US Senate

Organization

The Senate is one branch of the United States Congress, which is one of three branches of government.

On 4 March 1789, the Senate convened for the first time at New York City's Federal Hall. On 6 December 1790, Congress began a ten-year residence in Philadelphia. On 17 November 1800, Congress convened in Washington, DC. In 1909, the Senate opened its first permanent office building, which was named in honor of Sen.

Richard B. Russell (D-GA) in 1972.

Much of how the Senate is organized is enumerated in the US Constitution:

  • The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 1
In the Senate, the states are represented equally, two Senators per state. In the House, the states are represented proportionally, based on population. This plan for representation is known as the " Great Compromise" and was a sticking point at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

The tension stemmed from the fact that states are not created equal in size or population. In effect, the Senate represents the states and the House represents the people.

The framers did not want to emulate the life-long term of Britain's House of Lords. However, in today's Senate, the re-election rate for incumbents is about 90 percent -- pretty close to a life-long term.


Because the Senate represented the states, constitutional convention delegates believed senators should be elected by state legislatures. Before and after the civil war, legislative selection of senators became more and more contentious. Between 1891 and 1905, 45 deadlocks occurred in 20 states delayed the seating of senators.
By 1912, 29 states eschewed legislative appointment, electing senators through a party primary or in a general election. That year, the House sent a constitutional amendment, the 17th, to the states for ratification. Thus, since 1913 voters have directly elected their Senators.

The six-year term length was championed by James Madison. In the Federalist papers, he argued that a six-year term would have a stabilizing effect on the government.

  • Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 2
Today the Senate is composed of 100 Senators, with one-third being elected each election cycle (every two years). This three-class system was based on structures already in practice in state governments.
  • No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 3
Most state governments required that legislators be at least 21 years of age. In The Federalist Papers (No. 62), Madison justified an older age requirement because the “senatorial trust” called for a “greater extent of information and stability of character” than the more democratic House of Representatives.
  • The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote unless they be equally divided.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 4
The constitutional convention delegates believed that the Senate needed a way to avoid a tie. And, as in other points of contention, the delegates looked to the states for guidance, with New York providing clear guidance (Vice President = Lt. Governor) in legislative responsibility. The president of the Senate would not be a Senator and would cast votes only in case of a tie.
  • The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
    US Constitution, Article 1, Section 3, Clause 5
    The presence of the Vice President is required only in the case of a tie. Thus the day-to-day business of presiding over the Senate lies with the President pro tempore -- elected by fellow members of the Senate.

    Next: Senate: Constitutional Powers

    The US Constitution enumerates powers held by the Senate. This article examines the power of impeachment, treaty, appointments, war declaration and expulsion of members.

    • The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments . . . And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
      US Constitution, Article I, section 3, clause 6
    The impeachment clause was intended to hold elected officers accountable. Historical precedent -- the British Parliament and the state constitutions -- led to vesting this power in the Senate.

    For detailed arguments, see the writings of Alexander Hamilton (The Federalist, No. 65) and Madison (The Federalist, No. 47).

    The order to conduct an impeachment trial must originate in the House of Representatives. Since 1789, the Senate has tried 17 federal officials, including two presidents.
    • [The President] shall have Powers, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur ...
      US Constitution, Article II, section 2, clause 2
    Presidential power to negotiate treaties is constrained by the need to secure a two-thirds vote of the Senate. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the Continental Congress negotiated treaties, but these treaties were not valid until two-thirds of the states had ratified them.
    • [The president] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States ...
      US Constitution, Article II, section 2, clause 2
      Because judges -- members of the third branch of government -- had lifelong terms, some delegates felt that the Senate should appoint members of the judiciary; those worried about monarchies wanted the President to have no say in judgeships. Those who wished to grant this power to the executive worried about cabals in the Senate.

      Dividing the power to appoint judges and other officers of the government between the executive and legislative branches of government -- a compromise -- rested on precedent established by the Articles of Confederation and most state constitutions.
      • The Congress shall have Power: To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water...
        US Constitution, Article 1, Section 8
      The Constitution divides war powers between the Congress and the President. Congress has the power to declare war; the President is Commander-in-Chief. The founders did not entrust the decision to go to war to a single individual.
      • Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.
        US Constitution, Article I, Section 5
      One of the most contentious procedures invoked by the Senate is that of the filibuster. The Senate conducted its first continuous filibuster on 5 March 1841. The issue? Dismissal of the printers of the Senate. The filibuster continued until 11 March. The first extended filibuster began on 21 June 1841 and lasted 14 days. The issue? Establishment of a national bank.

      Since 1789, the Senate has expelled only 15 members; 14 were charged with supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Senate has censured nine members.

      On 2 March 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr delivered his farewell address to the Senate; he had been indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

      Until 2007, only four sitting Senators had been convicted of crimes.
      • John Hipple Mitchell (R-OR-1905). Mitchell was indicted and convicted of having received fees for expediting the land claims of clients before the U.S. Land Commissioner. An appeal was pending when he died in December 1905. Source: US Senate
      • Joseph R. Burton (R-KS-1906). Burton was convicted in 1904 (and again on appeal in 1906) of illegally receiving compensation for services rendered before a federal department and served five months in prison. He resigned rather than be expelled. Source: US Senate
      • Truman H. Newberry (R-MI-1920). In 1921, Newberry was tried and convicted of election “irregularities”; the conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court, and, following an investigation, the Senate declared Newberry entitled to his seat but expressed disapproval of the sum spent on his election. In the face of a movement to unseat him, Newberry resigned. Source: US Senate
      • Harrison Williams (D-NJ-1982). Williams was one of the congressional targets in the government operation known as ABSCAM. He was convicted of corruption and served 21 months of a three-year prison term. Rather than be expelled, he resigned his Senate seat on 11 March 1982. Source: US Senate

      Since 1789, the Senate has expelled only 15 members; 14 were charged with supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.

      • 1797; William Blount (R-TN). Charge: Anti-Spanish conspiracy; treason. Result: Expelled
      • 1808; John Smith (R-OH). Charge: Disloyalty/Treason Result: Not Expelled
      • 1858; Henry M. Rice (D-MN). Charge: Corruption. Result: Not Expelled.
      • Date: 1861; James M. Mason (D-VA) Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; Robert M.T. Hunter (D-VA). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; Thomas L. Clingman (D-NC). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; Thomas Bragg (D-NC). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; James Chesnut, Jr. (D-SC). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; Alfred O.P. Nicholson (D-TN). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; William K. Sebastian (D-AR). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
        Note: On March 3, 1877, the Senate reversed its decision to expel Sebastian. Because Sebastian had died in 1865, his children were paid an amount equal to his Senate salary between the time of his expulsion and the date of his death.
      • 1861; Charles B. Mitchel (D-AR). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; John Hemphill (D-TX). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; Louis T. Wigfall (D-TX). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1861; John C. Breckinridge (D-KY). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1862; Lazarus W. Powell (D-KY). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Not Expelled
      • 1862; Trusten Polk (D-MO). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1862; Waldo P. Johnson (D-MO). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1862; Jesse D. Bright (D-IN). Charge: Support for Confederate rebellion. Result: Expelled
      • 1862; James F. Simmons (R-RI). Charge: Corruption. Result: Resigned
      • 1873; James W. Patterson (R-NH). Charge: Corruption. Result: Term Expired
      • 1893; William N. Roach (D-ND). Charge: Embezzlement. Result: Not Expelled
      • 1905; John H. Mitchell (R-OR). Charge: Corruption. Result: Not Expelled.
        Note: Mitchell died on December 8, while his case was still on appeal and before the Senate.
      • 1906; Joseph R. Burton (R-KS). Charge: Corruption. Result: Resigned.
        Note: Burton was indicted and convicted of receiving compensation for intervening with a federal agency. When the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, he resigned rather than face expulsion.
      • 1907; Reed Smoot (R-UT). Charge: Mormonism. Result: Not Expelled
      • 1919; Robert M. La Follette (R-WI). Charge: Disloyalty (for giving a speech in 1917 opposing US entry into World War I). Result: Not Expelled
      • 1922; Truman H. Newberry (R-MI). Charge: Election fraud. Result: Resigned
      • 1924; Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT). Charge: Conflict of interest. Result: Not Expelled
      • 1934; John H. Overton (D-LA). Charge: Election fraud. Result: No Senate action
      • 1934; Huey P. Long (D-LA). Charge: Election fraud. Result: No Senate action
      • 1942; William Langer (R-ND). Charge: Corruption. Result: Not Expelled
      • 1982; Harrison A. Williams, Jr. (D-NJ). Charge: Corruption (ABSCAM). Result: Resigned
      • 1995; Robert W. Packwood (R-OR). Charge: Sexual misconduct and abuse of power. Result: Resigned the day after the Committee on Ethics issued its recommendation for expulsion.
      Source: US Senate

      Censure is a less severe form of discipline than expulsion. Since 1789 the Senate has censured only nine members.

      • January 2, 1811.
        Timothy Pickering (F-MA). Charge: Reading confidential documents in open Senate session before an injunction of secrecy was removed.
        Result: Censured. Failed reelection (elected to the House in 1812).
        Vote: 20-7
      • May 10, 1844
        Benjamin Tappan (D-OH)
        Charge: Releasing to the New York Evening Post a copy of President John Tyler's message to the Senate of April 22, 1844 regarding the treaty of annexation between the United States and the Republic of Texas.
        Result: Censured. Did not run for reelection.
        Vote: 38-7
      • February 28, 1902
        Benjamin R. Tillman (D-SC) and John L. McLaurin (D-SC)
        Charge: Fighting in the Senate chamber on February 22, 1902.
        Result: Each was censured and suspended, retroactively, for six days. This incident led to the adoption of Rule XIX governing the conduct of debate in the chamber. Tillman -- reelected; McLaurin -- did not run for reelection.
        Vote: 54-12; 22 not voting
      • November 4, 1929
        Hiram Bingham (R-CT)
        Charge: Employing as a Senate staff member Charles Eyanson, who was simultaneously employed by the Manufacturers Association of Connecticut. Eyanson was hired to assist Bingham on tariff legislation. The issue broadened into the question of the government employing dollar-a-year-men.
        Result: "Condemned" for conduct tending "to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." Defeated for reelection.
        Vote: 54-22; 18 not voting
      • December 2, 1954
        Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI)
        Charge: Abuse and non-cooperation with the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections during a 1952 investigation of his conduct; for abuse of the Select Committee to Study Censure.
        Result: He was "condemned." Died in office.
        Vote: 67-22
      • June 23, 1967
        Thomas J. Dodd (D-CT)
        Charge: Use of his office (1961-1965) to convert campaign funds to his personal benefit. Conduct unbecoming a senator.
        Result: Censured. Defeated for reelection.
        Vote: 92-5
      • October 11, 1979
        Herman E. Talmadge (D-GA)
        Charge: Improper financial conduct (1973-1978), accepting reimbursements of $43,435.83 for official expenses not incurred, and improper reporting of campaign receipts and expenditures.
        Result: His conduct was "denounced" as reprehensible and tending to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. Defeated for reelection.
        Vote: 81-15
      • July 25, 1990
        David F. Durenberger (R-MN)
        Charge: Unethical conduct "in connection with his arrangement with Piranha Press, his failure to report receipt of travel expenses in connection with his Piranha Press and Boston area appearances, his structuring of real estate transactions and receipt of Senate reimbursements in connection with his stays in his Minneapolis condominium, his pattern of prohibited communications respecting the condominium, his repeated acceptance of prohibited gifts of limousine service for personal purposes, and the conversion of a campaign contribution to his personal use."
        Result: "Denounced" for reprehensible conduct, bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. Did not run for reelection.
        Vote: 96-0
      Source: US Senate
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      Gill, Kathy. "US Senate." ThoughtCo, Oct. 24, 2015, thoughtco.com/us-senate-basics-3368329. Gill, Kathy. (2015, October 24). US Senate. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/us-senate-basics-3368329 Gill, Kathy. "US Senate." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/us-senate-basics-3368329 (accessed November 24, 2017).