Who can become a senator or representative in Congress? Do you need a certain educational or work background? It might come as a surprise that other than age and residency requirements, the Constitution doesn't say much about who can or should be a member of Congress.
Qualifications for Senators were originally addressed in Article I, Section 3, but some of the requirements laid out in that section were superseded by the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1912.
As it stands today, the U.S. Constitution requires senators to be at least 30 years old and to have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years. They also must live in the state they wish to represent at the time of the election.
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
Writing in The Federalist with reference to the election of Members of Congress, Hamilton firmly stated that "[t]he qualifications of the persons who may . . . be chosen . . . are defined and fixed in the constitution; and are unalterable by the legislature."1 Until the Civil War, the issue was not raised, the only actions taken by either House conforming to the idea that the qualifications for membership could not be enlarged by statute or practice.2 But in the passions aroused by the fratricidal conflict, Congress enacted a law requiring its members to take an oath that they had never been disloyal to the National Government.3 Several persons were refused seats by both Houses because of charges of disloyalty,4 and thereafter House practice, and Senate practice as well, was erratic.5 But in Powell v. McCormack,6 it was conclusively established that the qualifications listed in clause 2 are exclusive7 and that Congress could not add to them by excluding Members-elect not meeting the additional qualifications.8
Powell was excluded from the 90th Congress on grounds that he had asserted an unwarranted privilege and immunity from the process of a state court, that he had wrongfully diverted House funds for his own uses, and that he had made false reports on the expenditures of foreign currency.9 The Court's determination that he had been wrongfully excluded proceeded in the main from the Court's analysis of historical developments, the Convention debates, and textual considerations.
This process led the Court to conclude that Congress's power under Article I, § 5 to judge the qualifications of its members was limited to ascertaining the presence or absence of the standing qualifications prescribed in Article I, § 2, cl. 2, and perhaps in other express provisions of the Constitution.10 The conclusion followed because the English parliamentary practice and the colonial legislative practice at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, after some earlier deviations, had settled into a policy that exclusion was a power exercisable only when the Member-elect failed to meet a standing qualification,11 because in the Constitutional Convention the Framers had defeated provisions allowing Congress by statute either to create property qualifications or to create additional qualifications without limitation,12and because both Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers and Hamilton in the New York ratifying convention had strongly urged that the Constitution prescribed exclusive qualifications for Members of Congress.13
Further, the Court observed that the early practice of Congress, with many of the Framers serving, was consistently limited to the view that exclusion could be exercised only with regard to a Member-elect failing to meet a qualification expressly prescribed in the Constitution. Not until the Civil War did contrary precedents appear, and later practice was mixed.14 Finally, even if the intent of the Framers less clear, said the Court, it would still be compelled to interpret the power to exclude narrowly. A fundamental principle of our representative democracy is, in Hamilton's words, 'that the people should choose whom they please to govern them.' 2 Elliot's Debates 257. As Madison pointed out at the Convention, this principle is undermined as much by limiting whom the people can select as by limiting the franchise itself. In apparent agreement with this basic philosophy, the Convention adopted his suggestion limiting the power to expel. To allow essentially that same power to be exercised under the guise of judging qualifications, would be to ignore Madison's warning, borne out in the Wilkes case and some of Congress's own post-Civil War exclusion cases, against 'vesting an improper and dangerous power in the Legislature.'15 Thus, the Court appears to say, to allow the House to exclude Powell on this basis of qualifications of its own choosing would impinge on the interests of his constituents in effective participation in the electoral process, an interest which could be protected by a narrow interpretation of Congressional power.16
The result in Powell had been foreshadowed when the Court held that the exclusion of a Member-elect by a state legislature because of objections he had uttered to certain national policies constituted a violation of the First Amendment and was void.17 In the course of that decision, the Court denied state legislators the power to look behind the willingness of any legislator to take the oath to support the Constitution of the United States, prescribed by Article VI, cl. 3, to test his sincerity in taking it.18 The unanimous Court noted the views of Madison and Hamilton on the exclusivity of the qualifications set out in the Constitution and alluded to Madison's view that the unfettered discretion of the legislative branch to exclude members could be abused on behalf of political, religious, or other orthodoxies.19 The First Amendment holding and the holding with regard to testing the sincerity with which the oath of office is taken is no doubt as applicable to the United States Congress as to state legislatures.
However much Congress may have deviated from the principle that the qualifications listed in the Constitution are exclusive when the issue has been congressional enlargement of those qualifications, it has been uniform in rejecting efforts by the states to enlarge the qualifications. Thus, the House in 1807 seated a Member-elect who was challenged as not being in compliance with a state law imposing a twelve-month residency requirement in the district, rather than the federal requirement of being an inhabitant of the state at the time of election; the state requirement, the House resolved, was unconstitutional.20 Similarly, both the House and Senate have seated other Members-elect who did not meet additional state qualifications or who suffered particular state disqualifications on eligibility, such as running for Congress while holding particular state offices.
The Supreme Court reached the same conclusion as to state power, albeit by a surprisingly close 5-4 vote, in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton.21 Arkansas, along with twenty-two other states, all but two by citizen initiatives, had limited the number of terms that Members of Congress may serve. In striking down the Arkansas term limits, the Court determined that the Constitution's qualifications clauses22 establish exclusive qualifications for Members that may not be added to either by Congress or the states.23 Six years later, the Court relied on Thornton to invalidate a Missouri law requiring that labels be placed on ballots alongside the names of congressional candidates who had disregarded voters' instruction on term limits or declined to pledge support for term limits.24
Both majority and dissenting opinions in Thornton were richly embellished with disputatious arguments about the text of the Constitution, the history of its drafting and ratification, and the practices of Congress and the states in the nation's early years,25 and these differences over text, creation, and practice derived from disagreement about the fundamental principle underlying the Constitution's adoption.
In the dissent's view, the Constitution was the result of the resolution of the peoples of the separate states to create the National Government. The conclusion to be drawn from this was that the peoples in the states agreed to surrender only those powers expressly forbidden them and those limited powers that they had delegated to the Federal Government expressly or by necessary implication. They retained all other powers and still retain them. Thus, "[w]here the Constitution is silent about the exercise of a particular power—that is, where the Constitution does not speak either expressly or by necessary implication—the Federal Government lacks that power and the States enjoy it."26 The Constitution's silence as to authority to impose additional qualifications meant that this power resides in the states.
The majority's views were radically different. After the adoption of the Constitution, the states had two kinds of powers: reserved powers that they had before the founding and that were not surrendered to the Federal Government, and those powers delegated to them by the Constitution. It followed that the states could have no reserved powers with respect to the Federal Government.
As Justice Story recognized, 'the states can exercise no powers whatsoever, which exclusively spring out of the existence of the national government, which the constitution does not delegate to them. . . . No state can say, that it has reserved, what it never possessed.'27 The states could not before the founding have possessed powers to legislate respecting the Federal Government, and, because the Constitution did not delegate to the states the power to prescribe qualifications for Members of Congress, the states did not have any such power.28
Evidently, the opinions in this case reflect more than a decision on this particular dispute. They rather represent conflicting philosophies within the Court respecting the scope of national power in relation to the states, an issue at the core of many controversies today.
A question much disputed but now seemingly settled is whether a condition of eligibility must exist at the time of the election or whether it is sufficient that eligibility exist when the Member-elect presents himself to take the oath of office. Although the language of the clause expressly makes residency in the state a condition at the time of election, it now appears established in congressional practice that the age and citizenship qualifications need only be met when the Member-elect is to be sworn.29 Thus, persons elected to either the House of Representatives or the Senate before attaining the required age or term of citizenship have been admitted as soon as they became qualified.30