Qualifications for Congress: Who Can Become a U.S. Representative or Senator?

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of Congress possess express powers delineated by the Constitution, among them the powers to make laws, regulate commerce and declare war. Due to the significance of such responsibilities, politicians must satisfy certain qualifications for Congress if they wish to run for office.

Representatives in the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old to run. They also must have been a U.S. citizen for seven years prior to running and must be a resident of the state they are elected to represent, though they do not necessarily need to live in the same district. These qualifications for representatives are outlined in Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Senators, on the other hand, must be at least 30 years old. They must have been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years and, like representatives, must reside in the state they hope to represent. These qualifications are outlined in Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution.

In terms of qualifications for Congress, the bar is set noticeably higher for senators than for representatives because the House of Representatives originated as the house of Congress closest to the people. Virginia representative and future president James Madison described this intent in his essay, “Federalist no. 52.”

“Under these reasonable limitations, the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith,” he wrote.

In a similar spirit of openness, the writers of the U.S. Constitution set seven years citizenship as the minimum for representatives, keeping political involvement strictly domestic while also maintaining the closeness of the House to the people. The founders also sought to provide newly-immigrated people with a place in the government and did not want to discourage immigration by making Congress inaccessible to new citizens.

Some of the qualifications for Congress were derived from British law. For example, members of the House of Commons in the U.K. had to live in the area they represented, which set the tone for the U.S. requirement that representatives must reside in their represented states. This was originally enforced in the U.S. as a means of keeping the representatives close to the people who they represented. That way, they would remain attuned to their interests and could represent them justly.

While the House requirements are somewhat lenient, the qualifications for senators are more difficult to meet. In his essay “The Federalist no. 62,” for instance, Madison claimed that there is a “greater extent of information and stability of character” required for the “senatorial trust” than for a representative. This logic was used to justify the Senate’s age requirement.

The citizenship minimum for senators is also stricter than that of the House by two years. The writers of the Constitution were afraid that the Senate, more than the House, would face foreign influence, hence the requirement. However, they also wanted to allow naturalized citizens to become part of the government when they were ready and wanted to avoid severe exclusion of immigrants, again fearing it would limit immigration and lead to resentment from Europeans. As with the House, a balance was employed to keep such positions open to outsiders yet, simultaneously, somewhat exclusive.

As long as one meets the three qualifications for each position, a person of any background can become a representative or senator. There are no religious, gender or other discriminatory qualifications for Congress, and one does not have to have had political experience to hold office.

Today, members of both houses of Congress are elected by direct popular vote. This means voters step into their local voting booths every term to decide who will represent them in the House and the Senate. Representatives serve two-year terms with elections in every even year. Senators, on the other hand, serve six-year terms. Elections are staggered so that a third of the Senate is up for reelection every even year. As a result, there are opportunities for constituents to make their voices heard through electing and re-electing representatives and senators every other year.

Constituents can also contact their representatives and senators about the issues that matter most to them. Congressional staffers make note of the issues that constituents call and email in about, and a tally of those issues is shown to the representatives and staffers at the end of the week. One tally is all it takes to bring an issue to the attention of a politician.

Visit The Borgen Project’s “Who Are My Leaders?” page to find out who your leaders are and contact them today.

Sabine Poux

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Sabine Poux

Sabine writes for The Borgen Project from Middlebury, VT. She is fascinated by political science, public health and gender studies! Sabine loves finding ways to connect her various academic passions, which span a wide range of topics and fields.

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