Senate

Author:Donald A. Ritchie
Pages:2357-2361
 
INDEX
FREE EXCERPT

Page 2357

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

Page 2358

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...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP