United States Senate
Children's Encyclopedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government
|United States Senate|
|President of the Senate|| Richard B. Cheney, (R)
since January 20, 2001
|President pro tempore|| Robert C. Byrd, (D)
since January 4, 2007
|Majority Leader|| Harry Reid, (D)
since January 4, 2007
|Minority Leader|| Mitch McConnell, (R)
since January 4, 2007
|Political groups|| Democratic Party
|Last elections||November 7, 2006|
|Meeting place||Senate Chamber
United States Capitol
United States of America
In the Senate, each state is represented by two members. Membership is therefore based on the equal representation of each state, regardless of population, for a total membership of 100. Senators serve six-year terms that are staggered so elections are held for a third of the seats (a " class") every second year.
The Senate is regarded as a more deliberative body than the House of Representatives; the Senate is smaller and its members serve longer terms, allowing for a more collegial and less partisan atmosphere that is somewhat more insulated from public opinion than the House. The Senate has several exclusive powers enumerated in Article One of the Constitution not granted to the House; most significantly, the President cannot ratify treaties or, with rare exception, make important appointments—most significantly ambassadors, members of the federal judiciary (including the Supreme Court) and members of the Cabinet—without the advice and consent of the Senate.
The Framers of the Constitution created a bicameral Congress out of a desire to have two houses to be accountable to each other. One house was intended to be a "people's house" that would be sensitive to public opinion. The other house was intended to represent the states. Senators were selected by the state legislatures, not by the voters, until 1913 with the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It was to be a more deliberate forum of elite wisdom where six-year terms insulated the senators from public opinion. The Constitution provides that the approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation. The Senate of the United States was named after the ancient Roman Senate. The chamber of the United States Senate is located in the north wing of the Capitol building, in Washington, D.C., the national capital. The House of Representatives convenes in the south wing of the same building.
Members and elections
Article One of the Constitution states that each state is entitled to two senators. Originally, each state legislature selected their senators; but since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators have been directly elected. The Constitution further stipulates that no constitutional amendment may deprive a state of its equal suffrage in the Senate without the consent of the state concerned. The District of Columbia and territories are not entitled to any representation. As there are presently 50 states, the Senate has 100 members. The senator from each state with the longer tenure is known as the " senior senator," and their counterpart is the " junior senator"; this convention, however, does not have any official significance.
Senators serve terms of six years each; the terms are staggered so that approximately one-third of the Senate seats are up for election every two years. The staggering of the terms is arranged such that both seats from a given state are never contested in the same general election. Senate elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, Election Day, and coincide with elections for the House of Representatives. Each senator is elected by his or her state as a whole. Generally, the Republican and Democratic parties choose their candidates in primary elections, which are typically held several months before the general elections. Ballot access rules for independent and third party candidates vary from state to state. For the general election, almost all states use simple plurality voting, under which the candidate with the most votes (not necessarily an absolute majority) wins. Exceptions include Louisiana, which use the two-round system. In some states, runoffs are held if no candidate wins a majority.
Once elected, a senator continues to serve until the end of his or her term, death, or resignation. Furthermore, the Constitution permits the Senate to expel any member by a two-thirds majority vote. Fifteen senators have been expelled in the history of the Senate; fourteen of them were removed in 1861 and 1862 for supporting the Confederate secession. No senator has been expelled since, although many senators have chosen to resign when faced with expulsion proceedings (for example, Bob Packwood in 1995). The Senate has also passed several resolutions censuring members; censure requires only a simple majority and does not remove a senator from office.
The 17th Amendment provides that vacancies in the Senate, however they arise, may be filled by special elections. A special election for a Senate seat need not be held immediately after the vacancy arises; instead, it is typically conducted at the same time as the next biennial congressional election. If a special election for one seat happens to coincide with a general election for the state's other seat, then the two elections are not combined, but are instead contested separately. A senator elected in a special election takes office immediately and serves until the original six-year term expires, and not for a full term. Furthermore, the amendment provides that any state legislature may empower the Governor to temporarily fill vacancies. The interim appointee remains in office until the special election can be held. All states have passed laws authorizing the Governor to make temporary appointments; however, Alaska voters repealed that authorization for their Governor by ballot initiative in 2004.
Senators are entitled to prefix " The Honorable" to their names. The annual salary of each senator, as of 2006, was $165,200; the President pro tempore and party leaders receive $183,500. Analysis of financial disclosure forms by CNN in June 2003 revealed that at least 40 of the then senators were millionaires. In addition to their salaries, after serving less than one term (5 years) senators are eligible for lifetime benefits, including a sizable federal pension, health benefits, and social security benefits. In general, senators are regarded as more important political figures than members of the House of Representatives because there are fewer of them, and because they serve for longer terms, represent larger constituencies (except for House at-large districts, which also comprise entire states), sit on more committees, and have more staffers. The prestige commonly associated with the Senate is reflected by the background of presidents and presidential candidates; far more sitting senators have been nominees for the presidency than sitting representatives.
Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution sets forth three qualifications for senators: each senator must be at least 30 years old, must have been a citizen of the United States for at least the past nine years, and must be (at the time of the election) an inhabitant of the state they seek to represent. The age and citizenship qualifications for senators are more stringent than those for representatives. In Federalist No. 62, James Madison justified this arrangement by arguing that the "senatorial trust" called for a "greater extent of information and stability of character."
Furthermore, under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, any federal or state officer who takes the requisite oath to support the Constitution, but later engages in rebellion or aids the enemies of the United States, is disqualified from becoming a senator. This provision, which came into force soon after the end of the Civil War, was intended to prevent those who sided with the Confederacy from serving. The amendment, however, provides that a disqualified individual may still serve if two-thirds of both Houses of Congress vote to remove the disability.
Under the Constitution, the Senate (not the judiciary) is empowered to judge if an individual is qualified to serve. During its early years, however, the Senate did not closely scrutinize the qualifications of members. As a result, three individuals that were constitutionally disqualified due to age were admitted to the Senate: 29-year-old Henry Clay (1806), and 28-year-olds Armistead Mason (1816) and John Eaton (1818). Such an occurrence, however, has not been repeated since. In 1934, Rush Holt was elected to the Senate at the age of 29; he waited until he turned 30 to take the oath of office. Likewise, Joseph Biden was elected to the Senate shortly before his 30th birthday in 1972; he had passed his 30th birthday by the time the Senate conducted its swearing-in ceremony for that year's electees in January, 1973.
The party with a majority of seats is known as the majority party; if two or more parties in opposition are tied, the Vice President's affiliation determines which party is the majority party. The next-largest party is known as the minority party. The President pro tempore, committee chairmen, and some other officials are generally from the majority party; they have counterparts (for instance, the "ranking members" of committees) in the minority party. Independents and members of third parties (so long as they do not caucus with or support either of the larger parties) are not considered in determining which is the majority party.
The Constitution provides that the Vice President of the United States serves as the President of the Senate and holds a vote that can only be cast to break a tie. By convention, the Vice President presides over very few Senate debates, attending only on important ceremonial occasions (such as the swearing-in of new senators) or at times when his vote may be needed to break a tie vote. The Constitution authorizes the Senate to elect a President pro tempore (Latin for "temporary president") to preside in the Vice President's absence; the most senior senator of the majority party is customarily chosen to serve in this position. Like the Vice President, the President pro tempore does not normally preside over the Senate, but typically delegates the responsibility of presiding to junior senators of the majority party. Frequently, freshmen senators (newly elected members) are allowed to preside so that they may become accustomed to the rules and procedures of the body.
The presiding officer sits in a chair in the front of the Senate chamber. The powers of the presiding officer of the Senate are far less extensive than those of the Speaker of the House. The presiding officer calls on Senators to speak (by the rules of the Senate, the first Senator who rises is recognized); ruling on points of order (objections by Senators that a rule has been breached, subject to appeal to the whole chamber); and announcing the results of votes.
Each party elects Senate party leaders. Floor leaders act as the party chief spokespeople. The Senate Majority Leader is responsible for controlling the agenda of the chamber; for example, by scheduling debates and votes. Each party elects a whip to assist the leader; the whip works to ensure that his party's senators vote as the party leadership desires.
The Senate is served by several officials who are not members. The Senate's chief administrative officer is the Secretary of the Senate, who maintains public records, disburses salaries, monitors the acquisition of stationery and supplies, and oversees clerks. The Secretary is aided in his work by the Assistant Secretary of the Senate. Another official is the Sergeant-at-Arms, who, as the Senate's chief law enforcement officer, maintains order and security on the Senate premises. The Capitol Police handles routine police work, with the Sergeant-at-Arms primarily responsible for general oversight. Other employees include the Chaplain, who is elected by the Senate, and Pages, who are appointed.
Like the House of Representatives, the Senate meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. At one end of the Chamber of the Senate is a dais from which the Presiding Officer (the Vice President, the President pro tempore, or one of the junior senators designated by the President pro tempore) presides. The lower tier of the dais is used by clerks and other officials. One hundred desks are arranged in the Chamber in a semicircular pattern; the desks are divided by a wide central aisle. By tradition, Democrats sit on the right of the centre aisle, while Republicans sit on the left, as viewed from the presiding officer's chair. Each senator chooses a desk on the basis of seniority within his party; by custom, the leader of each party sits in the front row. Sessions of the Senate are opened with a special prayer or invocation, typically convening on weekdays. Sessions of the Senate are generally open to the public and are broadcast live on television by C-SPAN 2.
Senate procedure depends not only on the rules, but also on a variety of customs and traditions. In many cases, the Senate waives some of its stricter rules by unanimous consent. Unanimous consent agreements are typically negotiated beforehand by party leaders. Any senator may block such an agreement, but, in practice, objections are rare. The presiding officer enforces the rules of the Senate, and may warn members who deviate from them. The presiding officer often uses the gavel of the Senate to maintain order.
A "hold" is placed when the Leader's office is notified that a senator intends to object to a request for unanimous consent from the Senate to consider or pass a measure. A hold may be placed for any reason and can be lifted by a senator at any time. A senator may place a hold simply to review a bill, to negotiate changes to the bill, or to kill the bill. A bill can be held for as long as the senator who objects to the bill wishes to block its consideration.
Holds can be overcome, but require time consuming procedures such as filing cloture. Holds are considered to be private communications between a senator and the Leader, and are sometimes referred to as "secret holds." A senator may disclose that he or she has placed a hold.
The Constitution provides that a majority of the Senate constitutes a quorum to do business. Under the rules and customs of the Senate, a quorum is always assumed to be present unless a quorum call explicitly demonstrates otherwise. Any senator may request a quorum call by "suggesting the absence of a quorum"; a clerk then calls the roll of the Senate and notes which members are present. In practice, senators almost always request quorum calls not to establish the presence of a quorum, but to temporarily delay proceedings. Such a delay may serve one of many purposes; often, it allows Senate leaders to negotiate compromises off the floor. Once the need for a delay has ended, any senator may request unanimous consent to rescind the Quorum Call.
During debates, senators may only speak if called upon by the presiding officer. The presiding officer is, however, required to recognize the first senator who rises to speak. Thus, the presiding officer has little control over the course of debate. Customarily, the Majority Leader and Minority Leader are accorded priority during debates, even if another senator rises first. All speeches must be addressed to the presiding officer, using the words "Mr. President" or "Madam President." Only the presiding officer may be directly addressed in speeches; other Members must be referred to in the third person. In most cases, senators do not refer to each other by name, but by state, using forms such as "the senior senator from Virginia" or "the junior senator from California."
There are very few restrictions on the content of speeches; there is no requirement that speeches be germane to the matter before the Senate.
The rules of the Senate provide that no senator may make more than two speeches on a motion or bill on the same legislative day. (A legislative day begins when the Senate convenes and ends with adjournment; hence, it does not necessarily coincide with the calendar day.) The length of these speeches is not limited by the rules; thus, in most cases, senators may speak for as long as they please. Often, the Senate adopts unanimous consent agreements imposing time limits. In other cases (for example, for the Budget process), limits are imposed by statute. In general, however, the right to unlimited debate is preserved.
The filibuster is a tactic used to defeat bills and motions by prolonging debate indefinitely. A filibuster may entail long speeches, dilatory motions, and an extensive series of proposed amendments. The Senate may end a filibuster by invoking cloture. In most cases, cloture requires the support of three-fifths of the Senate; however, if the matter before the Senate involves changing the rules of the body—most importantly, if it reduces the power of filibuster—a two-thirds majority is required. In current practice, the threat of filibuster is of more importance than its actual use; almost any motion that does not have the support of three-fifths of the Senate effectively fails. Cloture is invoked very rarely, particularly because bipartisan support is usually necessary to obtain the required supermajority, and a bill that already has bipartisan support is rarely subject to threats of filibuster in the first place. If the Senate does invoke cloture, debate does not end immediately; instead, further debate is limited to 30 additional hours unless increased by another three-fifths vote. The longest filibuster speech in the history of the Senate was delivered by Strom Thurmond, who spoke for over 24 hours in an unsuccessful attempt to block the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
When debate concludes, the motion in question is put to a vote. In many cases, the Senate votes by voice vote; the presiding officer puts the question, and Members respond either "Aye" (in favour of the motion) or "No" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote. Any senator, however, may challenge the presiding officer's assessment and request a recorded vote. The request may be granted only if it is seconded by one-fifth of the senators present. In practice, however, senators second requests for recorded votes as a matter of courtesy. When a recorded vote is held, the clerk calls the roll of the Senate in alphabetical order; each senator responds when his or her name is called. Senators who miss the roll call may still cast a vote as long as the recorded vote remains open. The vote is closed at the discretion of the presiding officer, but must remain open for a minimum of 15 minutes. If the vote is tied, the Vice President, if present, is entitled to a tie-breaking vote. If the Vice President is not present, however, the motion fails.
On occasion, the Senate may go into what is called a secret or closed session. During a closed session, the chamber doors are closed, and the galleries are completely cleared of anyone not sworn to secrecy, not instructed in the rules of the closed session, or not essential to the session. Closed sessions are quite rare, and usually held only under very certain circumstances where the senate is discussing sensitive subject-matter such as information critical to national security, private communications from the President, or even to discuss Senate deliberations during impeachment trials. Any senator may call for and force a closed session as long as the motion is seconded by at least one other member.
Budget bills are governed under a special rule process called " Reconciliation" that disallows filibusters. Reconciliation was devised in 1974 but came into use in the early 1980s.
The Senate uses committees (as well as their subcommittees) for a variety of purposes, including the review of bills and the oversight of the executive branch. The appointment of committee members is formally made by the whole Senate, but the choice of members is actually made by the political parties. Generally, each party honours the preferences of individual senators, giving priority on the basis of seniority. Each party is allocated seats on committees in proportion to its overall strength.
Most committee work is performed by 16 standing committees, each of which has jurisdiction over a specific field such as Finance or Foreign Relations. Each standing committee may consider, amend, and report bills that fall under its jurisdiction. Furthermore, each standing committee considers presidential nominations to offices related to its jurisdiction. (For instance, the Judiciary Committee considers nominees for judgeships, and the Foreign Relations Committee considers nominees for positions in the Department of State.) Committees have extensive powers with regard to bills and nominees; they may block nominees and impede bills from reaching the floor of the Senate. Standing committees also oversee the departments and agencies of the executive branch. In discharging their duties, standing committees have the power to hold hearings and to subpoena witnesses and evidence.
The Senate also has several committees that are not considered standing committees. Such bodies are generally known as select committees or special committees; examples include the Select Committee on Ethics and the Special Committee on Aging. Legislation is referred to some of these committees, although the bulk of legislative work is performed by the standing committees. Committees may be established on an ad hoc basis for specific purposes; for instance, the Senate Watergate Committee was a special committee created to investigate the Watergate scandal. Such temporary committees cease to exist after fulfilling their tasks.
The Congress includes joint committees, which include members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Some joint committees oversee independent government bodies; for instance, the Joint Committee on the Library oversees the Library of Congress. Other joint committees serve to make advisory reports; for example, there exists a Joint Committee on Taxation. Bills and nominees are not referred to joint committees. Hence, the power of joint committees is considerably lower than those of standing committees.
Each Senate committee and subcommittee is led by a chairman (usually a member of the majority party). Formerly, committee chairmanship was determined purely by seniority; as a result, several elderly senators continued to serve as chairmen despite severe physical infirmity or even senility. Committee chairmen are elected, but, in practice, seniority is rarely bypassed. The chairmen hold extensive powers: they control the committee's agenda, and so decide how much, if any, time to give to a bill; they act with the power of the committee in disapproving or delaying a bill or a nomination by the president; they manage the bills the committee reports on the floor, which was particularly important in mid-century, when floor amendments were thought uncollegial. They also have considerable influence: a Senator who cooperates with his committee chairman is likely to accomplish more good for his State than one who does not. The Senate rules and customs were reformed in the twentieth century, largely in the 1970's; committee chairmen have somewhat less power, and are in general more moderate and collegial in exercising it, than they were before reform. The second-highest member, the spokesperson on the committee for the minority party, is known in most cases as the Ranking Member. In the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Select Committee on Ethics, however, the senior minority member is known as the Vice Chairman.
Bills may be introduced in either House of Congress. However, the Constitution provides that "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives." As a result, the Senate does not have the power to initiate bills imposing taxes. Furthermore, the House of Representatives holds that the Senate does not have the power to originate appropriation bills, or bills authorizing the expenditure of federal funds. Historically, the Senate has disputed the interpretation advocated by the House. However, whenever the Senate originates an appropriations bill, the House simply refuses to consider it, thereby settling the dispute in practice. The constitutional provision barring the Senate from introducing revenue bills is based on the practice of the British Parliament, in which only the House of Commons may originate such measures.
Although the Constitution gave the House the power to initiate revenue bills, in practice the Senate is equal to the House in the respects of taxation and spending. As Woodrow Wilson wrote:
[T]he Senate's right to amend [general appropriation bills] has been allowed the widest possible scope. The upper house may add to them what it pleases; may go altogether outside of their original provisions and tack to them entirely new features of legislation, altering not only the amounts but even the objects of expenditure, and making out of the materials sent them by the popular chamber measures of an almost totally new character.
The approval of both the Senate and the House of Representatives is required for any bill, including a revenue bill, to become law. Both Houses must pass the exact same version of the bill; if there are differences, they may be resolved by a conference committee, which includes members of both bodies.
Checks and balances
The Constitution provides several unique functions for the Senate that form its ability to "check and balance" the powers of other elements of the Federal Government. These include the requirement that the Senate may advise and must consent to the President's government appointments; also the Senate must ratify all treaties with foreign governments; it tries all impeachments, and it elects the Vice President in the event no person gets a majority of the electoral votes.
The President can make certain appointments only with the advice and consent of the Senate. Officials whose appointments require the Senate's approval include members of the Cabinet, heads of most federal executive agencies, ambassadors, Justices of the Supreme Court, and other federal judges. Under the Constitution, a large number of government appointments are subject to potential confirmation; however, Congress has passed legislation to authorize the appointment of many officials without the Senate's consent (usually, confirmation requirements are reserved for those officials with the most significant final decision-making authority). Typically, a nominee is first subject to a hearing before a Senate committee. Thereafter, the nomination is considered by the full Senate. The majority of nominees are confirmed, but in a small number of cases each year, Senate Committees will purposely fail to act on a nominations in order to block it. Also, the President sometimes withdraws nominations when they appear unlikely to be confirmed. Because of this, outright rejections of nominees on the Senate Floor are quite infrequent (there have been only nine Cabinet nominees rejected outright in the history of the United States).
The powers of the Senate with respect to nominations are, however, subject to some constraints. For instance, the Constitution provides that the President may make an appointment during a congressional recess without the Senate's advice and consent. The recess appointment remains valid only temporarily; the office becomes vacant again at the end of the next congressional session. Nevertheless, Presidents have frequently used recess appointments to circumvent the possibility that the Senate may reject the nominee. Furthermore, as the Supreme Court held in Myers v. United States, although the Senate's advice and consent is required for the appointment of certain executive branch officials, it is not necessary for their removal.
The Senate also has a role in the process of ratifying treaties. The Constitution provides that the President may only ratify a treaty if two-thirds of the senators vote to grant advice and consent. However, not all international agreements are considered treaties, and therefore do not require the Senate's approval. Congress has passed laws authorizing the President to conclude executive agreements without action by the Senate. Similarly, the President may make congressional-executive agreements with the approval of a simple majority in each House of Congress, rather than a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Neither executive agreements nor congressional-executive agreements are mentioned in the Constitution, leading some to suggest that they unconstitutionally circumvent the treaty-ratification process. However, the validity of such agreements has been upheld by courts.
The Constitution empowers the House of Representatives to impeach federal officials for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" and empowers the Senate to try such impeachments. If the sitting President of the United States is being tried, the Chief Justice of the United States presides over the trial. During any impeachment trial, senators are constitutionally required to sit on oath or affirmation. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority of the senators present. A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office in the future. No further punishment is permitted during the impeachment proceedings; however, the party may face criminal penalties in a normal court of law.
In the history of the United States, the House of Representatives has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted. (One resigned before the Senate could complete the trial.) Only two Presidents of the United States have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Both trials ended in acquittal; in Johnson's case, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction.
Under the Twelfth Amendment, the Senate has the power to elect the Vice President if no vice presidential candidate receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College. The Twelfth Amendment requires the Senate to choose from the two candidates with the highest numbers of electoral votes. Electoral College deadlocks are very rare; in the history of the United States, the Senate has only had to break a deadlock once, in 1837, when it elected Richard Mentor Johnson. The power to elect the President in the case of an Electoral College deadlock belongs to the House of Representatives.
Current composition and latest election results
|Peace and Freedom Party||0||0||0||0||0||0||117,764||0.19%|
|Socialist Workers Party||0||0||0||0||0||0||10,463||0.02%|
|Personal Choice Party||0||0||0||0||0||0||9,089||0.01%|
|Socialist Party USA||0||0||0||0||0||0||2,490||0.00%|
|Voter turnout: 29.7 %|
|Sources: Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Elections, United States Elections Project at George Mason University|
The 110th United States Congress, which began January 4, 2007:
|Independent||1||Bernie Sanders caucuses with the Democrats.|
|Connecticut for Lieberman Party||1||Joe Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats.|
|Majority||51||The Democratic Caucus (51 members) is in the majority.|
|Total||99||(Plus one vacancy)|
Note: In the months between the election and the swearing in of the Congress, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Connecticut for Lieberman Party-CT) initially refused to rule out caucusing with the Republicans, which would have put Republicans in control of the Senate. A similar situation happened in the Great Senate Deadlock of 1881. However, any future changes in the party composition in the Senate during the 110th Congress would not change Democratic control of the Senate due to the organizing resolutions agreed to at the beginning of the session.