The United States Senate
Created | Updated Apr 14, 2008
This is a Senate of equals, of men of individual honor and personal character, and of absolute independence. We know no masters, we acknowledge no dictators. This is a hall for mutual consultation and discussion; not an arena for the exhibition of champions.
- Daniel Webster, one of the greatest US Senators.
Tuning in to C-SPAN21, you will generally see an old man standing at a podium, shouting because he's angry about something. He may have a pie chart next to him - it all depends on the depth of his anger. If the camera pans across his audience, you will see that the rows of desks, seats and benches at which he is shouting are totally empty. This is the United States Senate.
The US Senate is the upper chamber of the United States Congress. The people of every state in America elect two Senators2, each serving six-year terms. With 50 states in America, the number of US Senators is currently pegged at an even 100. It was formed as a counterweight to the 'lower' chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives. There are two ways that it was designed to distinguish itself as the 'upper chamber'. First, while the House of Representatives was intended to be more responsive to the will and whims of the people, the Senate was supposed to be the wiser body, full of the cooler heads and the elder statesmen of the Republic. The fact that Senators have a long six-year term and that only one third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years is evidence of this. Second, the Senate was designed to ensure that the smaller states in the Union would not be trampled over by the larger states, who were to be well represented in the House of Representatives. With the most populous state in America (California, population of approximately 34 million) and the least populous state (Wyoming, population approximately 500,000) receiving the same representation in the Senate, it sort of makes up for the fact that California has 52 more Representatives than Wyoming.
Thus, the Senate is a creation of compromise, and not a part of a glorious US vision of governance. The name isn't even original. The founding fathers of the US outright stole the name from Ancient Rome, where the Senate was also a collection of old, white rich geezers. Hyperbole these epithets are not. The median age in the Senate floats around the mid-60s, ethnicity statistics rarely deviate from upwards of 90% white, and most Senators come to the office as lawyers, successful businessmen or other such professionals. The Senate's pay scale isn't too shabby, either. The Senate has unfortunately been notoriously slow to adapt as American society changes.
The Modern Senate
h2g2 stresses the benefit of knowing as much as possible about everything, in order to be prepared for every eventuality. It is in that spirit that we present a guide on how the Senate works, on the off-chance that the reader should find himself elected as a US Senator.
Remember though, you don't just walk into the Senate. There are requirements for becoming a Senator, as laid out in Article I, Section 3, Paragraph 3 of the US Constitution. You have to be at least 30 years old, a resident of the state you're meant to represent, and must have been a US citizen for at least nine years.
Each Senator is assigned to several committees, which review and debate legislation related to their field. Most of the meat of legislative debate takes place in committee and subcommittee work. Each committee consists of a Chairman (a member of the majority party who has gained enough seniority to earn the Chairmanship), a Ranking Member (a member of the minority party who would be the Chairman if the minority party was the majority party) and the members of that committee. There are a few committees which are more desirable to most Senators. The Appropriations Committee is highly sought after, because it controls all of the US government's discretionary spending. A seat on that committee makes it easy to slip in a line to a bill giving millions of federal dollars to your favorite experimental lettuce farm or a project to preserve the 'historical' home of someone that no one has ever heard of.
Some committees are considered more desirable by Senators because they oversee important or controversial areas of governing. The committees on Foreign Relations, Finance, Armed Services and Judiciary are considered to be important ones. For one thing, Senators tend to get the attentions (and dollars) of lobbyists for committee votes and some Senators like to see their face on television. It looks good to the folks back home to see their Senator presiding over an important hearing. Most Senators are assigned to committees that are relevant to their constituents. A committee concerned with agriculture is most likely to consist of Senators from states that do a bit of farming.
There are a few Senate 'Select Committees', which are often more focused on investigation rather than legislation. There are three important permanent select committees - on Intelligence, Aging and Ethics. This writer will resist the urge to make the obvious jokes. Actually, though, the two Senior members of the Committee on Intelligence in the Senate sometimes get to play secret agent, and are included in top secret briefings by the Executive branch during covert actions. It is one of the few ways that the job of a United States Senator can resemble something interesting.
Leading Senators in a particular direction has been variously been likened to herding cats, pushing spaghetti up a hill and folding Jello. There are a few positions of major leadership within the Senate, accounting for about 5% of the members. That leaves 95 members outside positions of major leadership. The first major position of Leadership within the Senate is the President of the Senate, who is always the US Vice President. His job is to cast tie-breaking votes if the need should arise. Other than that, he's got a pretty boring job with no real Constitutional responsibilities or power. The second most prestigious post of the Senate is that of the President Pro Tempore. He presides over the Senate when the Vice President does not do so (which is the vast majority of the time)3. The job is generally given to the most senior member of the majority party, who is naturally also one of the oldest members of the body. The problem with that is that the President Pro Tempore of the Senate is third in line to take the Presidency in the case of death or resignation. Should the President, Vice President and Speaker of the House of Representatives all die in quick succession, the Presidency passes to an old man whose chief distinction is that he stayed in one job for a really long time and outlived all of his colleagues.
The real positions of power in the Senate lie not with the Presiding officers of the chamber, but with the Floor Leaders (or 'Party Leaders'). Each party has a Floor Leader. The Leader of the party with the most seats is known as the Majority Leader. The Leader of the party with fewer seats is known as the Minority Leader (and in case the seats are evenly split, the US Vice President gets to decide which party will be the Majority party). The Party Leaders, and the Majority Leader in particular, get to manage the legislative schedule and bring bills up to a vote. Floor Leaders are also expected to serve as the spokesman of their party in the chamber. It's more glamorous than it sounds. In fact, one of the benefits of the job is that you get an assistant leader, or a Whip. Whips are the second most powerful members of their party in the Senate. Not to be confused with a 'Whipping Boy', the Whip is traditionally expected to ensure that Senators are present to vote and they are expected to help corral Senators to take the party's position on a vote, thus 'whipping' them into shape.
All Senators are assigned a rank of seniority. The longer a Senator stays in the Senate, the higher he will rise in seniority. Seniority is mostly based upon how long a member has been in the Senate, but if two Senators were elected in the same election, and thus sworn in on the same day, there are some other factors. They do not tie for seniority. The 'tie-breakers' are simple. You have more seniority if you previously served in the House of Representatives, or other high government office. If that is not the case, you gain more seniority based on the size of your state. Senators from larger states have greater seniority than Senators from tiny states.
That's all well and good, but who really cares? Actually, if a Senator really wants to be able to get anything done, he has to have a reasonable level of seniority. The more senior Senators get to be Committee Chairmen, or Ranking Members, and sometimes people pay attention when they talk. A new Senator in the lower end of the seniority list will not be able to get much done without the help of more experienced Senators.
Floor Speeches and Votes
As has already been briefly mentioned in this entry, floor speeches in the US Senate mostly consist of a Senator standing before an empty Senate, and talking until they are satisfied, or until they are blue in the face. This is known as 'debate'. Persuasion is not a factor in most floor debate. The purpose of giving these speeches is, more than anything, to get a Senator's position on an issue onto the public record. This 'debate' is generally very civilized and subdued on the Senate floor, and members voluntarily limit the lengths of their speeches. It's the ones who don't allow limits to stop them that cause problems. Limits on the lengths of speeches, limits on the human bladder and limits on the strength of human legs are tested by a parliamentary device known as the Filibuster. Essentially, because the Senate allows for unlimited debate, in theory, a Senator can speak as long as he wants to, as long as he doesn't stop speaking and he doesn't yield the floor. This can be used to stall controversial pieces of business to death. The only thing that can break off a prolonged Filibuster is a Cloture Motion, which ends debate on a matter, but requires three-fifths of the Senate to vote for it. Thus, if 40% of the Senate holds firm together, it can prevent passage of any bill. Nowadays, the high drama of a Filibuster is not often seen. Members now generally agree that if a filibuster is called, they can all skip the uncomfortable long speeches, and if 40% of the Senate can be brought to back the filibuster, by voting against cloture, the measure is effectively blocked. This prevents the Senate from facing moments that may weaken the dignity of the chamber, such as Strom Thurmond's record holding 24 hour and 18 minute filibuster to block Civil Rights Legislation and Huey Long's tendency to wear navy blue trousers when preparing for a filibuster - to hide the urine stains.
Probably the most common kind of vote is a quorum vote. It is a procedural vote to make sure that enough Senators are present and voting in order to conduct Senate business. It is often used as a stalling tactic for Leadership. They'll call a quorum vote, which wastes ten minutes of the Senate's time running through the list of Senators. At the same time, they will be behind the scenes, twisting arms and securing votes. Voting can be done by a roll call vote, electronically or by common consent, where a motion passes as long as it is not objected to.
One quirk of the Senate is that Senators are supposed to address their remarks to the President of the Senate, and accordingly, many of their sentences are rounded with a 'Mr President'. Casual observers may be understandably be confused by this, being used to thinking of the 'President' in the context of US Government as referring to the President of the United States. No Senator can speak without being recognised by whoever is presiding over the Senate. The Presiding Officer of the Senate is supposed to recognise whichever Senator rises first, with the exception of the Majority and Minority Leaders, who get to 'cut' in line and are given preference in order of speaking. Senate-watchers are used to several familiar phrases that they hear in just about every speech. Here are a few examples:
For what purpose does the gentleman from Ohio rise? - The Presiding Officer of the Senate is supposed to ask this question, which is his way of recognising a Senator to speak. Of course, the bad thing about this custom is that the Presiding officer must remember every Senator's face, and the state which they represent.
Mr President, I rise in support of the American Armadillo Preservation Act... - An answer to the Presiding Officer's question is usually how Senators begin their speeches.
The Junior Senator from Rhode Island is a pathological liar, a morally compromised buffoon and furthermore, he cheats at golf! - Senators do not generally refer to each other by their names. Instead, they refer to their colleagues by the state they are from, and whether they are the Senior or Junior Senator of a state (the Senior Senator being the one who has more Seniority). This customary gesture of respect can lead to amusing incongruity in accusatory speeches, where a Senator can say anything they want to about a fellow Senator, as long as they refer to him or her respectfully.
I yield the floor. That means that the Senator in question can't think of anything else to say, for the moment. The rules of the Senate do not require that a Senator's speech be relevant to a bill, or even to US Government. Senators have been known to read a phone book or a recipe book on the floor of the Senate. Yielding the floor is entirely optional.
Of course, there is no 'script' to go with a Senate speech. Sometimes the Presiding Officer will take shortcuts, or a Senator will not want to finish a particularly dramatic speech with the rather plain 'I yield the floor'. The middle is quite open, though. You never really know what will happen in any given Senator's speech. Senators say the darndest things, sometimes.
Time must not be wasted on trivialities like listening to debate, or voting, because much time must be spent on ensuring re-election. If you are seeking re-election as a Senator, you have to do a pretty bad job in order to not win another term. Re-election rates for Senators are around 90%. Senators spend much of their time fundraising, taking money from supporters and lobbyists in order to bombard their constituents with 30-second television advertisements. It is a remarkably successful tactic.
Senators do not need to spend as much time worrying about re-election as do Representatives, but as their re-election date nears, they will make more and more trips to their home states to campaign. A smart Senator lays the groundwork for this with many trips home a year. The Senate, like the House, adjourns for long breaks when just about any holiday comes around. If it's a holiday such as Columbus day, Senators will often take the entire week off, and go back home to their state. In addition, they usually take a summer recess, through the entire month of August. The Senate is generally only found working for eight to nine months of any given year. This may seem lazy, but it is not really unreasonable to allow Senators to travel to their homes in order to stay in touch with constituents and make sure that their family does not forget what they look like.
Opportunity for Advancement
Serving in the Senate is prestigious and important, but when you really think about it, a Senator, in theory, constitutes one percent of one half of the Legislative branch, which only holds one third of the power of the US Federal Government. Going by the maths, one Senator constitutes 0.16% of the power of the United States government. Of course, that's an absurd figure, as it does not take into account the fact that some Senators are much more powerful than others, and it presupposes that the three branches of government in the US are all equally powerful, which in practice turns out to be a little fairytale that has little application to real life. However, once an individual Senator reaches Washington, he may be humbled a bit by the fact that he isn't as powerful as he expected (even though he is quite a big deal back in his home state).
It is not altogether surprising, then, that so many Senators decide to run for higher office - the Presidency, an unquestionably powerful job. It has been said, in fact, that unless a Senator is in rehab or under indictment, it is assumed that he is running for the Presidency. Many Senators run for the Presidency, but in fact, it is somewhat rare for them to win the Presidency straight out of the Senate. Vice Presidents and Governors are generally the most successful at winning the Presidency. In fact, at the time of this writing, only two sitting Senators have ever managed to win the Presidency (Warren Harding and John F Kennedy, to be specific). That doesn't stop any Senators from trying, though.
The Senate's Duties
A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.
- From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
The House and Senate are, in theory, equally powerful Houses of Congress, but the Senate gets quite a few responsibilities that the House does not concern itself with.
First, the Senate is expected to give 'advice and consent' on people nominated by the Executive branch. Members of the Federal Judiciary, ambassadors, cabinet officials, agency heads and members of the Supreme Court need to be confirmed, or receive a majority vote in favor of them, in order to take office. A consequence of this constitutional obligation is the Confirmation hearing. Before Supreme Court Justices are confirmed, they must sit before the Senate Judiciary Committee and answer any questions asked by the committee's members. Other committees hold hearings on nominees related to their field of study. This process has produced some interesting moments in Senate history, and some downright fun confrontations. It's really the only time that the Senate can force important Executive figures to answer their questions (short of a subpoena) and many Senators milk that moment for all that it is worth.
The Senate was expected to be the pre-eminent of the two Legislative chambers on matters of Foreign Policy. It is therefore the responsibility of the Senate to ratify or reject treaties negotiated by the Executive branch. The Senate has been known to famously reject treaties which the US President has negotiated. The Senate once blocked ratification of the League of Nations, and many years later rejected the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
While the House of Representatives has the power to Impeach, or accuse, an Executive official, the Senate is empowered to act out a trial to remove an impeached official from office for misconduct. If an official is impeached, he or she automatically stands trial in the Senate. Each side is given the opportunity to present their case, and then the Senate acts as a jury, voting to acquit or convict the official. If an official is convicted, he or she is removed from office, though the Senate cannot impose criminal penalties. The trial is presided over by the Vice President, unless the impeached official is the President of the US, in which case the Constitution calls for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to preside over the trial. The thinking behind this is that the Vice President would nudge the Senate towards convicting the President (thus removing him from office) if it meant that this would bump the Vice President into the top job. This sort of cynicism shows that the founders of the American Republic expected a certain amount of destructive ambition from the Upper Chamber, including its Presiding Officer, long before it was a fashionable thing to voice.