Commons then votes for their favorite candidate [7].

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The speaker yields great powers in the House. They have the ability to determine the sections of a bill that needs amendments. They also have the powers to determine the debate times of a bill. This point out a difference whereby the House of Representatives operates on a “five minute rule” that determine the limit of time that a speech might take. This applies to the Committees and the Committee of the Whole.

For the House of Commons, the limit of time for a speech is determined by the Chair who decides to remove the attention of the House from a Member who speaks off the topic or who speaks too long. Unlike the UK system where the Speaker is voted, the Speaker in the House of Representatives is a leadership position within the majority party in the House. In addition to this, the Speaker of the House in the United States does not, like his UK counterpart, preside on the debates. Instead, the United States Speaker delegates the duty to another member of his political party within the Congress. Finally, the Speaker does not cease to be a representative of his congressional region after election. Instead, he continues to serve his functions of administration and procedure [7].

Just like the UK counterparts, the speaker of the House of Representatives is usually elected after the Clerk of the House and all the parties represented within the party nominate their member. Equally, the nominated member who receives a simple majority becomes the Speaker. Another similarity occurs in the fact that the presiding member of the election is usually the Dean of the House who, like the “father of the House,” has been the longest serving Member of the Chamber. This is another glaring similarity. In addition to this, the speaker of the party is in most cases a member of the majority party [5].

Quorums and voting illustrate another difference between the House of Representatives and the House of Commons. In the House of Representatives, a delay of a motion under the call of quorum is a rare phenomenon. In both the chambers, the House and the Committee of the Whole, it is difficult to call for an absence of quorum. This can only happen in the even of a voting exercise. Otherwise, 218 is the number of quorum in the House of Representatives. The Chair has the powers to appoint a member to move a “call of the House” This usually occurs when the House or the Committee of the Whole is about to undertake a very serious exercise. It is done to ensure that the number of members present is enough to undertake the activity. Among the activities considered important that a call of the House is moved include closing speeches of a major event. This is a difference in the House of Commons. In this house, the counting of members was banned in 1971. Accordingly, the House assumes that there is always a quorum in every House activity. The only exception is that votes cannot be considered official if they are carried out by less than 40 members of the House. In case of fewer members than required is present in the House, the business is carried forward to the following day while the next agenda on the list replaces it (UK’s Legislative Branch 2009).

Equally, there are similarities in the quorum and voting practices in the two Houses. In both, voting by the voice is allowed and taken as adequate. However, if the Chair feels doubtful about the results or under a demand from one member, a voting system that is more formal is assumed. In addition, both Houses allow for a call for division. The records of the yes and no votes are taken and the speaker of the Chairman makes a formal announcement of the outcome. The result and the names of the voters are recorded in the Hansard in the House of Commons and the Congressional Record in the House of Representatives. In both the Houses, the time expected for a voting exercise is usually 15 minutes. However, the time might be reduced to 10 minutes or twelve in each house. This is done in the effort of time management so that more agenda can be discussed. Further still, both Houses allow for postponement of voting in the House. The speaker of the House of Representatives has the power to analyze the convenience of voting on the issue. If it is deemed inconvenient, the Chair or the Speaker can postpone the voting activity. This can be done for a period of no more than two session days. In most cases, the suspension Bills are allocated Tuesday and Wednesdays so that Members can stay at the representative regions longer and at the same time get the opportunity to vote [5].

The committee systems in the House of Commons and the House of Representatives also bring forth another difference. The House of Commons has four types of Committees whose roles and functions slightly differ from those of the House of Representatives. The standing Committee in the House of Commons is a temporary committee formed specifically for the purpose of putting into consideration a specific Bill. The members of this committee are elected by a committee of selection that includes all parties in the House.

The members are selected basing on their expertise in the Bill in question. This is different from the House of Representatives. On their part, the standing Committee is a permanent Committee and its chairmanship is derived from the major parties as opposed to the House of Commons where chairs are allocated any of the major Parties [6].

Other committees in the House include the select committee that is comprised of members from the backbench and whose main role is overseeing and reviewing the operations of the executive department. They also have the role of overseeing the House’s internal operations, reviewing of policy areas of importance and finally giving reports to the House of Commons after gathering enough information on the relevant topic. There is also the Grand Committee whose role is dealing with legislative issues concerning Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The committee therefore is comprised of Members from the relevant regions. Finally, there is the Committee of the Whole House. This committee is present both in the US House of Representatives and the UK House of Commons. In the UK, the national budget is only submitted when the Commons is considered Committee of the Whole House. Otherwise, the committee is rarely utilized in the recent times. Contrarily, the House of Representatives frequently makes use of the Committee of the Whole every time the House wants to come up with detailed reports of an issue and when the time limit is squeezed. The Committee is also used when the House is considering making a great number of amendments when they are limited in time (UK’s Legislative Branch 2009).

Generally, the House of Commons has more detailed roles for the Committees as compared to their United States counterparts.

Another significant difference between the House of Commons and the House of Representatives comes in terms of Amendment practices and rules. On their part, the members of the House of Commons completely refuses substitute amendments, the House of Representatives allows for the same. Substitute amendments are those that remove a complete set of text replacing it with an alternative that is completely new. This means that Amendments in the House of Commons does not replace the whole text. Instead, simple touches are made to it to make it more suitable. In the House of Representatives, a substitute Amendment can be made replacing the whole text with an entirely new proposition. In addition, the new proposition can be put under more perfecting amendments of second degree [6].

Limitation on debates offers another difference between the UK House of Commons and the US House of Representatives. In the Rules by the House of Representatives, a previous question can be ordered through offering of a motion. Debates and amendments can be ordered on a motion under the general decision by the House of Representatives. As a matter of final passage, a vote is carried by the House to notify final agreement.

While the House of Commons can also order a debate to finalize a motion, the difference with their US counterparts is that the motion can be ruled out of order by the Speaker if he feels that the debate has not been afforded sufficient opportunity. As a matter of fact, the decision by the Speaker is final and cannot be appealed. When the whole House comes to an agreement about a closure motion, there cannot be further debates and Amendments. The closure motion marks the final stage of a bill. The motion can be offered by the Whole House Committee, the House of Commons or the standing committee. On their part, the House of Representatives debates are ended by a motion in the House. However, the ending motion does not completely prohibit amendments. In this House, further limited amendments are allowed provided that they are submitted early or in advance [6].

Finally, adjournment debates offer a similarity between the House of Commons and the House of Representatives. In both Houses, after the scheduled agenda have been completed, the House’s leader allocates 30 minutes in the House of Commons or at most one hour in the House of Representatives. These minutes are allocated for issues that are of local interest but which could call for the participation of the legislatures. In the House of Representatives, the leader of the House allows discussions that are of the House’s interest (Petersen 2005).

In conclusion, the above similarities point out that the structure of the United States’ Congress was derived from the UK system. This is pointed out by the similarities in terms of by-elections and the Speaker and the House committees. However, the specific needs of the two countries probably called for some forms of divergence which could assist in dealing with the issues. As a result differences occurred. Among them are the population under which one representative operates where the in UK one representative has a population of approximately 91000 while his US counterpart is doing with about 670000, the duration of a House where the House of Commons goes for five years while the House of Representatives goes for two years, election dates where the US dates are fixed while the election dates in the UK are decided by the House of Commons, the age of qualification also poses a difference where the House of Commons allows 21 years while the House of Representatives allows an age limit of 25, and the roles of other House Committees within the Houses, etc. all said and done the minor differences could be results of specific demands of the individual regions.


Bradshaw, K and Pring, D. Parliament and Congress. London: Quartet Books Frumin, A.(1992). Riddick’s Senate Procedure. Washington: US G.P.O, 1981.

Griffith, J and Ryle, M. Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures. 2nd ed. London: Sweet & Maxwell. 1989.

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23rd Ed. Limon, D. and McKay, W (eds). London: Lexisnexis Books. 2004. Oleszek, W. Congressional Procedures and Policy Process. (6th Ed). London: Longman Publishers. 2004.

Petersen, E. Parliament and Congress: A Brief Comparison of the British House of Commons and the US House of Representatives. CRS Report for Congress.

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