In 1787 the framers of the United States Constitution established in Article I the structure and powers of Congress. They debated the idea of a Congress made up of two houses. One house would be, in the words of Virginia’s George Mason, the “grand depository of the democratic principle of government.” To counter this popular influence in the national government, James Madison of Virginia proposed another house that would be small, deliberative, and independent from the larger, more democratic house. This became the Senate.
Committees are essential to the effective operation of the Senate. Through investigations and hearings, committees gather information on national and international problems within their jurisdiction in order to draft, consider, and recommend legislation to the full membership of the Senate. Only a small percentage of bills considered by committees reach the Senate floor. They evaluate presidential nominees for executive and judicial posts and provide oversight of federal government operations.
The Constitution granted state legislatures the power to elect United States senators. Supporters of the Constitution argued that this method of election would strengthen the states' ties to the national government and insulate senators from shifting public opinion. To further distance the Senate from democratic pressures, the framers also provided that only one-third of the Senate would stand for election every two years. Later, in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution established direct popular election of senators.
Ever since the framers of the United States Constitution created the Senate, senators, scholars, journalists, and other observers have sought to explain its role in the federal system of checks and balances. What is it that makes the Senate stand apart from other legislative bodies? Why have its seemingly arcane rules and traditions survived, and what purposes do they still serve?
Members of the Senate belonging to the two major political parties are organized into party conferences. The conferences (also referred to as caucuses) and their leaders play an important role in the daily functions of the Senate, including setting legislative agendas, organizing committees, and determining how action proceeds on the Senate floor. When senators represent third parties or serve as Independents, they typically work within the two established party conferences to gain committee assignments or manage legislation.