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.