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About the Secretary of the Senate | Historical Overview

Two days after the Senate achieved its first quorum in April 1789, the members elected the first secretary of the Senate, Samuel Otis. The new secretary was responsible for keeping the Senate Journal, a requirement under Article 1, section 5 of the Constitution. Each day the Senate was in session, Otis took the minutes in his own hand. He compiled those notes into a “rough journal,” which was read to the Senate the following day, and then copied them into a “smooth journal,” which he delivered to the printers for a bound edition.

Otis also handled financial duties for the Senate, including purchasing supplies like ink, quills, and parchment, and disbursing salaries and per diem travel allowances for senators and staff. The secretary personally delivered completed legislation to the House of Representatives and official correspondence to the president.

The staff of the offices under the secretary grew gradually during the 19th century. In 1789 the Senate passed a resolution to allow the secretary to hire a “principal clerk.” This principal clerk, or chief clerk, for many years served primarily as a reading clerk on the Senate floor. By 1850 the secretary was assisted by the principal clerk plus an executive clerk, legislative clerks, engrossing clerks, an account clerk, and messengers. When the official reporters of debate were established in 1873, the office was placed under the jurisdiction of the secretary. When journal clerk Charles Watkins dedicated himself to recording Senate precedents, he was given the additional title of parliamentarian in 1935. The positions of journal clerk and parliamentarian were made distinct just a few years later in 1938.

The secretary’s office came to include other support operations in the Senate. In 1871 the Senate established its own library and placed it under the supervision of the secretary. When the Senate established its own school for the young people who served in the page program, the secretary was charged with oversight of the Senate Page School. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 tasked the secretary with gathering the records of Senate committees for transfer to the National Archives, a responsibility that was later assumed by archivists in the Senate Historical Office under the secretary’s supervision. In the late 20th century Congress also passed laws regulating lobbying and requiring senators to file financial disclosures and campaign finance reports and placed responsibility for those records in the Office of Public Records within the secretary’s office. When senators in the late 1960s created the Senate Commission on Art to be a steward of the Senate’s historical art, artifacts, and Capitol spaces, the secretary was named the executive secretary and given authority to appoint the Senate curator.

During the 1960s, in response to the secretary's growing administrative duties, the position of principal or chief clerk evolved into that of assistant secretary of the Senate. The assistant secretary oversees the administration of the 26 departments within the Office of the Secretary and performs the functions of the secretary in his or her absence. For much of the Senate’s history, many positions within the secretary’s office were available for patronage of members. In the 1960s, however, as the administrative duties of secretary staff grew, positions gained professional status.