In 1869, van Houten was first elected to the House of Representatives for the electoral district Groningen, until he became a minister in 1894 in the cabinet of Joan Röell.
Van Houten introduced a law in 1874, Kinderwetje - van Houten (Children's Law), that forbade children younger than 12-year old to work as labourers in factories. It was the first social law of the Netherlands. Nonetheless, van Houten was a conservative and opposed further social laws and any egalitarianism by the state. On individual issues, he was progressive though, writing about feminism, prostitution and birth control. He was president of a Neo-Malthusian society in 1888.