How The Senate Works

How the Senate Works

The powers, duties and privileges of members of Congress are outlined in Article I of the United States Constitution. Many of the provisions apply to both houses of Congress. Section 3, however, specifically details the Senate’s responsibilities. Section 3 states that two Senators from each state will be chosen and that a Senator’s term will last six years. It also staggers the election of Senators so that the electorate chooses only one-third of the Senate every two years. This makes the Senate a “continuing body” that ensures continuity and provides political stability. Section 3 also requires a Senator to be a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, to be a resident of the state from which he is elected, and to be at least 30 years old by the time he or she takes office.

The leadership of the Senate is also addressed in Section 3. Under this Section, the Vice President of the United States presides over the Senate as its President. The Vice President cannot vote except to break a tie. In his or her absence, the President pro tempore acts as President. The Senate has the right to choose the President pro tempore and is usually the most senior member of the majority party. This person becomes third in line of succession for the presidency, after the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.

Under Article I, Section 8 the Senate and House have equal responsibility for many issues such as: collecting taxes, borrowing money, minting currency, regulating commerce, establishing post offices, maintaining armed forces, declaring war and for making “all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the…powers vested by this Constitution…” However, there are certain powers which the Constitution gives to the Senate alone. Under Article II, the Senate has sole authority to confirm presidential nominations and to ratify treaties both by two-thirds vote. It also gives the Senate exclusive responsibility to try any impeachment initiated in the House.

One of the main functions of the Senate is to make the laws that govern America. Article I, Section 7 sets out the procedures for initiating, passing, and enacting bills and gives both houses the power to originate any legislation except revenue bills which must originate in the House. President Woodrow Wilson once referred to the process through which a bill becomes a law as “the dance of legislation.” He remarked that once you begin the dance, “you must struggle through its mazes as best you can to its breathless end - if any end there be.”

Many thousands of bills are introduced in Congress during each two-year session. The way in which the Senate manages most of these bills is through a committee system. Once a bill is introduced, it is sent to a committee for further study. The committee may hold hearings and question experts on issues pertaining to the bill. If the bill is approved out of committee, it goes to the full House and Senate for debate and vote. Since the House has 435 members, each representative has only a short time to speak. In the 100 member Senate, the time for debate is unlimited. When debate is finished, a vote is taken. If both houses pass a bill, they must send it to the president for approval or veto. If the president approves and signs the bill, it becomes law. If the president vetoes the bill, the Senate and House must vote by a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

While the workings of the Senate might seem to slow the pace of legislation, this process reflects the intent of the framers of the Constitution in establishing a Senate. When Thomas Jefferson returned from France, where he had been serving as Ambassador at the time the Constitution was being written he was said to have asked George Washington why a Senate was necessary. Washington replied, “Why did you pour that coffee into a saucer?” “To cool it,” Jefferson answered. “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”