Senate Structure

Senate Structure Links to Government Resources                        
                (this page)
   Senate Formal Structure
   Senate Informal Structure
U.S. Constitution
U.S. Senate
Idea of the Senate
Congressional Budget Office
Library of Congress  (Thomas)
Senate Rules
Rules Committee
Judiciary Committee
Agriculture+ Committee
Budget Committee

The U.S. Senate is a very important and complex member of our federal government.  It was designed to be comparable to England's 'House of Lords',  as our House of Representatives compares to England's 'House of Commons'.  As such,  the Senate  (with senators serving 6 year terms as opposed to representatives serving 2 years,  and having a higher minimum required age)  is to act as a slower-in-action,  more contemplative body than the House of Representatives.  This difference is considered to be both a  'check'  and a  'balance' of one body on the other within the Legislative arm of government.

Another important difference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate is that senators represent States,  rather than Congressional Districts  within states.  States are semi-soverign entities,  and letting 2 persons represent a state regardless of number of inhabitants or physical size is a very important difference.  This difference in representation basis is what makes our system of government a  'mixed'  system;  a combination of both federal and national forms.  The acceptance of this feature was a great compromise among the founders in agreeing on a Constitution.  Founders from small states were afraid of being  'over-run'  by large states were representation to be based solely on population.

a graphic of the principal objects in the U.S. Senate What does the Senate do?
Senate Objects Shown at right is a graphic of the principal entities in the Senate,  and the relationships  (shown as lines)  between these objects.  We will show modifications of this basic graphic again and again in the simulation of the Senate process,  primarily to illustrate attempts to influence the process of creating  (or killing)  legislation as a bill proceeds through its different steps.

The U.S. Senate has,  at times,  been called the 'greatest deliberative body in the world'.  At other times,  it has been severely derided for failing to act  (via filibuster,  procedural delays,  'holds',  brinkmanship,  etc.)  when decisions were needed.  The Senate's structure can be considered from several different perspectivesp;  one is to look at the  'formal structure',  another is to examine the  'informal structure'.

Formal Structure

President  (the Presiding Officer)          (to top)
According to the United States Constitution,  "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate but shall have no Vote,  unless they be equally divided."  The U.S. Constitution also provides for a  'president pro tempore'  (pro tempore is a Latin term meaning "for the time being")  to preside over the Senate in the absence of the vice president.  By tradition,  this position goes to the senior member of the majority party.

The Presiding Officer recognizes senators who wish to address the chamber for some purpose,  and officially decides matters of parliamentary procedure,  with assistance from the Parliamentarian.  When the Vice-President or official President Pro Tempore are not available  (by choice or other duty),  the Senate  (by tradition the majority party members)  choose among themselves for an acting President,  also often called the 'Chair'.

Other Officers and employees of the Senate
Elected Officers and Officials of the Senate include the Sergeant at Arms,  the Secretary of the Senate,   Secretaries to assist the Majority and the Minority Leaders,  Parliamentarian,  and Chaplain.   Other persons important to the Senate's work include the Journal Clerk,  Legislative Clerk,  Assistant Secretary of the Senate,  and the Assistant Legislative Clerk.  As might be imagined,  some of these positions entail considerable work,  and involve considerable additional staff members.  Additional information can be found at Officers and Staff.
Majority (party) Leader
At present,  the majority party leader is the most important and powerful senator in the body.  This leader basically controls the agenda,  has priorioty rights of recognition for addressing the Senate,  and is typically the leader of the majority party's caucus (meeting of party members to agree on agenda, strategy,  etc.).  Also, the Majority Leader makes Committee Chair and Committee Member assignments,  normally at the beginning of Congressional Sessions.
Minority (party) Leader
The minority party leader typically finds him/herself in a defensive position,  trying to prevent the majority party from passing popular legislation without seeming to be particularly negative.  Though normally opporsing one another in intent,  the Majority and Minority Leader have historically communicated rather continuously about the scheduled agenda,  since each can adversely affect the others' achievements.  This typically honest communication happens regardless of the often sharp public comments made to the media by these 2 powerful Senate Leaders.
Senate Rules
There are now 44 formal Senate Rules  (circa 2013)  to govern the various Senate proceedings.  These rules have evolved since the first Senate meeting in 1789,  and are technically accepted or revised at the beginning of each legislative session.  The complete listing of formal rules can be found at Senate Rules.  A summary of the Senate's current rules is also offered by Wikipedia.  The two formal rules which follow will serve as examples.
Rule #19,  item 2.  (concerning senator demeanor) "No Senator in debate shall,  directly or indirectly,  by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator."

"1. (a)  When a Senator desires to speak,  he shall rise and address the Presiding Officer,  and shall not proceed until he is recognized,  and the Presiding Officer shall recognize the Senator who shall first address him.  No Senator shall interrupt another Senator in debate without his consent,  and to obtain such consent he shall first address the Presiding Officer,  and no Senator shall speak more than twice upon any one question in debate on the same legislative day without leave of the Senate,  which shall be determined without debate."

Rule #22  (a small portion of the rule concerning filibusters and cloture). "Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?  And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn -- except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules,  in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting  -- then said measure,  motion,  or other matter pending before the Senate,  or the unfinished business,  shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of".
Legislative Calendar
The Legislative Calendar,  composed of several sections,  identifies bills and resolutions awaiting Senate floor actions.  Most measures are placed on the calendar under the heading "General Orders" in the sequence in which they were added to the calendar (though the Majority Leader typically decides when the measure shall be considered).  Other sections  (of the Calendar)  are provided to address special situations in which floor actions have been deferred and to show the status of bills in conference,  and of appropriations bills.
Majority and Minority 'Whips'
The Assistant Majority and Minority Leaders of the United States Senate  (commonly called Senate Majority and Minority Whips)  are the second-ranking members of the party leadership of the United States Senate.  The main function of the Whips is to gather votes from members of their party on major issues.  Because he or she is the second ranking member of the Senate,  if there is no corresponding floor leader present, the whip may become acting floor leader.
Due to the high volume and complexity of its work,  the Senate divides its tasks among 20 (standing or permanent)  committees,  68 subcommittees,  and 4 joint committees  (work with the House of Representatives to resolve differences between bills).  Standing committees generally have legislative jurisdiction on bills.  Subcommittees handle specific areas of the committee’s work.  Select and joint committees generally handle oversight or housekeeping responsibilities.

The majority party controls most committee staff and resources. However,  a portion of these staff and resources assigned to the committee are shared with the minority.

Several thousand bills and resolutions are referred to committees during each 2-year Congress.  Committees select or are assigned a small percentage of these bills for consideration,  and those not addressed often receive no further action.

When a committee or subcommittee favors a measure,  it usually takes four actions.  First,  it asks relevant executive agencies for written comments on the measure.  Second,  it holds hearings to gather information and views from non-committee experts.  At committee hearings,  these witnesses summarize submitted statements and then respond to questions from the senators.  Third,  a committee meets to perfect the measure through amendments,  and non-committee members sometimes attempt to influence the language.  Fourth,  when language is agreed upon,  the committee sends the measure back to the full Senate,  usually along with a written report describing its purposes and provisions.

A committee’s influence extends to its enactment of bills into law.  A committee that considers a measure will manage the full Senate’s deliberation on it.  Also,  its members will be appointed to any conference committee created to reconcile its version of a bill with the version passed by the House of Representatives

Committee Chairpersons
The chair of each committee and a majority of its members represent the majority party.  The chair primarily controls a committee’s business.  Each party assigns its own members to committees,  and each committee distributes its members among its subcommittees.  The Senate places limits on the number and types of panels any one senator may serve on and chair.

Informal Structure

Political Parties          (to top)
The U.S. has 2 primarty political parties;  Democrat and Republican.  Every senator is associated with some political party.  In practical terms,  a senator can seldom get elected  (or re-elected)  without the assistance of the party mechanism.  This,  of course, is a principal difference between the functioning of the Supreme Court  (justices serve for life)  and that of the Senate.

Though barely mentioned in the formal rules,  party competition  (partisanship)  is one of the most important factors in getting legislation passed or defeated.  This has been the case since the beginnings of the Senate,  though significant changes have occured in party platforms and ideology over time.

As examples of being part of the Senate's structure,  in the Senate's official description of its structure,  tables are provided on the Dais for secretary use for each of the Senate's party leaders  (majority and minority).  Also, {somewhere} the 'aisle' is mentioned as providing a dividing line between senators from the 2 primary political parties.

Procedures and Precedences
Informal rules  (previously known as 'gentlemen's agreements';  sometimes now called 'norms')  are also a part of the informal structure of the Senate,  consisting of previously accepted interpretations of rules,  deviations from precedents,  etc.  Use of the filibuster and other delaying tactics are good examples.  In times  (mostly in the) past,  filibusters were seldom used;  senators respecting precedent as part of the dignity of the office.

As the Senate has grown larger over the years,  and become more partisan  (for several reasons),  the filibuster has become more widely used  (many would say abused).  Though senators may meet at the beginning of a congressional session,  and agree on how the filibuster is to be supported,  these agreements often fray when important legislation is on the line.

Committee Structure
The large part of Senate work in evaluating and improving legislative bills is done by committee.  Over the years,  the committee structure has changed without much recognition or basis in the formal rules.  Mostly,  the change reflects precedence and modification of precedence without formal Senate complaint.  As example,  in previous sessions committee chair positions were granted based almost entirely on Senate seniority  (and nearly always went to members of the majority party).  Desirable committee assignments also were based on seniority.

In more recent years (circa 2013), important committee assignments have been granted to more freshman members,  partly because freshman members do not respect Senate historic practices to the extent that previous members did.  Also,  this is a result of the Senate becoming a larger body and freshman senators have more need to 'be noticed' in the Senate to get re-elected.