Majority Leadership in the U.S. Senate: Balancing Constraints, Student Edition

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The floor agenda is set by unanimous consent agreements negotiated by party leaders. Any agreement between leaders must be cleared by all senators. This screening process slows the Senate and is biased against holding meaningful votes on controversial issues. It is no surprise that it stalls; it is surprising when this system achieves anything at all.

Reforming the Senate Floor Process How can senators get out of their current morass? Despite spasms of concern, both liberals and conservatives have applauded this executive power grab. The growing dysfunction in Congress, which has seen its lawmaking and oversight give way to shouty tribalism for which Mr Gingrich deserves much blame has meanwhile made that conclusion seem more natural. For if Congress will not pass laws, how else is the country to be governed?

These constitutional evils reinforce each other. Congress, a body the Founding Fathers considered so dangerous that it needed splitting in two, is in its demoralised state especially susceptible to unthinking party allegiance. This has in turn worn away many of the democratic norms upon which the checks and balances depend. Now the Democrats are in the minority, vowing to block Mr Gorsuch, and the Republicans are likely to remove that last defence of scrutiny by the minority party in federal appointments.

At the same time, a combination of vengeful partisanship, internet-based alternative realities and the primary system of nominating candidates, which promotes hardliners, is tilting American politics towards extremism. Put this together with the growth of executive power and the fraying of constitutional checks on it and the risks of something going seriously wrong in the White House are obvious.

In this wider context, the constraints on Mr Trump look less reassuring. His presidency becomes a predicted step in a process of democratic decline which his unscrupulous leadership is likely to accelerate. To arrest that decline would take substantial reform, with new checks on the executive, a reinvigorated Congress and political parties freed from the thrall of hardliners—all unimaginable today.

So it is appropriate to ponder how much damage Mr Trump could do, even if he remains constrained by the forces Mr Dershowitz and others find comforting. Most of his recent frustrations have been self-inflicted, which is in a way reassuring. Nixon was a skilful, hardworking criminal; Mr Trump is a blowhard who even now seems unaware of the magnitude and complexity of the office he holds.

Still, he and his advisers will get better at using the presidential toolkit, including its legal precedents and firepower. The Trump team already has plans to bring the presidential bureaucracy to heel. Mr Trump will also have the chance to nominate over a federal judges, perhaps including a second Supreme Court justice.

Both developments could strengthen him considerably. If an FBI investigation into the Russia connection turned up something serious, a Republican congress would still be loth to impeach Mr Trump.

Some of the damage may be permanent. A show of decency once mattered in American politics; then 63m Americans voted to elect as president a man they had heard boasting of his ability to assault women. It was also recently accepted that a sitting president must publish his tax returns and disengage from his business interests. Mr Trump, who has done neither, does not appear to have any problem with the profits flowing from his presidency. As the Washington Post has reported, he has spent almost a third of his time as president at a Trump-branded property, including his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where club members have been treated to the sight of the president urgently discussing North Korean missile launches over salad.

The allowance is provided for the fiscal year. Senators are prohibited from using any portion of their SOPOEA allowance for any personal or political purposes, including campaigning. Unlike in the House, the size of senators' administrative and clerical assistance staff is not specified. Instead, senators are free to structure their staffs as they choose, as long as they do not spend more than provided to them in the administrative and clerical assistance component of their SOPOEA allowance. Share Flipboard Email. Issues The U. Government U. Foreign Policy U. Liberal Politics U.

Robert Longley is a U. He has written for ThoughtCo since A senator, however, may challenge the presiding officer's assessment and request a recorded vote. The request may be granted only if it is seconded by one-fifth of the senators present. In practice, however, senators second requests for recorded votes as a matter of courtesy.

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When a recorded vote is held, the clerk calls the roll of the Senate in alphabetical order; senators respond when their name is called. Senators who were not in the chamber when their name was called may still cast a vote so long as the voting remains open. The vote is closed at the discretion of the presiding officer, but must remain open for a minimum of 15 minutes.

A majority of those voting determines whether the motion carries. If the vice president is not present, the motion fails. Filibustered bills require a three-fifths majority to overcome the cloture vote which usually means 60 votes and get to the normal vote where a simple majority usually 51 votes approves the bill. This has caused some news media to confuse the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster with the 51 votes needed to approve a bill, with for example USA Today erroneously stating " The vote was 58—39 in favor of the provision establishing concealed carry permit reciprocity in the 48 states that have concealed weapons laws.

That fell two votes short of the 60 needed to approve the measure ". On occasion, the Senate may go into what is called a secret or closed session. During a closed session, the chamber doors are closed, cameras are turned off, and the galleries are completely cleared of anyone not sworn to secrecy, not instructed in the rules of the closed session, or not essential to the session.

Closed sessions are rare and usually held only when the Senate is discussing sensitive subject matter such as information critical to national security, private communications from the president, or deliberations during impeachment trials. A senator may call for and force a closed session if the motion is seconded by at least one other member, but an agreement usually occurs beforehand. The proceedings remain sealed indefinitely until the Senate votes to remove the injunction of secrecy.

The latter identifies executive resolutions, treaties, and nominations reported out by Senate committee s and awaiting Senate floor action. Both are updated each day the Senate is in session. The Senate uses committees and their subcommittees for a variety of purposes, including the review of bills and the oversight of the executive branch. Formally, the whole Senate appoints committee members. In practice, however, the choice of members is made by the political parties.

Generally, each party honors the preferences of individual senators, giving priority based on seniority. Each party is allocated seats on committees in proportion to its overall strength. Most committee work is performed by 16 standing committees, each of which has jurisdiction over a field such as finance or foreign relations. Each standing committee may consider, amend, and report bills that fall under its jurisdiction. Furthermore, each standing committee considers presidential nominations to offices related to its jurisdiction.

For instance, the Judiciary Committee considers nominees for judgeships, and the Foreign Relations Committee considers nominees for positions in the Department of State. Committees may block nominees and impede bills from reaching the floor of the Senate. Standing committees also oversee the departments and agencies of the executive branch. In discharging their duties, standing committees have the power to hold hearings and to subpoena witnesses and evidence. The Senate also has several committees that are not considered standing committees.

Such bodies are generally known as select or special committees ; examples include the Select Committee on Ethics and the Special Committee on Aging. Legislation is referred to some of these committees, although the bulk of legislative work is performed by the standing committees.

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Committees may be established on an ad hoc basis for specific purposes; for instance, the Senate Watergate Committee was a special committee created to investigate the Watergate scandal. Such temporary committees cease to exist after fulfilling their tasks. The Congress includes joint committees, which include members from both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Some joint committees oversee independent government bodies; for instance, the Joint Committee on the Library oversees the Library of Congress.

Other joint committees serve to make advisory reports; for example, there exists a Joint Committee on Taxation. Bills and nominees are not referred to joint committees. Hence, the power of joint committees is considerably lower than those of standing committees. Each Senate committee and subcommittee is led by a chair usually a member of the majority party. Formerly, committee chairs were determined purely by seniority; as a result, several elderly senators continued to serve as chair despite severe physical infirmity or even senility.

The chairs hold extensive powers: they control the committee's agenda, and so decide how much, if any, time to devote to the consideration of a bill; they act with the power of the committee in disapproving or delaying a bill or a nomination by the president; they manage on the floor of the full Senate the consideration of those bills the committee reports.

This last role was particularly important in mid-century, when floor amendments were thought not to be collegial. They also have considerable influence: senators who cooperate with their committee chairs are likely to accomplish more good for their states than those who do not. The Senate rules and customs were reformed in the twentieth century, largely in the s. Committee chairmen have less power and are generally more moderate and collegial in exercising it, than they were before reform. Recent criticisms of the Senate's operations object to what the critics argue is obsolescence as a result of partisan paralysis and a preponderance of arcane rules.

Bills may be introduced in either chamber of Congress. However, the Constitution's Origination Clause provides that "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives". Furthermore, the House of Representatives holds that the Senate does not have the power to originate appropriation bills , or bills authorizing the expenditure of federal funds. However, when the Senate originates an appropriations bill, the House simply refuses to consider it, thereby settling the dispute in practice.

The constitutional provision barring the Senate from introducing revenue bills is based on the practice of the British Parliament , in which only the House of Commons may originate such measures. Although the Constitution gave the House the power to initiate revenue bills, in practice the Senate is equal to the House in the respect of spending. As Woodrow Wilson wrote:. The Senate's right to amend general appropriation bills has been allowed the widest possible scope.

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Balance of Power in the US Senate will Change Agenda | Federal Relations

The upper house may add to them what it pleases; may go altogether outside of their original provisions and tack to them entirely new features of legislation, altering not only the amounts but even the objects of expenditure, and making out of the materials sent them by the popular chamber measures of an almost totally new character. The approval of both houses is required for any bill, including a revenue bill, to become law. Both Houses must pass the same version of the bill; if there are differences, they may be resolved by sending amendments back and forth or by a conference committee , which includes members of both bodies.

The Constitution provides several unique functions for the Senate that form its ability to "check and balance" the powers of other elements of the Federal Government. These include the requirement that the Senate may advise and must consent to some of the president's government appointments; also the Senate must consent to all treaties with foreign governments; it tries all impeachments, and it elects the vice president in the event no person gets a majority of the electoral votes.

The president can make certain appointments only with the advice and consent of the Senate. Officials whose appointments require the Senate's approval include members of the Cabinet, heads of most federal executive agencies, ambassadors , justices of the Supreme Court, and other federal judges. Under Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, a large number of government appointments are subject to potential confirmation; however, Congress has passed legislation to authorize the appointment of many officials without the Senate's consent usually, confirmation requirements are reserved for those officials with the most significant final decision-making authority.

Typically, a nominee is first subject to a hearing before a Senate committee. Thereafter, the nomination is considered by the full Senate.

The majority of nominees are confirmed, but in a small number of cases each year, Senate committees purposely fail to act on a nomination to block it. In addition, the president sometimes withdraws nominations when they appear unlikely to be confirmed. Because of this, outright rejections of nominees on the Senate floor are infrequent there have been only nine Cabinet nominees rejected outright in United States history.

The powers of the Senate concerning nominations are, however, subject to some constraints. For instance, the Constitution provides that the president may make an appointment during a congressional recess without the Senate's advice and consent. The recess appointment remains valid only temporarily; the office becomes vacant again at the end of the next congressional session. Nevertheless, presidents have frequently used recess appointments to circumvent the possibility that the Senate may reject the nominee.

Balance of Power in the US Senate will Change Agenda

Furthermore, as the Supreme Court held in Myers v. United States , although the Senate's advice and consent is required for the appointment of certain executive branch officials, it is not necessary for their removal. Senate passed a legally non-binding resolution against recess appointments. The Senate also has a role in ratifying treaties. The Constitution provides that the president may only "make Treaties, provided two thirds of the senators present concur" in order to benefit from the Senate's advice and consent and give each state an equal vote in the process.

However, not all international agreements are considered treaties under US domestic law, even if they are considered treaties under international law. Congress has passed laws authorizing the president to conclude executive agreements without action by the Senate.


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Similarly, the president may make congressional-executive agreements with the approval of a simple majority in each House of Congress, rather than a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Neither executive agreements nor congressional-executive agreements are mentioned in the Constitution, leading some scholars such as Laurence Tribe and John Yoo [62] to suggest that they unconstitutionally circumvent the treaty-ratification process.

However, courts have upheld the validity of such agreements. The Constitution empowers the House of Representatives to impeach federal officials for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" and empowers the Senate to try such impeachments. If the sitting president of the United States is being tried, the chief justice of the United States presides over the trial. During an impeachment trial, senators are constitutionally required to sit on oath or affirmation. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority of the senators present.

A convicted official is automatically removed from office; in addition, the Senate may stipulate that the defendant be banned from holding office. No further punishment is permitted during the impeachment proceedings; however, the party may face criminal penalties in a normal court of law.

The House of Representatives has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted. One resigned before the Senate could complete the trial. Both trials ended in acquittal; in Johnson's case, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. Under the Twelfth Amendment , the Senate has the power to elect the vice president if no vice presidential candidate receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College. The Twelfth Amendment requires the Senate to choose from the two candidates with the highest numbers of electoral votes.

Electoral College deadlocks are rare. The Senate has only broken a deadlock once; in , it elected Richard Mentor Johnson.


  1. United States Senate.
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  5. The House elects the president if the Electoral College deadlocks on that choice. The following are published by the Senate Historical Office. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. For current members of the Senate, see List of current United States senators. Upper house of the United States Congress.

    Seal of the U. Upper house. President of the Senate.

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    Mike Pence R since January 20, President pro tempore. Chuck Grassley R since January 3, President pro tempore emeritus. Patrick Leahy D since January 3, Majority Leader. Mitch McConnell R since January 3, Minority Leader. Chuck Schumer D since January 3, Majority Whip. John Thune R since January 3, Minority Whip. Dick Durbin D since January 3, Voting system. Varies in 5 states Plurality voting in 45 states. Main article: History of the United States Senate. Main article: Current members of the United States Senate.

    Current members by seniority by class. Party leadership of the United States Senate. Cloture Committees list. Executive session Morning business. Filibuster Nuclear option. Quorum Quorum call Salaries. Saxbe fix Seal Holds. Senatorial courtesy Standing Rules. Traditions Unanimous consent. Senate office buildings Dirksen Hart Russell. Further information: List of United States Senate elections. Federal Government.

    Constitution of the United States Law Taxation. Presidential elections Midterm elections Off-year elections. Political parties. Democratic Republican Third parties Libertarian Green. Other countries Atlas. Main article: Seniority in the United States Senate. See also: Clay pigeon floor procedure.

    Main article: Closed sessions of the United States Senate. Main article: United States congressional committee. Further information: Act of Congress. March 26, Retrieved October 4, January 1, The Yale Law Journal. Senate Elections". Legislative Studies Quarterly. Berke September 12, The New York Times. Friedman March 30, June 16, Constitution: Article 1, Section 1 ". Retrieved March 22, Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of Retrieved March 17, Archived from the original on November 23, Archived from the original on November 1, Retrieved September 17, Senate official website.

    Retrieved April 23, United States Senate. Retrieved November 17, United States Printing Office.

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    Retrieved November 13, April 12, Congressional Research Service. Archived PDF from the original on June 5, Retrieved October 13, NOTE: wherever present, references to page numbers in superscripts refer to the electronic. September 17, Massachusetts Great and General Court. Anchorage Daily News. October 28, Archived from the original on May 28, Retrieved October 2, Retrieved June 19, Roll Call. Retrieved November 8, Page 4. Senate Chamber Desks. Retrieved July 11, Retrieved November 10, Retrieved February 8, Gold, Senate Procedure and Practice , p. July 5, The Washington Post.

    The Economist. Backcountry Conservative. July 27, Nieman Watchdog.