DC Speak: Who Does What, Senate Edition

Now we move from the large, tumultuous body of the House of Representatives to the smaller and more deliberative Senate. In the Constitutional compromise, the Senate is meant to prevent hasty action by the House, serve as a check on the ambition of the President, and protect the rights of individual states. To accomplish these tasks, the Senate has a vastly different history, role, and procedure than the House. Unlike the House, in the Senate individual members have the power to control the legislative process.

In the original Constitution, Senators were not elected by the people. The two Senators allotted to each state were selected by the state's legislature. This was thought to ensure politicians were responsive to a state's needs instead of those of the people. Leading up to the Civil War, disputes between political parties in some states deadlocked state lawmakers and lead to some Senators not being elected at all. This changed with the 17th amendment, ratified in 1913, which shifted election of Senators to a direct selection by voters. The basic requirements of age and residency have remained the same since the 18th century.

Each Senator is elected to a six year term, and the Senate is split into three groups so that one third is elected every two years. (Comparatively, each member of the House must be elected every 2 years, except for the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico.) Unlike the House, no territories, Commonwealths, or possessions of the United States are represented in the Senate.

The Senate serves as a body of debate and approval on a wide variety of topics. The Constitution commands the Senate to give the President “Advice and Consent” (i.e., a vote of approval) on nominations to the federal courts and executive offices. They also must ratify treaties the President makes with foreign nations. One power accorded to the Senate, but rarely used, is the power to try impeachment cases. Only 19 individuals have reached the point of impeachment hearings in the history of the Senate.

Although it is a largely ceremonial role, the Vice President of the United States also serves as the President of the Senate. In this capacity, he serves as the tie breaking vote if the Senate is evenly split on a bill before them. This is an infrequent but not unusual occurrence; for instance, Vice President Dick Cheney cast the deciding vote in the Senate 8 times while in office.

The other executive officer of the Senate is the President Pro Tempore, who is by recent tradition the oldest member of the majority party (currently Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii). The President Pro Tempore presides over the Senate when it is in session or may appoint another Senator to do so. He is also third in the line of Presidential succession after the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.

Lingo unique to the Senate and not the House highlights their procedural differences and includes “blue slips,” “secret holds,” and “filibusters.” Senators use these tools to slow or stop bills and executive nominations they disagree with, or to gain political leverage on other matters before the Senate. Senatorial courtesy, or the practice of conferring with senators on legislation or nominees that affect them and their state, is the foundation for these privileges.

When the President nominates a judge to the federal bench, for example. the two Senators from the nominee's home state are each sent a blue slip, which they can submit to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a positive or negative vote on the nominee, or they can withhold the slip. It is considered senatorial courtesy for the Senate to refuse to move forward on a nomination opposed by the senators of the nominee's home state. This detailed archival list from the Department of Justice illustrates that in only one district – the sixth circuit of Michigan – were justices confirmed with two negative blue slips.

A secret hold allows a Senator to anonymously object to a bill or nomination, delaying the legislation or confirmation indefinitely, as Senate rules call for business to be brought to the floor unanimously. In late January of 2011, the Senate voted to end the practice of secret holds. Holds can still be placed, but Senators requesting a hold have two days to come forward or the hold will be attributed to the leader of their party.

Filibusters have been mentioned elsewhere on this blog, but they bear further attention because the filibuster has come to symbolize political obstructionism in the Senate. Essentially, any Senator can refuse to yield the floor and allow a vote on legislative business, although as a practical matter the simple threat of a filibuster has recently become sufficient to halt Senate work. 60 Senators must vote for cloture to end the filibuster and override that single Senator. In the burst of bipartisanship that ended the secret hold, the Senate majority and minority leaders also agreed to use the filibuster less.

The Senate has 16 permanent committees, 4 special or select committees, and 4 joint committees (which are jointly staffed by the House and Senate). Senate rules specify which of these committees are the most important by creating a hierarchy of Class A, B, and C committees. Membership on Class A and B committees is limited to two Class As and one Class B. In addition, Senators may only serve on one “Super” Class A committee. The Super Class A committees are Appropriations, Armed Services, Finance, and Foreign Relations. The linked Congressional Research Service report details further the rules for committee membership.

The United States Senate has a long, proud tradition of careful thought and rational discourse. It has also witnessed canings, bombings, and dark inquisitions. As citizens, it is our duty to understand the history of the government, including the Senate, in order to monitor it today and perfect it tomorrow.