Skip Content
U.S. Flag

The Idea of the Senate

The United States Senate, A.D. 1850.

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?

The Idea of the Senate features thoughtful analysis of the Senate's rules and procedures, its history and traditions, and its personnel and prerogatives. Covering more than two centuries of political thought, each entry in this collection provides a quotation from the original source placed into historical context.

As a deliberative institution and a body of equals—among individual members and among states—the Senate has frustrated presidents, members of the House of Representatives, and even Senate leaders, who seek speedy enactment of legislation. There have been many efforts to modernize the Senate in order to meet new challenges. Yet despite more than 200 years of pressures to change, the Senate as an institution remains remarkably similar to the body created by the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It retains all of its original powers, including its authority to give advice and consent to presidents on nominations and treaties, to serve as a court of impeachment, and to have an equal say with the House of Representatives on all legislation.

As these selected writings indicate, the debate over the Senate's role in our constitutional system is as old as the Senate itself, and has often stirred thoughtful commentary and critique.

Book Jacket of Citadel
. . . The Senate type is, speaking broadly, a man for whom the Institution is a career in itself, a life in itself and an end in itself. This Senate type is not always free of Presidential ambition. . . . But the important fact is that when the Senate type thinks of the Presidency he thinks of it as only another and not as really a higher ambition. . . .  
-William S. White, 1956

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts
But now, at last, these rules have become a beautiful machine by which business is conducted, legislation is molded, and debate is secured in all possible freedom. From the presentation of a petition or the introduction of a bill all proceeds by fixed processes until without disorder the final result is reached and a new law takes its place in the statute-book.... But the rules are more even than a beautiful machine; they are the very temple of constitutional liberty.  
-Charles Sumner, 1866

Image of Woodrow Wilson
There cannot be a separate breed of public men reared specially for the Senate. It must be recruited from the lower branches of the representative system, of which it is only the topmost part. No stream can be purer than its sources. The Senate can have in it no better men than the best men of the House of Representatives; and if the House of Representatives attract to itself only inferior talent, the Senate must put up with the same sort. I think it safe to say, therefore, that, though it may not be as good as could be wished, the Senate is as good as it can be under the circumstances. It contains the most perfect product of our politics, whatever that product may be.  
-Woodrow Wilson, 1885

Image of George Hoar
The Senate . . . was created that the deliberate will, the sober second thought of the people might find expression. It was intended that it should resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people. -George Hoar, 1897

Image of Mrs. John A Logan
. . . As one-third of the body is elected every two years, the larger part is always experienced, the more so as most elections are re-elections, and the absolutely new members are readily assimilated. They quickly find that nothing offends so much as violations of Senate traditions of dignity and respect and courtesy. The one unpardonable sin in the Senate is to be unsenatorial.  
-Mrs. John A. Logan, 1901

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge
Administrations come and go, Houses assemble and disperse, Senators change, but the Senate is always there in the Capitol, and always organized, with an existence unbroken since 1789....  
-Henry Cabot Lodge, 1903

Seventeenth Amendment
The Senator held his seat as the ambassador of a sovereign state, and even after the adoption in 1913 of the Seventeenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution, which provided for the election of Senators by the vote of the people, something of the old tradition remained…. The truth of the matter was that the Senate was not suffering from a lack of leadership, for it had never been so constituted as to respond to organized party force, but was seeking to conform to the new popular idea of what the Senate should be. It was becoming precisely the kind of a body the people had intended it should become when they had stripped the Senator of his ambassadorial dignity and made him a hustler for votes. -George Rothwell Brown, 1922

Uncle Sam's Fourth of July Protest Against Delay.
The undemo-
cratic, usurping Senate is the indispensable check and balance in the American system, and only complete freedom of debate permits it to play this role. . . . Adopt [majority cloture] in the Senate, and the character of the American Government will be profoundly changed. . . . The devices that the framers of the Constitution so meticulously set up would be ineffective without the safeguard of senatorial minority action. . . .

-Columbia University Professor Lindsay Rogers, 1926

Cartoon portraying the time it took to pass the Seventeenth Amendment allowing the direct election of U.S. senators
By the direct primary and popular election of Senators it was sought to make our choice of Senators more democratic. In some respects substantial progress has been made toward that goal. But if our newer processes both of nomination and election and also of lawmaking have become more democratic, there is abundant evidence that they have made the winning of a seat in the Senate easier for the demagogue, and have subjected its members to more demagogic demands from within and from without. While the Seventeenth Amendment was under debate, its opponents predicted that its adoption would make the Senate a mere duplicate of the House. After twenty-five years of experience with the results of popular election the question is raised, whether what was formerly the sober and dignified branch of Congress is not “becoming the more flighty and irresponsible”—whether today it is not the Senate that “takes more kindly to rash and hasty legislation than does the House.” -George Haynes, 1938

Image of Lyndon Johnson
We have—by our majority here—an obligation to lead. We do not have authority to command. We have powers to advise and consent. We do not have powers to implement and accomplish. These facts we appreciate, yet they do not matter much beyond the confines of the Senate. Our mandate is a mandate for confident and creative and constructive leadership—beginning now, not two years hence.   -Lyndon Johnson, 1959

Image of Book Cover: U.S. Senators & Their World by Donald R. Matthews
Every senator, at one time or another, is in a position to help out a colleague. The folkways of the Senate hold that a senator should provide this assistance and that he should be repaid in kind. The most important aspect of this pattern of reciprocity is, no doubt, the trading of votes….
-Donald R. Matthews, 1960

Ralph Flanders
. . . I had an early personal introduction to that manner of speaking known as “Senatorial courtesy.” In addressing me on the floor Senator [Alben] Barkley, the Democratic Floor Leader, said, “I may say to the Senator, with the greatest respect and admiration, because I entertain for him the highest personal admiration and respect, that he could have accomplished the purpose he now has in mind more rapidly and certainly by voting for the amendment I offered earlier today.” A few weeks later in a spirit of fun I caricatured the sacred Senatorial courtesy in my remarks on some now-forgotten subject. A little later Barkley came over and sat beside me. He gently suggested that after I had served in the Senate a little longer I would find that Senatorial courtesy has its uses. It can express in a gentlemanly way anything from real, deep admiration on the one hand, to a harassing doubt as to a fellow Senator’s intelligence on the other. All of this is done in words to which no exception can be taken.  
-Ralph Flanders, 1961

Book jacket of A Senate Journal
This is your Senate I am writing about. These are the 100 men and women... whom you have elected to represent you in “the greatest deliberative body on earth.” That is what they call it, and after twenty years’ close acquaintance, that is what I call it too.
-Allen Drury, 1963

. . . [W]ithin this body, I believe that every Member ought to be equal in fact, no less than in theory, that they have a primary responsibility to the people whom they represent to face the legislative issues of the Nation. And to the extent that the Senate may be inadequate in this connection, the remedy lies not in the seeking of shortcuts, not in the cracking of nonexistent whips, not in wheeling and dealing, but in an honest facing of the situation and a resolution of it by the Senate itself, by accommodation, by respect for one another, by mutual restraint and, as necessary, adjustments in the procedures of this body.
-Mike Mansfield, 1963

Image: Page 1 of toward a Modern Senate
The survival of our democracy depends on the ability of our institutions to change in order to cope effectively with an increasingly complicated environment. In retrospect, one can more fully comprehend some of the changes in society to which the Senate adapted in the past. While many traditional activities continue, an array of new economic and social forces swell the volume and complexity of demands on the Senate’s time and attention.
-The Culver Commission, 1976

Can an institution devised to restrain change be creative in shaping the Nation for its third century? I say yes…. Can a 200-year-old institution respond to such change? We answer that question affirmatively every day. Throughout its existence, despite its built-in bias against haste, the U.S. Senate has been a revolutionary body. It has not become an aristocracy of birth or wealth, as many predicted. It has not paved the way for a parliamentary system, wholly deferential to the executive, as some feared. The Senate has become a guardian of tradition without becoming a barrier to change.  
-George Mitchell, 1989

What really makes the Senate work…is an understanding of human nature, an appreciation of the hearts as well as the minds, the frailties as well as the strengths, of one's colleagues and one's constituents…. I formulated my theory that being leader of the Senate was like herding cats. It is trying to make ninety-nine independent souls act in concert under rules that encourage polite anarchy and embolden people who find majority rule a dubious proposition at best. 
-Howard Baker, 1998

Henry Clay by Henry F. Darby
[D]uring my long and arduous services in the public councils, and especially . . . in the Senate, the same ardor of temperament has characterized my actions, and has no doubt led me, in the heat of debate . . . to use language offensive and susceptible of ungracious interpretation towards my brother senators. If there be any who entertain a feeling of dissatisfaction resulting from any circumstance of this kind, I beg to assure them that I now make the amplest apology.  
-Henry Clay, 1842

The Senate is nothing but a complex web of relationships—one hundred men and women with different experiences, different backgrounds, different strengths, different weaknesses, different beliefs, and different points of view…. Pulling together such disparate individuals is like loading frogs into a wheelbarrow…. But that’s what the Senate is all about—creating alliances. The only way you can make such a disparate collection of individuals come together in a way that brings about the majority vote on any given issue is to understand what makes them tick, to understand what motivates them, what angers them, what approach works with them, and ultimately what can convince them to join with you.  
-Tom Daschle, 2003

Thomas H. Benton
The Senate is almost entirely made up out of the House! and it is quite certain that every senator whom Mons. de Tocqueville had in his eye when he bestowed such encomium on that body had come from the House of Representatives! placed there by the popular vote, and afterwards transferred to the Senate by the legislature; not as new men just discovered by the superior sagacity of that body, but as public men with national reputations, already illustrated by the operation of popular elections. And if Mons. de Tocqueville had chanced to make his visit some years sooner, he would have seen almost every one of these senators, to whom his exclusive praise is directed, actually sitting in the other House. – Thomas Hart Benton, 1854

We were on the brink of success when Senator Hatfield told me, in no uncertain terms, he was going to vote no. I pleaded with Mark to change his mind. . . . But Mark was a man of his word. He said: I can't vote for it, but I will resign. Then you'll have just ninety-nine senators, and you only need sixty-six votes for two-thirds. I rejected Mark's proposal. While I strongly disagreed with his position, I also respected any senator's right to vote their conscience…. If I could change the past, would I have done things differently…?... I believe the answer is no. For, in looking back at my career . . . it is clear to me that defeat is as much a part of life as victory.  
-Bob Dole, 2000

Painting of the signing of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention, with known figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
... The necessity of a senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies, to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.... All that need be remarked is, that a body which is to correct this infirmity, ought itself to be free from it, and consequently ought to be less numerous. It ought moreover to possess great firmness, and consequently ought to hold its authority by a tenure of considerable duration....  
- James Madison, 1787

The federal Senate are the representatives of the sovereignties of their respective states. A second branch, thus constituted, is a novelty in the history of the world. Instead of an hereditary upper house, the American Confederacy has created a body, the temporary representatives of their component sovereignties, dignified only by their being the immediate delegates and guardians of sovereign states selected from the body of the people for that purpose, and for no reasons, but their possessing the qualifications necessary for their station. We find then in this body, none of the evils of aristocracy apprehended by those who have drawn their reasonings from an erroneous comparison with the upper house of Britain, and all the benefits of a second branch, without hazarding the rights of the people in the smallest particular.  
-Tench Coxe, 1787

Senator Joseph Story
If each [chamber] is substantially framed upon the same plan, the advantages of the division are shadowy and imaginative.. . . In this view, the organization of the senate becomes of inestimable value. It represents the voice, not of a district, but of a state;...not of the interest of one state, but of all; not of the chosen pursuits of a predominant population in one state, but of all the pursuits in all of the states. . . .it is a most important and valuable part of the system, and the real balance-wheel, which adjusts, and regulates its movements. . . .   -Joseph Story, 1833

Woodrow Wilson
The fact that the Senate has kept its original rules of debate and procedure substantially unchanged, is very significant. It is a place of individual voices. The suppression of any single voice would radically change its constitutional character; and its character being changed, the individual voices of the country’s several regions being silenced, there would no longer be any sufficient reason for its present constitution. . . .
-Woodrow Wilson, 1907

Photo of James Bryce
…a series of compromises between the advocates of popular power, as embodied in the House, and those of monarchical power, as embodied in the President, led to the allotment of attributes and functions which have made the Senate what it is…. Yet the conception they formed of it differed from the reality which has been evolved. Although they had created it as a branch of the legislature, they thought of it as being first and foremost a body with executive functions. . . . And as respects these executive functions it stands alone in the world. No European state, no British colony, entrusts to an elective assembly that direct participation in executive business which the Senate enjoys.  
-James Bryce, 1888

…whether these forms be in all cases the most rational or not, is really not of so great importance. It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is; that there may be an uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the Speaker [presiding officer], of captiousness of the members. It is very material that order, decency, and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body.  
-Thomas Jefferson, 1801