United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper house of the United States Congress, smaller than the United States House of Representatives. Together, they compose the legislative branch of the United States government.
Seal of the Senate
Each state elects two senators through statewide elections. The Constitution of the United States endows the U.S. Senate, in addition to its duty of passing all legislation through Congress, with the exclusive responsibility of confirming certain Presidential appointments, including federal judges and cabinet secretaries as part of the system of checks and balances. The Senate is charged with trying presidents, federal (including Supreme Court) justices, as well as other executive-level officers who have been impeached by a vote of the House. The approval of a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for the ratification of treaties.
The Senate chamber is located in the north wing of the U. S. Capitol building, in Washington, D.C..
Composition and elections
With two Senators from each state, the Senate presently has 100 members. For details, see the current list of United States Senators. When it first convened on March 4, 1789, the Senate had 21 members--two from each of the 11 states that had ratified the Constitution to that point except New York, which did not seat its second Senator until July 16. Senators serve for terms of six years; the terms are staggered so that approximately one-third of the Senate is up for election every two years: each time there are elections in about 33 states for one of the two seats. They coincide with the elections for the House of Representatives; alternately they coincide with the presidential election; when they do not, they are called mid-term elections.
Before 1913, state legislatures appointed the Senators (an example of indirect election); since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, Senators have been elected directly by voters. Senators are elected by their state as a whole; if both Senate seats are contested in one election year, the elections will be separate and all voters in the state will cast votes for one candidate in each of the two races. Because of the staggered terms, this will only occur when a Senator fails to complete a full six year term due to death or resignation, or when a state joins the union, in which case one of the two usually serves a four year term.
If a vacancy occurs between elections, generally the governor of the state appoints a replacement to serve as senator until the next biennial election.
As put forth in Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, a senator must be: at least 30 years of age, a citizen of the United States for the past nine years, and reside in the state he or she represents at the time of election.
Composition During the 109th Congress (2005-2007)
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The Senate, like the House of Representatives, can initiate almost any kind of legislation within the competence of Congress. After adoption by the Senate, a bill will then be considered by the House of Representatives. If the House adopts a bill, it is sent to the Senate for its approval. The Senate, unlike the House, does not have the power to initiate revenue bills, but it has wide discretion to amend them once they pass the House. Depending on Constitutional interpretation, the Senate could be able to initiate appropriation bills, but the House of Representatives disputes this. Whenever the Senate adopts an appropriation bill, the House simply returns it to the Senate, thus defeating it, a manuever called "blue-slipping."
Despite this difference in legislative power, the Senate certainly has the most power when it comes to the checks on the executive branch, which is threefold:
The President can only appoint certain United States officers with Senatorial consent. While this does not include all Federal officers, it certainly includes all the important ones. The list is fairly extensive and includes heads of the federal executive departments and federal agencies, ambassadors, consuls, judges, United States Attorneys (including the Solicitor General), marshals, and commissioned officers in the Regular Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. If the Senate does not consent to the appointee, the appointee cannot become an officer, but a President can decide not to appoint someone after they received Senatorial confirmation.
The President can only ratify treaties with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. These treaties that receive consent and are signed by the President become part of the supreme law of the United States and can even go beyond the powers of Congress and legislate on issues normally reserved for state governments, though they cannot invalidate any part of the United States Constitution.
The definition of treaty under the United States Constitution is somewhat different and more restrictive than the usage of the term in international law. The President acting on his own constitutional powers can conclude executive agreements and Congress can pass normal legislation concluding a congressional-executive agreement. These items are considered treaties under international law, but are not defined as such under United States domestic law.
The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton (1999)
The Senate is the sole body granted with the power to remove from office (following a conviction) federal officials who have been served with Articles of Impeachment by the House of Representatives. The Senate sits as jury, with either the President of the Senate or President pro tempore presiding. If a sitting President is being tried, the Chief Justice of the United States must preside over the proceedings. Senators must sit on oath or affirmation. The accused can be convicted only by a two-thirds majority (currently 67 members). A conviction on any one article results in the party being removed from office immediately. Additionally, the Senate may stipulate that the party be prohibited from holding any subsequent elected office. The Senate may not impose any further punishment upon the convicted; however, the convicted person may face further legal penalties and punishments after a trial in a court of law. Failure to reach the supermajority on any article results in acquittal.
According to its records, the Senate has sat as a court of impeachment in fourteen different cases throughout its history. The accused are listed below.
- William Blount, United States Senator from Tennessee. Charges dismissed for want of jurisdiction, January 14, 1799.¹
- John Pickering, U.S. District Court Judge for New Hampshire. Removed from office following conviction, March 12, 1804.
- Samuel Chase, U.S. Supreme Court associate justice. Acquitted March 1, 1805.
- James H. Peck, U.S. District Court Judge for Missouri. Acquitted January 31, 1831.
- West H. Humphreys, U.S. District Court Judge for the middle, eastern, and western districts of Tennessee. Removed from office following conviction, June 26, 1862.
- Andrew Johnson, president of the United States. Acquitted May 26, 1868.
- William W. Belknap, secretary of war. Acquitted August 1, 1876.
- Charles Swayne, U.S. District Court Judge for the northern district of Florida. Acquitted February 27, 1905.
- Robert W. Archibald, U.S. Commerce Court associate justice. Removed from office following conviction, January 13, 1913.
- George W. English, U.S. District Court Judge for the eastern district of Illinois. Resigned November 4, 1926. Trial proceedings dismissed.
- Harold Louderback, U.S. District Court Judge for the northern district of California. Acquitted May 24, 1933.
- Halsted L. Ritter, U.S. District Court Judge for the southern district of Florida. Removed from office following conviction, April 17, 1936.
- Harry E. Claiborne, U.S. District Court Judge for the district of Nevada. Removed from office following conviction, October 9, 1986.
- Alcee L. Hastings, U.S. District Court Judge for the southern district of Florida. Removed from office following conviction, October 20, 1988.
- Walter L. Nixon, U.S. District Court Judge for the district of Mississippi. Removed from office following conviction, November 3, 1989.
- William J. Clinton, president of the United States. Acquitted February 12, 1999.
The Vice President of the United States also serves as President of the Senate and is empowered with presiding over all proceedings and breaking tie votes. However, in practice, the Vice President rarely enters the Senate chamber, and the members of the Senate choose a President pro tempore (usually the most senior member of the majority party) to stand in the Vice President's absence. However, even the President pro tempore delegates his duties as presiding officer in the Senate chamber to junior members because (unlike in the House) the presiding officer is accorded little authority.
The agenda of the Senate is determined by the Majority floor leader (leader of the party with a majority of seats), who is assisted by a Majority whip (responsible for "whipping" party members in line). Their counterparts across the aisle are the Minority floor leader and Minority whip.
When the major parties are evenly split, the party affiliation of the Vice President, as the tie-breaker vote, determines which is the majority party.
Unlike the United States House of Representatives there are no strict rules regarding the debate, and one strategy used by senators to kill a bill is to filibuster which is to continuously debate the bill, thereby preventing its passage.
The first ongoing filibuster in the Senate began on February 18, 1841 and lasted until March 11. The longest individual filibuster speech in the U.S. Senate was delivered by Strom Thurmond. He spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He began by reading the entire text of each state's election laws.
In 1917 the power of the filibuster was reduced in theory by the cloture rule, in which 60 senators can sign a petition to end debate (the initial version of the rule called for 2/3 but that was later reduced to 3/5); the move to reduce it from 2/3 to 3/5 was itself fillibustered). Although cloture is uncommonly invoked, it does form an important part of Senate procedure as the threat of a filibuster can cause a bill or nomination to be amended or withdrawn. This is important because the minority party in the Senate usually has more than 40 seats, making it possible for the minority party to block a bill or a presidental nomination from passage if they feel extremely strongly about it.
Since the implementation of the cloture rule filibusters have actually become more common.
Since 2001 much Senate business has been conducted through a process known as "Reconciliation." "Reconciliation is a provision of the budget rules under which Congress sets a budget, and then can put through a sweeping piece of legislation intended to bring spending programs in line with budget goals, that is, to 'reconcile' the programs with the budget."
Under "reconciliation," bills are governed by special rules that strictly limit debate and forbid amendment.
Reconciliation was not used for several years after it was created in 1974, and was only used every few years in the 1980s and 1990s – usually for extremely contentious budgets. Currently it is being used for most important legislation.
Historically, the Senate was the place of slow deliberation, yet it has begun to function more like the House.
For instance, in the late 1970s and early 1980s debate on the Panama Canal treaties lasted from February 6th to April 18th, debate on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act lasted 21 days, debate on an energy bill 23 days, 19 days on a trade bill, 18 days on a farm bill. By contrast, debate on the 2002 Iraq War resolution only lasted five days. (Losing America, pg 175)
In 1981, Reagan's tax cuts were debated for twelve days and amended 118 times. George W. Bush's tax cuts were debated for fewer days, and almost no amendments were allowed. (ibid)
See also: U.S. Senate procedures
Much of the business of the Senate is done in Congressional committees. Committees usually have their own staffs, separate from the staffs of individual members. Committees often have subcommittees. Each committee has a chairperson and a ranking minority leader.
Because the Senate is smaller, the committees within the Senate are generally less powerful than the corresponding committees in the House. The exceptions to this are the Judiciary Committee which reviews Presidential appointments to federal judgeships, and the Foreign Relations Committee which reviews treaties. See also: List of Senate committees
Control of Senate committees is almost always by seniority within the majority party, but there is now a four-term limit. Hubert Humphrey once described this privilege as the “most sacred cow in the legislative zoo.” A committee chairman used to remain in power even if he was senile or never attended the Senate. In 1946, 81 year old Arthur Capper of Kansas became chairman of the Agriculture Committee, even though “he could neither make himself understood, nor understand others.” Also in the 1940s, Carter Glass of Virginia “chaired” Appropriations, even though he had not appeared in the Senate since 1942. Nevertheless, starting in the 1970s, there have been a few occasions when seniority was bypassed.
No bill can come out of committee without the committee chairman’s consent. In the past, committee chairmen were more forceful in exerting this privilege than they are today, but there are still chairmen who frustrate the will of the majority of their own party. Jesse Helms, for instance, was notorious for using his perch on the Foreign Relations committee to stop legislation he opposed, often dealing with the United Nations. Helms reveled in the nickname “Senator No.”
Earlier in Senate history, prior to some reorganizations, particularly an important one in the mid-20th century, the number of standing committees was much greater than it is today. There were separate committees for areas such as Canadian relations, Infectuous diseases, even "Engrossed Bills"; a cursory reading of early biographies from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress reveals that until this reorganization, nearly all members of the majority party were chairmen of a committee. Many of these were subsequently merged, reduced to subcommittee status under another committee, or abolished entirely
Standing Committees of the U.S. Senate
Joint Committees of Congress
- U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Printing
- U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Taxation
- U.S. Congress Joint Committee on the Library
- U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee
Special, Select and Other Committees of the U.S. Senate
Debate over Compromise of 1850 in the Old Senate Chamber.
The Senate, named after the ancient Roman Senate, was designed as a more deliberative body than the House. Edmund Randolph called for its members to be "less than the House of Commons [sic] . .. to restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy." According to James Madison, "The use of the Senate is to consist in proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." Instead of two year terms as in the House, Senators serve six year terms, giving them more authority to ignore mass sentiment in favor of the country's broad interests. The smaller number of members and staggered terms also give the Senate a greater sense of community.
Many of the Founding Fathers greatly admired the British government. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton called "the British government the best in the world," and said "he doubted whether anything short of it would do in America." In his "Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States," Adams said "the English Constitution is, in theory, both for the adjustment of the balance and the prevention of its vibrations, the most stupendous fabric of human invention." In the minds of many of the Founding Fathers, the US Senate would be an American kind of House of Lords. John Dickinson said the Senate should "consist of the most distinguished characters, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property, and bearning as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as possible." (Harpers, May 2004, 42)
The Senate was also intended to give states with smaller populations equal standing with larger states, which are given more Representation in the House. (see "Connecticut Compromise")
The apportionment scheme of the U.S. Senate was controversial at the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton, who was joined in opposition to equal suffrage by Madison, said equal representation despite population differences "shocks too much the ideas of justice and every human feeling." Referring to those who demanded equal representation, Madison called for the Convention to "to renounce a principle which was confessedly unjust."
The delegates representing a majority of Americans might have carried the day, but at the Constitutional Convention, each state had an equal vote, and any issue could be brought up again if a state desired it. In fact, the state delegations originally voted 6-5 for proportional representation, but small states without claims of western lands reopened the issue and eventually turned the tide towards equality. On the final vote, the five states that favored equal apportionment in the Senate--Delaware, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut--actually only represented one third of the nation's population. The four states that voted against the proposal--Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia--actually represented more people than the proponents. Convention delegate James Wilson wrote "Our Constituents, had they voted as their representatives did, would have stood as 2/3 against equality, and 1/3 only in favor of it." (Harpers Magazine, May 2004, 36) One reason the large states accepted the Connecticut Compromise was a fear that the small states would either refuse to join the Union, or, as Gunning Bedford, Jr. of Delaware threatened, "the small ones w[ould] find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice." (New Republic, August 7th, 2002)
In Federalist No. 62, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” openly admitted that the equal suffrage in the Senate was a compromise, a “lesser evil,” and not born out of any political theory. “[I]t is superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all hands to be the result, not of theory, but ‘of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.’ “
Even Gunning Bedford of Delaware admitted that he only favored equal representation because it benefitted his own state. "Can it be expected that the small states will act from pure disinterestedness? Are we to act with greater purity than the rest of mankind?" (Sizing Up the Senate, 33)
Since 1789, the Senate has become much more malaportioned. At the time of the Connecticut Compromise, the largest state, Virginia, had only twelve times the population of the smallest state, Delaware. Today, the largest state, California, has a population that is seventy times greater than the population of the smallest state, Wyoming. In 1790, it would take a theoretical 30% of the population to elect a majority of the Senate, today it would take 17%. Today there are seven states with only one Congressman; at no time in the past has there been as high a proportion of one-Congressmen states.
The Senate originally met, virtually in secret, on the second floor of Federal Hall in New York City in a room that allowed no spectators. For five years, no notes were published on Senate proceedings.
A procedural issue of the early Senate was what role should the vice president, the President of the Senate have? At first, the first vice president was allowed to craft legislation and participate in debates, but those rights were taken away relatively quickly. Later vice presidents made Senate attendance a rarity, but John Adams seldom missed a session. However, Adams’ regal clothing, love of ceremony and titles, and tendency to lecture made him somewhat of a laughingstock. Interestingly, although the Founders intended the Senate to be the slower legislative body, in the early years of the Republic, it was the House that took its time passing legislation. Both Hamilton’s Bank of the United States and Assumption Bill easily passed the Senate, only to meet opposition from the House.
Thomas Jefferson began the vice presidential tradition of only attending Senate sessions on special occasions. Despite his frequent absences, Jefferson did make his mark on the body in the form of the Senate book of parliamentary procedure, the one that is still used to this day.
Before the Civil War
The decades before the Civil War are thought of as the "Golden Age" of the Senate. The Founding Fathers had intended the Senate to be a dam against the whims of public opinion, and they certainly succeeded. Backed by public opinion and President Jefferson, in 1804, the House voted to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase 73-32. At the Senate, the president’s power and public opinion met their match, on twenty-three counts of impeachment, the Republican-dominated Senate voted against conviction 18-16.
The Senate seemed to bring out the best in Aaron Burr, who as vice president presided over the impeachment trial. Even critics of Burr conceded that he handled himself with great dignity and the trial with fairness. At the conclusion of the trial Burr said
- This House is a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here-–in this exalted refuge; here if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrensy and the silent arts of corruption.” (Master of the Senate, 14)
Over the next few decades the Senate rose in reputation in the United States and the world. John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Stephen Douglas, and Henry Clay overshadowed several presidents. Sir Henry Maine called the Senate "the only thoroughly successful institution which has been established since the tide of modern democracy began to run." William Gladstone said the Senate was "the most remarkable of all the inventions of modern politics." (Ibid, 23)
During the pre-Civil War decades, the nation had two contentious arguments over the North-South balance in the Senate. Since the banning of slavery north of the Mason-Dixon line around the turn of the 19th century, there had always been equal numbers of slave and free states. In 1820 and 1850, political warfare broke out between slave and free states when Missouri and California asked to join the union as slave and free states, respectively. Both cases were resolved by compromises; in 1820 Maine was admitted to the Union as a free state to counterbalance Missouri (see Missouri Compromise) and in 1850 the North agreed to several provisions, one of which was a stronger Fugitive Slave Law (see Compromise of 1850).
The Senate has always been about giving political minorities the power to block unwanted legislation, and during the Civil War, when the South had no representation in the Senate, it became apparent how the South’s had shackled the nation. Only with the absence of Southern Senators could the Senate pass legislation allowing a transcontinental railroad, encouraging Western settlement, and establishing public colleges from the proceeds of the sale of public lands.
After the Civil War
The post-Civil War Senate fell into a period of irrelevancy and corruption. At a time when Senators were chosen by state legislatures, many of the greatest millionaires of the day decided to polish their names a little by buying a Senate seat. Leland Stanford of California, James G. Fair of Nevada, John Fairfield Dryden of New Jersey, Philetus Sawyer of Wisconsin, and Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, the "Boss of America", called the Senate home for at least a few years.
From 1871 to 1898, the Senate approved not a single treaty. The Senate scuttled a long series of reciprocal trade agreements, blocked deals to annex the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands, defeated an arbitration deal with Britain, and forced the renegotiation of the pact to build the Panama Canal. Finally, in 1898, the Senate nearly refused to ratify the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. Surely other accords never made it past the negotiating table due to fears of Senate recalcitrance.
The Senate in the post-Civil War years consistently blocked labor reforms and tariff-reductions. The money supply was kept tight. "The legislative pages of [the Gilded Age]," Robert Caro wrote in Master of the Senate "are sparse indeed if one searches them for laws that would help farmers, labor, minorities, consumers, or the crowded poor in the wretched slums of the great new cities..."
- In creating a Senate for the new nation, its Founding Fathers had tried to create within the government an institution that would speak for the educated, the well-born, the well-to-do, that would protect the rights of property, that would not function as an embodiment of the people’s will but would stand--‘firmly’–-as a great bulwark against that will. They had succeeded.
Henry Adams, described America thusly "of the people, by the people, and for the Senate." (From the Old Diplomacy to the New, pg 4).
Woodrow Wilson period
The Senate underwent several significant changes during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the most profound of which was the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for popular vote of the Senators. This had the effect of making the Senate more responsive to voters.
Another change that occurred during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson was the limitation of the filibuster via the cloture vote. The filibuster was first used in the early Republic, but it was seldom used for most of the 19th century. The filibuster was finally limited as a response to the filibuster of the arming of merchant ships in World War I. At that time, the public, the House, the great majority of the Senate, and the president wanted merchant ships armed, but less than twenty Senators, led by William Jennings Bryan fought to keep United States ships unarmed. Wilson denounced the group as a “group of willful men.”
The post of Senate Majority Leader was also created during the Wilson presidency. Before this time, a “senate leader” was usually a committee chairman, or a person of great eloquence, seniority, or wealth, such as Daniel Webster and Nelson Aldrich. However, despite this new, formal leadership structure, the Senate leader initially had virtually no power, other have priority of recognition from the presiding officer. Since the Democrats were fatally divided into northern liberal and southern conservative blocs, the Democratic leader had even less power than his title suggested.
Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, the Democratic leader for many years, saw it as his responsibility not to lead the Democrats, but to work the Senate for the president’s benefit, no matter who the president was. When Coolidge and Hoover were president, he assisted them in passing Republican legislation. Robinson helped end government operation of Muscle Shoals, helped pass the Hoover Tariff, and stymied a Senate investigation of the Power Trust. Robinson switched his own position on a drought relief program for farmers when Hoover made a proposal for a more modest measure. Alben Barkley called Robinson’s cave-in “the most humiliating spectacle that could be brought about in an intelligent legislative body.”
When Franklin Roosevelt became president, Robinson followed the new president as loyally as he had followed Coolidge and Hoover. Robinson passed bills in the Hundred Days so quickly that Will Rogers joked “Congress doesn’t pass legislation any more, they just wave at the bills as they go by.” (Master of the Senate, 354-5)
Gradually, Senate leaders acquired more powers. By the 1940’s, it was the custom for the Senate leader to be the only person with the power to call bills off the calendar. During Lyndon Baines Johnson’s tenure as Senate leader, the leader gained new powers over committee assignments.
In 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first elected female senator (Rebecca Latimer Felton had become the first woman to serve as a senator in 1922 due to the death of Senator Thomas E. Watson).
The first session of Senate to be open to the public was held on February 11, 1794 and on February 27, 1986 the Senate allowed its debates to be televised on a trial basis (which was later made permanent).
¹ During the impeachment trial of Senator Blount, it was determined that the House of Representatives did not have the power to impeach members of either House of Congress. Instead, the Constitution allows either House to expel one of its members by a two-thirds vote. Such was the eventual case with Blount.
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