The "offices" of the majority and the minority leader, as we know them today, are of recent development in the history of the Senate although individual senators since 1789 have assumed leading roles in the determination of what the Senate would or would not do. Some of these senators, at one time or another, have stood high in the ranks of their respective political parties. The power or influence of some senators, in various periods of our history, to guide or lead their respective parties, or even the Senate itself, in the determination of a legislative program, has been particularly noteworthy. Caucuses of senators of a particular party, of a common interest, of a geographical area, or of some "blocs" have been called from time to time from the beginning of the first Senate for all kind of purposes, including the determination of the position to be taken on certain proposed legislation, or such things as to determine the names and sizes of the committees. These meetings, however, were not invoked to perform as organized political caucuses for the purpose of selecting persons to serve as floor leaders for the parties during the sessions of the Senate until the latter part of the 19th century.
It was not until the latter part of the 19th century that the senators of each political party organized and assembled separately as a unit for the purpose of electing certain members from among their own to represent each, respectively, as agents in helping to run the legislative machine. According to the best available records, it was not until the 20th century that the posts of majority and minority leaders became official political positions.
The floor leaders of each party today are elected by a majority vote of all the senators of the said party assembled in a conference or, as it sometimes is called, a caucus. The practice has been to choose the leader for a two-year term at the beginning of each Congress. After the parties have held their elections, the selection is made known through the press or by announcement to the Senate. The majority and minority leaders are the elected spokesmen on the Senate floor for their respective political parties, having been elected by their fellow senators of the same party to whom they are responsible.
The relations between floor leaders and their respective party memberships revolve around an exchange basis. The members of the political party having consolidated their strength elect a leader and place this power at his disposal for operation of the legislative machine to carry out the party's program. The members of the party, in return for their support, can expect the leader's assistance in meeting their individual political needs insofar as practicable. The relationship is one of compromise and mutual forbearance in order to function as a body - a common characteristic of all popularly elected legislative institutions. The leaders are in a position to help any senator of their party in most cases where the senator would be unable to help himself acting alone. Individual senators often consult the leadership about the following matters: when to participate in debate, committee assignments to be sought, particular appointments desired, the passage of particular pieces of legislation, the confirmation of particular nominations and desired administrative action by the executive branch, particularly when the president and the majority in control of Congress are of the same political party. In particular, the appointment powers of the two party leaders gives them some leverage in working with the members of their respective parties.
The position of the floor leader is not that of an army general over a multitude of soldiers. Unlike army officers, the floor leaders must maintain continued support. They are subject to periodic re-election by the same persons they have been leading.
The role of the respective party leaders is an integral part of the effective functioning of the machinery of the Senate. The leader must keep himself briefed and informed on national and international problems in addition to pending legislative matters. On the floor of the Senate he is charged by his party members to deal with all procedural questions in consultation with them and his party's policy-making bodies. In turn, he must keep his membership currently advised as to proposed action on pending measures.
The leaders are in positions to act as clearing houses for their respective party memberships as to the status of pending legislation; the majority leader commonly posts the Senate on such matters. The work with the agents of their party to secure cooperation and unity in carrying out the party's legislative program. The majority leader remains in constant touch with the chairmen of the various standing committees to keep posted on the progress of legislation. Meetings are regularly held between the leaders and senators to resolve or clear out any conflicts which might arise over or because of pending proposed legislation.
The majority leader, or someone designated by him, remains continuously on the floor during each day of the session of the Senate to see that the program is carried out to the party's satisfaction. The minority leader or someone designated by him is always present on the floor to protect the rights of the minority. If, at any time, it appears necessary to take some unexpected noncontroversial action, the majority leader, or someone acting for him, with the approval of other "key" senators, in the absence of opposition, will quickly alter his planned program and act on other business.
The position the leaders take on pending legislation to carry out the will of their party may work adversely for them as individual senators. The leaders are senators of states and the latters' interests may not always coincide with the position of the national political party. Leaders vary in the way they reconcile this conflict. Nevertheless, there is inevitably some constraint to accommodate the president and Administration, particularly when they are of his party.
Senate leaders seek the highest possible degree of unified party action. The approach of each leader to this basic objective varies, however, with his personal characteristics and his political approach. Effective leaders can never lose sight of each senator's claim to recognition in his own right, because he is not only a member of a party, he is also and foremost an "independent," constitutional entity whose authority is derived from his constituency.
Excerpted From: Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate, Floyd M. Riddick, Parliamentarian Emeritus. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. April 3, 1985. Senate Document 99-3.