Alabama State Capitol Building The Alabama House of Representatives is the lower house of the Alabama General Assembly. Residents elect representatives from their districts, which are the geographic zones for which representatives are responsible at the state level. The House currently consists of 105 members who represent roughly 40,000 citizens each. Along with their counterparts in the Alabama Senate (the upper house of the General Assembly), representatives craft bills that address the needs of their communities and vote on their adoption to the state constitution. Representatives, like senators, serve on committees that are responsible for vetting specific types of legislation and aid fellow lawmakers in focusing on specific issues. Some notable representatives include Hattie Hooker Wilkins, the first female member of the House; Mike Hubbard, the first Republican Speaker of the House since Reconstruction; and Democrat Pete Benton Turnham, the longest serving member of the body, at 44 consecutive years. Notably, Hubbard was removed from office in June 2016 upon his conviction on 12 ethics violations charges.
The size, composition, and duties of the Alabama House of Representatives are set forth in Article IV of the 1901 Constitution. Members of the Alabama House of Representatives must be 21 years of age at the time of their election and a resident of Alabama for a minimum of three years, residing in the district they wish to represent for at least one year before their election. As in the federal government, the Alabama House of Representatives is responsible for controlling state spending allocations. Whereas both representatives and senators can craft bills, only representatives can introduce spending bills that fund state agencies and operations and other projects. As is also common throughout the nation, representatives in Alabama are not subject to term limits. The Alabama House is unusual, however, in that it is one of only five legislative branches among all U.S. states, along with Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and Nevada, that has members elected to a four-year term, known as a quadrennium; in all other states, representatives are elected to two-year terms. At the beginning of each new quadrennium, the House holds an organizational session, during which officers are elected, procedural rules are adopted, committee members are appointed, and any other restructuring takes place. Legislative business is conducted in a part-time session from January to April. Sessions last no more than 30 legislative days within a 105-calendar day period but may last longer if the governor calls a special session to complete important business.
Alabama House of Representatives, ca. 1910 The Speaker of the House holds the chief leadership position. This individual controls the flow of legislation and committee assignments for the House of Representatives and presides over the legislative session. The Speaker is elected by members of the majority party, and the vote is confirmed by a House resolution. A party caucus, relative to the party’s strength in the chamber, elects other House leaders, such as the majority and minority leaders, who help move business along more smoothly and establish unity in their respective parties. Currently, a quorum of 53 members is required to conduct business, which means at least 53 representatives must be present to validate proceedings. Any bill can be passed by a quorum, but a constitutional amendment requires the votes of 63 representatives. Any funds appropriated by the House to a nongovernment organization require the support of two-thirds of the elected representatives.
Committees and the Lawmaking Process
Committees help representatives work through the many legislative items that need to be addressed. There are standing committees, special committees, and select committees. Standing committees are established entities that continue from year to year. Members examine bills and recommend actions to the Senate or House. Some of the more important standing committees include Ways and Means, Education, Technology and Research, Judiciary, State Government, County and Municipal Government, and Local Legislation. Special committees are generally created as needed to investigate a specific issue, and select committees, also created on an as-needed basis, bring together members of both the House and the Senate. When a committee is no longer needed it is abolished. The House presides over the state budget and has the power to originate revenue bills for state spending; thus, any revenue raising legislation, such as an increase in taxes, must come from the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.
Committees typically hold hearings to gather information and oversee the creation and passage of legislation for issues under their jurisdiction. Committee chairs decide what legislation will be brought before the committee. House bills have designations such as HB for “House Bill” or HJR for “House Joint Resolution.” During committee hearings, a bill can fail owing to lack of action or through a vote, because committee members must approve bills before they are presented to the full House for a vote. Bills receiving committee approval are given a second reading before the House and are scheduled on the regular calendar of activities. At the conclusion of the debate, the House votes on the bill. If it passes, then it moves to the Senate, where the entire process is repeated. If changes are required, then the bill is sent back to where it originated for revisions, and the approval process begins again. If no agreement can be made, then the bill is tabled. If both houses approve it, then the bill is sent to the governor, who can choose to ignore it (an action known as a “pocket veto”), amend it and send it back to the originating committee, veto it outright, or sign it into law. Citizens and interest groups wishing to change public policy to meet the needs of their city, county, or constituency must gain the support of their district’s representative or senator. If either agrees with the proposed legislation, then they draft a bill and introduce it at a general session.
Makeup of the House
Alabama House of Representatives The number of representatives throughout the state and the size of the districts they represent are determined by apportionment and redistricting. Apportionment is the process by which the number of legislative seats is reviewed and revised to account for population fluctuations. After every decennial census, districts are redrawn to ensure that a relatively equal number of citizens are represented in each one. Since 1990, redistricting responsibility has fallen to the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment, which consists of members of both the House and the Senate. The committee has six permanent members; three each from the House and the Senate. During the quadrennium years in which the U.S. Census is released and the process of redistricting takes place, the membership increases to 22 members, with the Speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor having influence over who is nominated to serve on the expanded committee. Although the governor ultimately has veto authority, members of the committee draw the district lines. In other quadrenniums, the six permanent committee members study, research, and plan for the next redistricting and are available for consultation.
Manipulating the size of districts to the advantage of a particular political party is called gerrymandering. District lines can be drawn to separate groups of people based on race, class, or political party to diminish the strength of their votes in elections. The Democratic Party dominated state politics for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in 2010 Republicans gained control of the Alabama state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. The balance of power shifted away from “one-party” rule, which traditionally favored Democrats, and allowed the Republican Party to gerrymander districts to diminish the voices of minority Democrats.
The House and the Alabama Constitution
1901 Constitutional Convention The state’s first constitution, approved in 1819, gave primary control over the rights of the people to the Alabama General Assembly, which was then called the Legislative Department. This constitution reflected the wants and desires of Alabama’s elite, white, male residents, who instituted a legal system of inequality. As such, only white men with U.S. citizenship were allowed to become members of the House of Representatives (Article III, Section IV). During Reconstruction, state lawmakers struggled to maintain white supremacy, with the federal government stepping in to ensure that freedmen were, at least, given rights provided by the U.S. Constitution, including the right to vote. In 1901, the legislature revised the Constitution to codify centralized control and drastically restrict voting rights by implementing requirements that even many of the state’s white voters could not meet. With each revised Alabama Constitution, the General Assembly lost a little bit of power, but Alabama citizens are still dependent upon the legislature to effect change at the local level. In 2011, the Alabama Constitutional Revision Commission was formed to draft legislation to advance the effort to bring the 1901 Constitution into the modern era, but it was largely unsuccessful.
Home rule, or local control of government by the people of a specific municipality, is common in most states, but not in Alabama. The state’s constitution hampers the effectiveness of local governments in most counties, cities, and towns and also makes each member of the Alabama General Assembly extremely important to their district.
- McCurly, Robert L., Jr., and Keith Norman. Alabama Legislation. Tuscaloosa: Alabama Law Institute, 1997.
- McMillan, Malcolm Cook. Constitutional Development in Alabama, 1798-1901: A Study in Politics, the Negro, and Sectionalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.
- Thomson, Bailey, ed. A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.