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The Senate Enforces Attendance

June 25, 1798

The framers of the Constitution feared that members of Congress could strangle the government by simply failing to attend legislative sessions. Without a quorum, the Senate or House would be powerless to act. Accordingly, the Constitution’s writers provided that each body could "compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide."

On June 25, 1798, the Senate adopted a rule specifying its manner and penalties for enforcing senators’ attendance. As spring gave way to summer, more than one-third of the Senate’s membership failed to show up for individual votes. Some senators had left the capital to return to their states for the customary five-month break that lasted until the first week in December. Senate leaders, however, had other plans for members before an adjournment would be possible. At the top of their list of unfinished business was one of the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Senate’s new rule provided that less than a quorum could authorize expenses for the sergeant at arms to bring absent members back to the chamber. The office of sergeant at arms had recently been created specifically for chasing down absent senators and reluctant witnesses needed for the conduct of Senate business. Those senators who had prematurely left town without a sufficient excuse would be required to pay whatever expenses the sergeant at arms incurred in returning them.

On Independence Day 1798, the Senate used this new rule to call back enough senators to enact one of the most repressive statutes in American history. The Sedition Act of 1798 reflected growing national hysteria over the possibility of war with France. In an effort to silence journalists supporting anti-administration views, the act’s framers provided punishments that included fines and imprisonment for those who publicly criticized Congress or the president.

More than a dozen journalists were ultimately prosecuted under this statute before it expired in 1801. The resulting widespread public anger at the administration of John Adams helped elect Thomas Jefferson president in 1800 and shifted control of the Senate to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.