Although the United States Senate is rooted in tradition and precedent, it is also an ever-evolving institution. Some of its rules and procedures date back to the very first Congress of 1789, but others have developed over time to meet the needs of a specific era or issue. Its many traditions and rituals have evolved as well—some have come and gone, while others have remained. Explore the enduring procedures, customs, rituals, and symbols that contribute to the Senate’s unique character.
Today, Democrats sit to the presiding officer's right and Republicans to the left in the Senate Chamber, but this division has not always been so clearly defined.
It is difficult to consistently document Chamber seating prior to the 1840s. Consequently, it is unclear just when the tradition of party-segregated seating began. In the 1820s and early 1830s, as parties evolved and party affiliation remained fluid, senators might have been divided among three or four different parties in the Chamber. One report from 1832 indicated that senators sat in groups based on region and their position on protective tariffs, with northern pro-tariff members seated on the left and southern anti-tariff members seated on the right. When the Democratic and Whig Parties became more entrenched in the late 1830s, members began to seat themselves by party. Since desks were evenly divided on either side of the aisle in the Old Senate Chamber (1810–1859), however, some members of the majority party took seats with minority party members on the other side of the center aisle.
In the 1850s, as the Whig Party faltered, parties were once again in flux, as was seating in the Chamber. When the Senate moved to its current Chamber in 1859, the equal distribution of desks continued, but as the division between Democratic and Republican Parties solidified during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, changes came to Chamber seating. By the 1880s, the Senate had begun the practice of moving desks back and forth across the center aisle to reflect party division and permit majority party members to sit together on the appropriate side, except in a few cases when an unusually large majority existed. In such cases, some majority party senators were forced to occupy seats across the center aisle.
Throughout its history the Senate has welcomed distinguished visitors. To honor such guests, the presiding officer announces their presence in open session, and the Senate briefly recesses its formal floor proceedings so that senators may extend personal greetings. This honor is generally conferred upon foreign heads of state and parliamentary leaders.
On occasion, the Senate will proceed as a body to the Chamber of the House of Representatives to attend a joint meeting of Congress to hear remarks by heads of state and prime ministers of nations whose goodwill is particularly important to the United States. Congress also convenes joint meetings to honor national heroes and to celebrate special anniversaries. Joint meetings of Congress are purely ceremonial in scope and are distinguished from joint sessions, which are called by both houses in a concurrent resolution and typically reserved for constitutional processes like delivery of the president's annual State of the Union address and for the quadrennial counting of presidential and vice-presidential electoral votes. On a few occasions, Congress has called joint sessions to receive foreign dignitaries to commemorate notable historical events.
The first Senate reception for a distinguished foreign visitor took place on December 9, 1824, to honor the Marquis de Lafayette of France for his services to the cause of the American Revolution. Several days earlier, a joint Senate-House committee on arrangements had failed to agree on a common program for this occasion and decided to leave it up to each body to plan its own activities. After he was announced, Lafayette was seated at the dais next to the presiding officer, who then adjourned the Senate so that members could pay their respects. On the following day, a number of senators attended an address by Lafayette in the Hall of the House of Representatives. This address might have marked the first joint meeting of Congress but for the fact that the Senate had adjourned prior to receiving the formal invitation of the Speaker. The first formal joint meeting of Congress to receive a foreign dignitary came in 1874 with the visit of Hawaiian king David Kalakaua. Such events became much more common in the 20th century. For example, in 1941 the Senate received in the Chamber British prime minister Winston Churchill, who made an address on the challenges faced by both nations in World War II. Though the assembled crowd included members of the House, the gathering was not formally considered a joint meeting.
In the closing weeks and days of each two-year Congress, most senators who will not be returning deliver floor speeches in which they reflect on their careers and bid farewell to the Senate. In many cases, their Senate colleagues deliver addresses paying tribute to their service in the Senate. For senior members, these remarks extend through many pages of the Congressional Record and in some instances are subsequently published as Senate documents.
When the close of a session also marks the final days of a presidential administration, senators also gather to offer farewells and tributes to the outgoing vice president, who serves as the president of the Senate. For many years, following a precedent established by John Adams in 1797, vice presidents delivered their own farewell speeches at the conclusion of their terms in office.
As a relatively small and traditionally collegial body, the Senate actively mourns the death of an incumbent member through funeral rituals that developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Well into the 20th century, it was not unusual for the Senate to lose several members in a single year. For senators who died while Congress was in session, the Senate typically adjourned the following day's proceedings, conducted funerals or memorial services in its Chamber (with a large floral tribute resting on the deceased member's vacant desk and black crepe covering the chair), sent delegations of senators to attend home-state funerals, and authorized members to wear black armbands for 30 days. For those senators who died during an extended adjournment period, the Senate, upon reconvening, conducted a collective memorial service in its Chamber with appropriate prayers and tributes.
Today, thanks to improved health care, Senate funerals occur with much less frequency, but Senate funerals and memorial traditions for incumbent senators still reflect that earlier experience. The Senate still adjourns the day's session in memory of the deceased member, may send delegations to the funeral, and sets aside a portion of a day's schedule for memorial tributes, which appear as part of the official record of floor proceedings. Many of these tributes are subsequently collected along with printed obituaries and other pertinent documents into an official Senate publication. The American flag is flown at half-staff on the day of the incumbent's death and the following day. For senators who served particularly long and influential careers, funeral services may be held in the Senate Chamber or the Capitol Rotunda.
Daily Senate proceedings depend on the willingness of senators in the majority party to preside over the Senate during the absence of the vice president or the president pro tempore. Presiding also provides more junior members the opportunity to learn the Senate’s rules and procedures.
Until the mid-20th century, vice presidents of the United States, in their role as president of the Senate, spent a considerable portion of their time presiding over the Senatethe only duty that the Constitution assigns to that office. This changed by the 1950s, as vice presidents began to shift the day-to-day focus of their office to activities within the executive branch. Since then, vice presidents have appeared less frequently in the Senate Chamber, principally when they are needed to break an anticipated tie vote or for ceremonial functions. This change has transferred the duties of the presiding officer to the Senate president pro temporeby tradition the most senior member of the majority party. In the absence of that official, the office of the president pro tempore designates junior members to preside in one or two-hour shifts. From 1969 to 1975, minority-party senators presided frequently; however, today only majority-party senators occupy the chair.
In 1965 Democratic Senate pages presented Fred Harris of Oklahoma with a gavel to mark his having presided for 100 hours that session. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield added his congratulations on the Senate floor as well. Two years later, to encourage freshmen senators to preside, Mansfield created what has become known as the Golden Gavel Award to acknowledge the services of those who preside for 100 hours during any session.
The award consists of a simple brass gavel, which is formally presented by the majority leader and president pro tempore. Some freshmen senators have so enjoyed this early mark of distinction that they have sat another hundred hours to take home two gavels. Today, the award of a golden gavel is a matter of some noteat least in the member’s home stateas the majority or minority leader sometimes stops other floor business to honor the recipient. On February 12, 1999, at the conclusion of the five-week impeachment trial of President Clinton, the majority leader presented an honorary Golden Gavel Award to Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist in gratitude for the time he spent presiding over that proceeding. The majority leader also presented Chief Justice John Roberts with an honorary gavel award in February 2020 at the conclusion of the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Since 1937 Senate floor leaders have benefitted from two advantages in the Senate Chamber. The majority and minority leaders occupy the front-row, center-aisle desks, and they possess the right of first recognition by the presiding officer. These advantages allow the leaders to control business on the Senate floor and determine which pieces of legislation and nominations are acted upon by the full Senate.
In 1927 Democratic Leader Joseph Robinson became the first floor leader to claim the desk in the front-row on the center aisle. Republican Leader Charles McNary was able to take the corresponding desk on the Republican side of the Chamber 10 years later. In 1937 Vice President John Nance Garner, a former Speaker of the House who valued leadership prerogatives, announced a new policy. Under the Senate rule requiring the presiding officer to "recognize the Senator who shall first address him," Garner established the precedent of giving priority recognition to the majority leader and then to the minority leader before all other senators seeking to speak. These two 1937 developments—priority recognition and front-row seating—contributed greatly to the evolution of modern Senate floor leadership.
From the Senate’s earliest days, new members have observed a tradition of remaining silent during floor debates for a period of time that ranged—depending on the era and the senator— from several months to several years. Bowing to this tradition, some senators believed that by waiting a respectful amount of time before giving their maiden speech they would earn the respect of senior members. Senior senators argued that the tradition taught junior colleagues the lesson of humility. Today, all that survives of this long-held Senate tradition is the special attention given to a member’s first major address. Typically, Senate leaders along with the senator’s senior colleague from his or her home state will be on hand to witness the speech, while the new senator’s family watches from the gallery. Maiden speeches remain an important milestone in Senate careers.
Each daily session of the Senate begins when the vice president, president pro tempore, or designated presiding officer taps the gavel and calls the Senate into session. The presiding officer then calls on the Senate chaplain to recite a prayer. Opening prayers on the first day of a session can be traced all the way back to the first Continental Congress in 1775. The published record of Senate proceedings before 1851 only infrequently noted the opening of a daily session with a prayer, but it was described as “customary” on occasions when it did. In 1914 the Senate began including the full text of its chaplain’s prayer in the Congressional Record. Prior to 1939, the Senate opened each legislative day—that is, the day after an adjournment—with a prayer, but not each calendar day. The Senate passed a resolution in 1939 that “the Chaplain shall open each calendar day’s session of the Senate with prayer.” In 1960 the Senate adopted a resolution that on days when the Senate is in continuous session, the body would recess at noon for a prayer by the chaplain.
Following the chaplain's prayer, the presiding officer leads the Senate in the Pledge of Allegiance. Congress formally recognized the Pledge of Allegiance—first written in 1892—on June 22, 1942. In 1999 a New Hampshire resident contacted the office of Senator Robert Smith to inquire why the Senate did not follow the practice of the House of Representatives, which had incorporated the Pledge into its proceedings 11 years earlier. Spurred by this inquiry, the Senate amended its standing rules on June 23, 1999, providing for the presiding officer to lead the body in the Pledge at the start of each daily session.
Post-election orientation programs offer newly elected senators an opportunity to familiarize themselves with Senate procedures and traditions. Prior to 1976, new members looked to the other senator from their states or to party officials and Senate officers for advice on how to survive in this unfamiliar environment. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater recalled how deeply he valued this assistance. “Early in January 1953, a very frightened and somewhat timid desert rat landed in Washington, feeling as out of place as anyone possibly could,” he recalled. “I had not been in my hotel room 15 minutes when the phone rang and the voice at the other end said, ‘This is Mark Trice.’ I wondered then who that could be. He immediately told me that he was Secretary of the Senate and his interest that morning was in helping me to get started. He came to me like a life ring comes to a drowning man.”
The 1976 election produced 17 new members—the largest infusion in 18 years. The next two elections generated even larger classes, with 20 in 1978 and 18 in 1980. These three elections, along with the 1980 change in party control for the first time in 26 years, encouraged Senate officials to develop well-organized and responsive orientation programs to welcome new senators. Typically, these programs last for several days in November and coincide with party leadership elections. Presenters range from the party floor leaders and senators of the most recent freshman class to Senate officers, parliamentarians, security experts, curators, and historians. Sessions cover a host of practical topics from “parliamentary procedure” and “setting up a new office,” to “life in the Senate.” In addition to this bipartisan Senate-wide program, each of the two political parties organizes briefings and retreats to orient their senators.
Learn more about orientation from Senator Robert Byrd's remarks and excerpts of oral history interviews with former Senate parliamentarian Floyd Riddick, former Senate historian Richard Baker, and Senate staff member Richard Arenberg.
For more than 230 years, beginning with the inauguration of George Washington in New York City in 1789, Congress has hosted the inauguration ceremonies of the president and vice president of the United States. After Congress moved to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1800, ceremonies took place in the Hall of the House of Representatives, the Senate Chamber, or outdoors on the Capitol’s East Portico. Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, ceremonies have taken place on the West Front of the Capitol.
Since 1901, and in accordance with the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) has been responsible for the planning and execution of the Inaugural Ceremonies of the president-elect and vice president-elect of the United States at the Capitol.
Bean soup has been a required and beloved menu tradition in Senate restaurants for more than a century. There are competing stories about the origin of the mandate that bean soup be served daily. According to one story, the Senate’s bean soup tradition began early in the 20th century at the request of Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho, who as chair of the committee overseeing the Senate Restaurant, passed a resolution in the committee requiring that bean soup be on the menu daily. Another story attributes the request to Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota, who expressed his fondness for the soup in 1903 and insisted that it be on the menu each day.
The recipe attributed to Dubois includes mashed potatoes and makes a 5-gallon batch. The recipe served in the Senate today does not include mashed potatoes but does include a braised onion. Both Senate recipes are below.
The Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup Recipe
2 pounds dried navy beans
4 quarts hot water
1 1/2 pounds smoked ham hocks
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the navy beans and run hot water through them until they are slightly whitened. Place beans into pot with hot water. Add ham hocks and simmer approximately three hours in a covered pot, stirring occasionally. Remove ham hocks and set aside to cool. Dice meat and return to soup. Lightly brown the onion in butter. Add to soup. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Serves 8.
Bean Soup Recipe (for 5 gallons):
3 pounds dried navy beans
2 pounds of ham and a ham bone
1 quart mashed potatoes
5 onions, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
half a bunch of parsley, chopped
Clean the beans, then cook them dry. Add ham, bone, and water and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and mix thoroughly. Add chopped vegetables and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour before serving.
By the 1980s, most U.S. government agencies, departments, and offices had their own official flag, except the United States Senate. In April 1984, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii proposed that the Senate commission an official flag using the design of the Senate seal. The matter was referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration.
In April 1985, the committee invited eight flag manufacturers to submit designs and cost estimates for an official U.S. Senate flag. After a year and a half of unsuccessful design proposals, Senator Charles Mathias, Jr., of Maryland, chair of the Rules Committee, turned to the Army's Institute of Heraldry. The Institute submitted a design that was approved by the committee, a navy blue banner emblazoned with the Senate seal. In the summer of 1987, a contractor was awarded authority to produce the flags, which became available in March of 1988. Use and sale of the flag is restricted to Senate offices only. Commercial use is prohibited.
The seal of the Senate includes a scroll inscribed with E Pluribus Unum floating across a shield with 13 stars on top and 13 vertical stripes on the bottom. Olive and oak branches symbolizing peace and strength grace the sides of the shield, and a red liberty cap and crossed fasces represent freedom and authority. Blue beams of light emanate from the shield. Around the seal's border, the words "United States Senate" are inscribed. Indicating official actions of the Senate, the seal is affixed to impeachment documents and resolutions of consent to international treaties. It also appears on presentation copies of Senate resolutions recognizing appointments, commendations, and notable achievements.
This current seal represents the third design since 1789. The first seal showed an eagle with a shield on its breast, olive branches in its left talon, and arrows in its right. Above the eagle were rays of light emanating from clouds, representing the emergence of the new nation. Encircling the design were the words "Senate of the United States." The first known use of this seal was on the March 1798 impeachment summons of Tennessee senator William Blount.
By 1830 the first Senate seal was either lost or unserviceable. A new seal was commissioned from Robert Lanphier, Jr., a Washington, D.C., engraver and jeweler. Following the then-popular neoclassical style, that design featured three goddesses symbolizing justice, liberty, and strength. An eagle perched atop the figures, and 24 links of a chain bordering the seal represented the 24 states then in the Union. During the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, the seal authenticated both the presidential summons and copies of documents submitted in evidence.
When the nation celebrated 100 years of independence in 1876, a new Great Seal of the United States was created and put into use. In 1885 the Senate took notice of that redesign and ordered an updating of its own seal. Louis Dreka, an engraver and stationer from Philadelphia, received $35 to produce a new seal, measuring one-and-a-half inches in diameter. The 1885 design is still in use today. The seal is kept in the custody of the secretary of the Senate, in accordance with a resolution adopted in 1886 that mandates its use to authenticate transcripts, copies, and certificates as directed by the Senate.
In the earliest years of the Congress, lack of housing and primitive living conditions in the new capital city prompted many wives of senators and representatives to remain at home rather than accompany their husbands to Washington, D.C. By the mid-1800s, however, more and more congressional wives were coming to Washington to keep their families together during congressional sessions. They became the focus of Washington's growing social scene and were frequent visitors to the House and Senate galleries. Many looked for ways to pursue their own interests and serve the community.
In 1917 the Senate Ladies Red Cross Unit (also known as the "Ladies of the Senate" and later informally as "Senate Wives") was founded by Mrs. Key Pittman of Nevada to aid the allied cause in the First World War. For several years, the Ladies of the Senate met in a basement room of the Senate Office Building, now the Russell Building, to knit, sew, and roll bandages to aid the war and recovery effort. After the war, the group's activities expanded to include other charitable work. The spouses maintained the connection with the Red Cross and sponsored the annual Senate blood drive throughout the 20th century.
In 1936 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt hosted the group at the White House. The next year, the Senate Ladies hosted the First Lady at their luncheon. Roosevelt returned in 1939 and 1942. When Bess Truman became First Lady in 1945, her long association with the Senate wives during her husband’s Senate service led to more frequent collaborative events. Since that time, the group has sponsored an annual luncheon for the First Lady.
The group has undergone many changes during its more than 100 years of existence. In 1931 a Senate spouse, Hattie Caraway, became a U.S. senator from Arkansas when she succeeded her husband (Thaddeus Caraway), who died in office. First appointed to office, Caraway won a special election and then the 1932 general election, making her the first woman elected to the Senate. She won again in 1938 and served until 1945. Despite her new position in the Senate, Caraway continued to meet with the Senate wives on a regular basis. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, often the only woman serving in the Senate of the 1950s and 1960s, frequently participated in the group's activities. By the 1990s, as an increasing number of women senators were accompanied by spouses, the “Senate Wives” became known as the "Senate Spouses."
The practice of ranking senators based on length of service, known as seniority, developed during the institution's first half-century. In its earliest decades, the Senate struggled to find an equitable means for distributing special status among members. Who would serve as president pro tempore in the absence of the vice president? Who would chair the major committees?
In the early 1800s, the Senate conducted numerous and time-consuming roll-call votes to determine committee assignments. Senators also gave this authority to the presiding officer (either the vice president or the president pro tempore) for a brief period. By the 1840s, a time of rapid membership turnover and short tenures in office, each party conference began recognizing seniority of Senate service to arrange committee rosters and determine chairmanships.
In today’s Senate, seniority remains an important factor in determining many committee assignments, and committee chairs are typically the most senior member. Both party conferences continue to adhere to the seniority system, but recent changes in conference rules have lessened the power of seniority. Most notably, the Senate Republican Conference placed six-year term limits on its party's committee chairmen and ranking members in 1997.
In addition to determining committee assignments and chairmanships, seniority has played a role in the selection of the Senate’s president pro tempore. Since the mid-20th century, this position has been held by the majority party’s longest-serving member. Beyond the seniority structure managed by the party conferences, the full Senate also recognizes seniority for the purpose of assigning office space, which is governed by the Committee on Rules and Administration.
Each year, before a joint session of Congress, the president fulfills his or her constitutional duty to "give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union" (Article II, section 3). Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered their messages in person, but in 1801 Thomas Jefferson chose to send his in writing. That precedent held until Woodrow Wilson decided to deliver his message in person in 1913, a tradition that continues today. Franklin Roosevelt referred to it as the "State of the Union Address," a title that became official during the Harry Truman administration. The first national radio broadcast of the message occurred in 1923, following a limited but successful experimentation with radio in 1922. Truman's 1947 address was the first to be televised, and in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson began the tradition of delivering the address in prime time. In 1966 the opposition party began offering a televised response to the president's speech, a tradition that has continued. Each year one member of the president's cabinet is absent from the address to maintain the line of succession in case of an emergency.
At the beginning of a new term of office, before they can assume their legislative activities, senators-elect must take the oath of office in an open session of the Senate. Senators-elect—both the freshmen and the returning veterans—are escorted to the presiding officer’s desk by another senator to take the oath. Customarily, the other senator from the senator-elect’s state serves as escort, although any senator can carry out this duty. Occasionally, the senator-elect chooses a senator from another state as a sign of friendship or political allegiance.
A ban on photography in the Senate Chamber has led senators to devise alternative ways of capturing for posterity the highly significant moment of taking the oath of office. Well into the 20th century, the vice president invited newly sworn senators and their families into his Capitol office for a reenactment for home-state photographers. Beginning in the early 1980s, following the restoration of the Old Senate Chamber, reenactment ceremonies have been held in that historical setting.
No Senate tradition has been more steadfastly maintained than the annual reading of President George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address. In this letter to “Friends and Citizens,” Washington warned that the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation's domestic affairs threatened the stability of the republic. He urged Americans to subordinate sectional jealousies to common national interests.
The Senate tradition of reading the address aloud in the Chamber began on February 22, 1862, as a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War. Citizens of Philadelphia had petitioned Congress to commemorate the forthcoming 130th anniversary of Washington's birth by reading the address at a joint session of both houses. On that day, members of the Senate proceeded through the Capitol to the House Chamber to hear the address read by Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney. Early in 1888—the centennial year of the Constitution’s ratification—the Senate recalled the ceremony of 1862 and had its presiding officer read the address on February 22. Within a few years, the Senate made the practice an annual event.
Every year since 1896, the Senate has observed Washington's birthday by selecting one of its members, alternating parties, to read the 7,641-word statement in legislative session.
At the conclusion of each reading, the appointed senator inscribes his or her name and brief remarks in a black, leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate. The book's first entry, dated February 22, 1900, bears the signature of Ohio Republican Joseph Foraker. Early entries in the notebook were typically brief explanations of the practice, accompanied by signature and date. Often, several entries appeared on a single page. In more recent years, entries have grown more elaborate and have included personal stories or comments on contemporary politics and policy. In 1956 Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey wrote that every American should study this memorable message. “It gives one a renewed sense of pride in our republic,” he wrote. “It arouses the wholesome and creative emotions of patriotism and love of country.”