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The United States Senate resulted from the decision of the constitutional convention of 1787 to replace the unicameral legislature that had functioned under the articles of confederation with a bicameral Congress. bicameralism reflected the existing structure of the British Parliament and most of the state legislatures. The virginia plan originally proposed that the larger, popularly elected house of representatives elect the smaller "second house," but the convention ultimately assigned the election of senators to the state legislatures. On the issue of representation, the Convention reached an impasse between delegates from larger states, who wanted both houses of Congress apportioned according to population, and those from smaller states, who demanded equal status. The great compromise satisfied these conflicting demands by giving each state two seats in the Senate and assigning seats in the House by population. Equality was so essential for the smaller states that the Constitution further specified that "no State without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate" (Article V).

The Senate (from the Latin senatus, council of elders) was expected to provide a check on the popularly elected House. Envisioning an American House of Lords, some delegates to the Constitutional Convention proposed that senators serve for life, at no salary. The convention rejected these strictures, but the Constitution assigns senators six-year terms and requires them to be at least thirty years of age and citizens for nine years (compared with two-year terms, a twenty-five-year age minimum, and seven years of citizenship for representatives). Although the federal Constitution sets no property-holding qualifications for senators, delegates depicted a Senate that would represent landed and commercial interests. "This checking branch must have great personal property," gouverneur morris, insisted, "it must have the aristocratic spirit; it must love to lord it through pride." "A good Senate," said edmund randolph, would serve as a cure for the "turbulence and follies of democracy" under which the Congress of the Articles of Confederation had labored. james madison observed that while the House might err out of fickleness and passion, the Senate would provide "a necessary fence against this danger."

The delegates first considered assigning appointment of judges and making of treaties to the Senate, but eventually divided these powers between the chief executive and the Senate. The Senate would advise and consent—or withhold consent—on presidential nominations and treaties negotiated by the executive branch. The Senate would share all powers of Congress and participate in all legislative functions. Senators could introduce and amend bills and resolutions without restriction, except that revenue bills must originate in the House, because "the people should hold the purse strings."

Despite their shared legislative powers, the Senate and House from the beginning have acted independently. The Senate sets its own rules, elects its own officers, judges the credentials of its members, and decides any contested elections (first by state legislatures and later by direct election after ratification of the seventeenth amendment in 1913). The Senate may also discipline its members through censure and expulsion. During its first two centuries the Senate censured eight senators for conduct ranging from violating Senate secrecy to financial misconduct. Most notably, in 1954 the Senate censured Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin for conduct "contrary to senatorial traditions," relating to his treatment of committee witnesses and other senators. Censure has not led to expulsion, except by the voters in the next election. The Senate has expelled only william blount, charged with treasonous conspiracy in 1797, and fourteen senators who supported the Confederacy during the civil war. Every other expulsion proceeding has ended either with the senator's vindication or with his resignation to avoid an expulsion vote.

Unlike the House, whose membership stands for election every two years, senators are divided into three classes elected at two-year intervals. Because at least two-thirds of the Senate continues in office from one Congress to the next, the Senate has defined itself as a continuing body that does not need to reestablish its rules at the start of each Congress. Although the House elects its own presiding officer, the vice-president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate. To preside in the vice-president's absence, the Senate elects a president pro tempore, generally the most senior member of the majority party. As the presiding officer, the vice-president has to play an essentially neutral role, voting only to break ties, speaking only with the permission of the Senate, and having his rulings subject to reversal by vote of the Senate.

The Constitution requires each house of Congress to publish a journal of its proceedings. Since 1789, the Senate has produced legislative and executive journals, which consist of short minutes of official actions taken on all bills, resolutions, treaties, and nominations. Separately from these journals, the Congressional Record evolved from stenographic notes published in private newspapers. Prior to the Congressional Record, these notes were compiled in the Annals of Congress (1789–1824), the Register of Debates in Congress (1824–1837), and the Congressional Globe (1833–1873).

For its first years the Senate met entirely in secret session, while the House immediately opened its doors. Seeing their role as a council to revise legislation drafted in the House and to advise the President on nominations and treaties, and having no need to appeal to their constituents, senators believed they could debate more freely and productively without a public gallery. In 1795, after much criticism in the press, the Senate regularly admitted the public to view legislative sessions, but continued to conduct most executive business—treaties and nominations—in closed session until 1929. Persistent leaks of executive sessions to the press steadily diminished their "secret" nature, and the Senate abandoned closed sessions, except for rare instances concerning highly classified information. Even after opening its doors, the Senate received minimal public attention. "Henceforth you will read little of me in the Gazettes," one representative notified his wife after his election to the Senate in 1804. "Senators are less exposed to public view than Representatives." House leadership in national affairs predominated through the War of 1812; but subsequently legislators of the stature of henry clay, daniel webster, and john c. calhoun found the Senate a better forum for their sectional appeals and national aspirations. While Senate debate flourished, the House in 1847 established a "five-minute rule" for members' speeches. The smaller Senate clung to the tradition of unlimited debate, which took its most extreme form in the filibuster. This stalling devise gave the minority the opportunity to stop objectionable measures by occupying the floor with lengthy speeches and procedural delays. Not until 1917 did the Senate establish the first cloture rule, to provide a mechanism for cutting off debate.

Filibusters proved especially potent during the short second sessions of Congress. The Constitution originally set the opening date of Congress on the first Monday in December, more than a year after the elections. These first sessions generally met through the following spring. The second session again convened on the first Monday in December in the even-numbered years, but automatically expired on March 4. With the Senate facing an absolute deadline and with many of its members having retired or been defeated in the intervening election but not yet out of office, filibusters more easily prevailed. In 1933 the twentieth amendment moved the opening of each session to January 3, which eliminated the long interregnum after elections and reduced the lame-duck filibusters. However, individual senators, no matter how junior, retain great capacity to defeat or delay legislation through amendments, objections to unanimous-consent requests, filibusters, and other parliamentary maneuvers generally not available to rank-and-file members of the House.

The Constitution grants members immunity from prosecution for their remarks in Congress. Judicial interpretations have extended the speech or debate clause (Article I, Section 6) to cover a variety of congressional activity. In gravel v. united states (1972), the Supreme Court declared Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska and his staff immune from prosecution for making public classified portions of the Pentagon Papers. By contrast, the Court ruled in hutchinson v. proxmire (1979) that Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin had immunity for statements made on the floor but not for information in his press releases and newsletters.

Exercising its advice and consent power, the Senate in 1789 rejected President george washington's nomination of Benjamin Fishbourn as naval officer of the port of Savannah, because of opposition from the senators from Georgia. Fishbourn's rejection was the first instance of "senatorial courtesy," by which the Senate deferred to the objections of senators from a nominee's home state. This practice has given senators great influence over the nominations of federal judges and attorneys from their states. In 1795 the Senate rejected Washington's nomination of john rutledge as chief justice of the United States, citing Rutledge's intemperate speeches on political issues. Over the next two centuries, the Senate rejected nearly twenty percent of all Supreme Court nominees, while it turned down only three percent of all Cabinet nominees. The disparity reflected senatorial attitudes that cabinet members should reflect the President's choices, but the Supreme Court is an independent branch not responsible to the President. The Senate has also tended to reject judicial appointments made during the President's last months in office.

Similarly, the Senate asserted its authority to advise and consent on the ratification of treaties. In 1789, at the urging of members, President Washington personally appeared in the Senate chamber to receive the Senate's advice on questions relating to the negotiation of treaties with several Indian nations. When the Senate deferred debate until the questions had been studied in committee, Washington determined not to repeat the experiment. Succeeding Presidents have generally limited themselves to seeking the Senate's consent rather than its advice.

In offering consent, the Senate has revised treaties through amendments, reservations, and understandings. In 1795 the Senate approved jay ' streaty with Great Britain only with the understanding that certain trade provisions would be renegotiated. In 1824 advocates of slavery deliberately amended a treaty regarding suppression of the slave trade to cause Great Britain to reject the agreement. The following year, the Senate defeated a similar treaty with Colombia, marking its first formal rejection of a treaty. The Supreme Court consistently upheld the Senate's right to alter treaties, noting in Haver v. Yaker (1869) that "a treaty is more than a contract, for the Federal Constitution declares it to be the law of the land. If so, before it can become law, the Senate in whom rests authority to ratify it, must agree to it. But the Senate are not required to adopt or reject it as a whole, but may modify or amend it." Such revisions often provide the basis for consensus needed to achieve the constitutional two-thirds vote in favor of ratification. Most notably, the Senate's failure to agree on reservations to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and 1920 caused the treaty to fall short of a two-thirds vote of approval.

The division of power on foreign policy has been "an invitation to struggle" between the President and Congress. Through its influence over treaties and diplomatic nominations, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee exerted considerable influence over foreign policy. By contrast, only through the passage of appropriations bills, largely dealing with foreign aid, has the House exerted comparable authority. Influential chairs of the Foreign Relations Committee, from charles sumner and henry cabot lodge, sr. , to J. William Fulbright, have strongly opposed and frustrated presidential policy. During the 1930s the Senate took the lead in enacting neutrality legislation. After American entry into World War II and particularly during the cold war that followed, the Senate adopted a generally bipartisan approach to foreign policy and accepted presidential leadership. Neither the korean war nor the vietnam war was launched with a congressional declaration of war. Between 1955 and 1964, Congress enacted a series of resolutions to support presidential initiatives in Formosa (Taiwan), the Middle East, Berlin, Cuba, and the Tonkin Gulf. While often compared to blank checks, these resolutions were enacted to demonstrate national unity. Congressional consensus collapsed during the Vietnam War, with increasing numbers of senators protesting unilateral presidential actions. In 1973, Congress overturned a presidential veto and enacted the War Powers Resolution, requiring the President to report the use of American troops in combat and to withdraw troops unless authorized by Congress.

Exercising quasi-judicial powers, the Senate also sits as a court of impeachment whenever the House of Representatives votes to impeach a federal official. Two-thirds of the senators must vote to convict. "Where else, than in the Senate should have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent?" asked alexander hamilton in The Federalist #65. Between 1789 and 1989 the House impeached sixteen federal officers—among them, a President, a senator, a cabinet member, and thirteen federal judges—on charges ranging from treason to intoxication. Three resigned voluntarily. The Senate found seven guilty and removed them from office. In 1868, by a single vote, the Senate declined to remove President andrew johnson.

The Senate elects its own officers, sets its own rules, and appoints it own committees. Since 1789 the Senate has elected a secretary of the Senate, a sergeant at arms (originally called the doorkeeper), and a chaplain. Within its first week of business, a special committee proposed nineteen rules, which the Senate adopted with a single addition. There have been few general revisions of these rules. At first, the Senate operated chiefly as a committee of the whole, electing an array of ad hoc committees to deal with specific bills. In 1816, concerned with improving continuity and permitting more specialization, the Senate established sixteen standing committees. After the creation of standing committees, senators no longer needed to give a day's notice or receive permission from a majority of members to introduce bills and resolutions. They have since introduced legislation at will, to be referred to the appropriate committee for initial consideration. For a time, the presiding officer appointed committee membership. Throughout the nineteenth century senators could be appointed to chair committees on which they had never served, based upon their seniority in the Senate as a whole. After reforms established in 1921, members advanced solely on the basis of seniority within a committee.

The committee system came to dominate the legislative process. By 1885, woodrow wilson described the federal system as "a government by chairmen of the Standing Committees of Congress." From time to time, the proliferation of committees has stimulated reforms leading to reductions in the number of committees and subcommittees. Most significant among these was the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, which revised committee jurisdiction and permitted the hiring of professional staffs. A series of reforms in the 1970s opened executive sessions of the committees to public view, provided for hiring minority staff members, and gave senators staff on each of their committees.

Committees have been the prime shapers of legislation and the vehicles for senatorial oversight and investigation. In the twentieth century the Senate increasingly played the role of investigator. Beginning with the 1924 Teapot Dome investigation of corruption in the warren g. harding administration and continuing through the investigation of banking and stock exchange practices after the 1929 stock market crash, the investigation of the national defense program during World War II, the crime investigations and the anticommunist hearings of the 1950s, and the watergate hearings of 1973, Senate investigations have focused national attention on malfeasance and laid the groundwork for reform legislation. In a few investigations—those on the conduct of the Civil War, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the iran-contra affair—joint Senate and House committees conducted the proceedings. Senate committees also maintain regular oversight of the executive agencies. Although witnesses have raised objections regarding their rights while testifying, the Supreme Court in mcgrain v. daugherty (1927) and Sinclair v. United States (1929) has upheld the Senate's ability to subpoena private citizens and to hold recalcitrant witnesses in contempt of congress, citing investigations as legitimate means to remedy social, political, and economic defects or to expose corruption and waste.

An important twentieth-century innovation has been the emergence of the majority and minority leaders and whips as party leaders, legislative floor managers, and presidential spokesmen. During the nineteenth century, Senate leadership divided among the chairmen of the party caucuses and influential committees. Not until the 1920s did the parties designate official floor leaders and station them prominently in the chamber, giving them responsibility to manage their party's agenda and the legislative schedule. Rarely able to rely on party discipline in voting, Senate leaders gained influence through their ability to make committee appointments and schedule floor business and through the "power to recognition," by which the presiding officer calls first upon the majority and minority leaders before recognizing other senators. The post of Senate majority leader evolved to equal stature with the Speaker of the House. "The minority leader speaks for his party," Senator Robert C. Byrd noted. "But the majority leader, whether he be a Democrat or Republican, is the leader of the Senate."

Just as the United States Senate has preserved the polite parliamentary language, snuffboxes, and spittoons from centuries past, it has retained its original constitutional shape and functions. Yet the Senate has grown from a small council meeting in secret to a powerful legislative body, with more authority, independence, and media attention than the upper house of any other national legislature. Senators have jealously guarded and exercised the powers that the Constitution assigned to them, while developing the modern leadership, staff support, and rule changes necessary to meet vastly expanded legislative demands.

Donald A. Ritchie

(see also: Appointment of Supreme Court Justices; Appointments Clause; Congressional Membership; Congressional Powers; Congressional Privileges and Immunities; Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; Legislative Investigations; McCarthyism; Senate and Foreign Policy; Senate Judiciary Committee; Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights; Treaty Power.)


Baker, Richard A. 1988 The Senate of the United States: A Bicentennial History. Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger.

Byrd, Robert C. 1989 The Senate, 1789–1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Haynes, George H. 1938 The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice, 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rothman, David J. 1966 Politics and Power: The United States Senate, 1869–1901. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Swanstrom, Roy 1988 The United States Senate, 1787–1801: A Dissertation upon the First Fourteen Years of the Upper Legislative Body, Senate Document 100–31. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.


views updated May 23 2018


The upper chamber, or smaller branch, of the U.S. Congress. The upper chamber of the legislature of most of the states.

The U.S. Constitution reserves for the Senate special powers not available to the other branch of Congress, the House of Representatives. These powers include the trial of all impeachments of federal officials; the ratification, by a two-thirds vote, of all treaties obtained by the president of the United States; and approval or rejection of all presidential appointments to the federal judiciary, ambassadorships, cabinet positions, and other significant executive branch posts.

The Senate, with terms of six years for its members—as opposed to two years for members of the House of Representatives—and a tradition of unlimited debate, has long prided itself as the more deliberate of the two branches of Congress. Under its rules a senator may speak on an issue indefinitely, which is known as the filibuster. Sixty senators present and voting may pass a motion of cloture to stop debate.


Under Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution, the Senate is made up of two members from each state, each of whom has one vote. Unlike the House of Representatives, in which the entire chamber is up for election every two years, only one-third of the senators are up for reelection every two years.

The Constitution requires that a senator be at least thirty years of age and a U.S. citizen for a minimum of nine years. A senator must make her legal residence in the state that she represents.

The Constitution originally provided for the election of senators by state legislatures. However, the seventeenth amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1913, mandated the election of senators by popular vote. The Senate may punish members for disorderly behavior. With the concurrence of two-thirds of the senators, it can expel a member.

When a vacancy occurs in the representation of any state in the Senate, the governor of that state issues a writ of election to fill the vacancy. The state legislature, however, can empower the governor to make a temporary appointment until the people fill the vacancy through an election.

The vice president of the United States is president of the Senate but has no vote unless the senators are equally divided on a question. His vote breaks the tie.


The Senate uses a committee system to evaluate, draft, and amend legislation before it is submitted to the full chamber. During the 108th Congress (2003–04), the Senate had sixteen standing, or permanent, committees: Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Appropriations; Armed Services; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; Finance; Foreign Relations; Governmental Affairs; Judiciary; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Rules and Administration; Small Business; and Veterans' Affairs. The committees have an average of six to seven subcommittees. Senators typically belong to three committees and eight subcommittees. The Senate also has joint committees with the House, special committees, and investigative committees.


The vice president acts as the president of the Senate. In the vice president's absence, that position is filled by the president pro tempore, who is usually the most senior senator of the majority party. The majority leader has significant powers in the appointment of majority senators to committees. Political parties also elect majority and minority leaders to lead their efforts in the Senate. They are assisted by an assistant floor leader (whip) and a party secretary.

Other Senate officers include the secretary, who oversees Senate finances and official Senate pronouncements related to impeachment proceedings and treaty ratification, and the sergeant at arms, who serves as the law enforcement and protocol officer and organizes ceremonial functions.

A Day in the Life of the Senate

As the bells ring in the halls of the Capitol and its office buildings, the U.S. Senate starts the day's session. The presiding officer of the Senate, sometimes the vice president but usually the president pro tempore, accompanies the Senate chaplain to the rostrum to lead the chamber in an opening prayer.

After short speeches by the majority and minority leaders, the Senate begins the "morning hour"—a session that generally lasts two hours. During this time senators introduce bills, resolutions, and committee reports and speak briefly on subjects of concern. Bills are referred to approrpiate committees at this time.

Following the morning hour, the Senate may take up executive or legislative business. If in executive session, the Senate considers treaties or nominations that the president has submitted for Senate approval. Before 1929 executive sessions were conducted behind closed doors. Since then, however, the public and the press have been allowed to observe these sessions.

Most of the Senate's time, however, is spent in legislative session. This time is used to debate and vote on bills. Bills with unanimous consent are enacted by a simple voice vote without debate, whereas more controversial bills may be debated at length and may undergo roll call votes. Some bills may not come up for a vote at all.

During debate of a bill, assistant floor leaders, or whips, from each party usually occupy the seats of the majority and minority leaders, located in the front row, center aisle, of the Senate chamber. They enforce established time limits, if any, for debate on specific bills. Frequently, only a few senators are on the Senate floor, while the majority are attending committee meetings or working in their offices. From their offices, senators may apprise themselves of Senate proceedings either through "hot lines" to the Senate floor or live television coverage on the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (c-span), which began broadcasting Senate sessions in 1986.

A Senate legislative day may end in either adjournment or recess. If the Senate adjourns, a legislative day is officially over. If it merely recesses, however, the legislative day resumes on the following calendar day. In the case of a recess, the Senate may forego the rituals of the morning hour on the next calendar day. This is frequently done to save time during busy legislative sessions.

Sometimes, when there is a filibuster or heavy legislative load, the Senate does not stop at the end of the day but continues through the night. During these night sessions, a lantern at the top of the Capitol dome remains lit. The public has access to Senate galleries at all times that the Senate is in session, day or night.

further readings

Bach, Stanley. 1996. "The Daily Order of Business." In The Legislative Process on the Senate Floor: An Introduction. Report 91-520 RCO. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. 2001. Treaties and Other International Agreements: The Role of the United States Senate: A Study. Washington, D.C.: GPO.

Hardeman, D.B. 1976. "Congress, United States." In Dictionary of American History. Vol. 2. Edited by Louise B. Ketz. New York: Scribner.

U.S. Senate Web site. Available online at <> (accessed February 10, 2004).

Wirls, Daniel and Stephen. 2003. The Invention of the United States Senate. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.


Congress of the United States; Constitution of the United States.


views updated May 14 2018

sen·ate / ˈsenit/ • n. any of various legislative or governing bodies, in particular: ∎  the smaller upper assembly in the U.S. Congress, most U.S. states, France, and other countries. ∎  the state council of the ancient Roman republic and empire, which shared legislative power with the popular assemblies, administration with the magistrates, and judicial power with the knights. ∎  the governing body of a university or college.ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French senat, from Latin senatus, from senex ‘old man.’


views updated Jun 11 2018

Senate Upper House of the US legislature, which together with the House of Representatives forms the Congress. It consists of two senators from each state, who are elected for six-year terms. Elections are held every other year, with about one third of the Senate elected at a time. There are usually 16 standing committees, and committee chairs retain their positions for as long as their party has a majority of the votes. The approval of a simple majority of the Senate is necessary for major presidential appointments, and a two-thirds majority for treaties. The Senate can initiate legislation except on fiscal matters. Officially, the presiding officer of the Senate is the vice president, but the position is often delegated.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Senate the state council of the ancient Roman republic and empire, which shared legislative power with the popular assemblies, administration with the magistrates, and judicial power with the knights. In modern usage, Senate is the title of various legislative or governing bodies, in particular the smaller upper assembly in the US, US states, France, and other countries; the governing body of a university or college.

The name comes (in Middle English, via Old French) from Latin senatus, from senex ‘old man’.


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views updated May 17 2018

senate XIII. — (O)F. sénat — L. senātus, f. senex, sen- old (man); see SENIOR, -ATE1.
So senator (OR1) XIII. — (O)F. sénateur — L. senātor, -ōrem.


views updated May 21 2018


SENATE. SeeCongress, United States .


views updated Jun 11 2018


an assembly or Council of citizens; a body of the elders, 1586; the governing body of a nation, state or university.

Examples : the senate of the Gods is met, 1821; the senate of the heart, 1540.

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