On April 7, 1789, when the Senate created the position of doorkeeper and appointed James T. Mathers to the position, it empowered him to ensure that senators stayed in the Senate Chamber to start the business of government. They did this because the United States Constitution states that to “constitute a Quorum to do business,” the Senate requires the presence of a majority of its members. The Senate had difficulty establishing its first quorum; the Senate first met on March 4, 1789, but did not achieve its first quorum until April 6, 1789—the day before it elected its first doorkeeper.
Over the years, the title and duties of the doorkeeper grew. The title is now “sergeant at arms and doorkeeper,” and the sergeant at arms now serves the Senate as its chief law enforcement officer, protocol officer, and executive officer.
Elected by the senators, each sergeant at arms serves from Congress to Congress until a successor is chosen. Since this is an elected position, the majority party in the Senate selects the sergeant at arms, but once elected, sergeants at arms serve all members of the Senate.
Offices and Functions Under the Jurisdiction of the Sergeant at Arms
Chief Law Enforcement Officer
As the Senate’s chief law enforcement officer, the sergeant at arms can compel senators to come to the Senate Chamber to establish a quorum. In addition, the sergeant at arms supervises the Senate wing of the Capitol, maintaining security in the Capitol and in all the Senate buildings and controlling access to the Senate Chamber and galleries. The sergeant at arms also protects the members and can arrest and detain any person violating Senate rules.
The Senate conducts its business in the Senate Chamber. Overlooking the chamber are the Public Gallery, the Diplomatic Gallery, the Press Gallery and the Family Gallery. In supervising the chamber and galleries, the sergeant at arms ensures that the business of the Senate proceeds undisturbed.
Doorkeepers appointed by, and acting on behalf of, the sergeant at arms maintain order in the Senate Chamber, in the lobby, in adjoining rooms, and in the galleries. They manage access to the Senate Chamber by making sure only those with floor privileges under the Senate rules come into the chamber. The doorkeepers regulate attendance in the galleries by rotating visitors through the Public Gallery and ensuring the aisles are unobstructed, furnishing passes to foreign visitors for the Diplomatic Gallery, and supervising the Family Gallery for senators’ families and special guests.
Four Media Galleries are responsible for the Press Gallery. While Standing Committees of Correspondents administer the Media Galleries subject to review and approval of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, the gallery staff is employed by the sergeant at arms. The Media Galleries provide journalists with working space and notices of coming events, and they facilitate press conferences. To observe the Senate’s proceedings, members of the media go to the Press Gallery. In the galleries of the Senate Chamber, reading materials and writing are permitted only in the Press Gallery.
Pages, high school juniors who are supervised by the sergeant at arms, work with the doorkeepers to make sure the chamber is set up each morning the Senate is in session. They also help deliver messages to senators.
As the Senate’s chief protocol officer, the sergeant at arms coordinates all official events and visits for the Senate. This includes escorting the president, other heads of state, and official guests while they attend official functions in the Capitol.
Sergeants at arms lead the senators when they go anywhere as a body, including to the House Chamber for the State of the Union Address and joint meetings of Congress, and to the presidential inaugural platform for inaugurations. They arrange for funerals of senators who die in office, help plan inaugurations of presidents, and coordinate transitions for newly elected senators.
As the executive officer of the Senate, the sergeant at arms enforces all rules of the Senate: its Standing Rules, Standing Orders, Rules for the Regulation of the Senate Wing, and Rules for Impeachment Trials. This role includes providing services to senators in their Washington, D.C., and state offices, to visitors, and to the Capitol complex.
In Washington, D.C., senators rely on the sergeant at arms for software, computers, equipment, and repairs. The software, computers, and equipment are tailored to the Senate’s needs and include office automation systems, correspondence management systems, and telephone services and support.
The Office of the Sergeant at Arms makes much of the furniture in the Capitol. It also provides custodial services in the Senate wing of the Capitol and repairs the Capitol’s furnishings.
Through letter printing, mail processing, graphics, television, radio, and photography services, the Office helps create the materials that senators use to communicate with their constituents and with each other. The services also help senators maintain archives of their activities. The Senate Post Office is under the jurisdiction of the sergeant at arms. It delivers and ensures the safety of the vast quantities of mail that come through the Senate. Since 2001, the Senate Post Office has enhanced its operations by instituting a number of safety procedures for all letters and packages delivered to the Senate.
The Recording and Photographic Studios operate the television cameras that record the daily sessions of the Senate and provide senators with audio, visual, and still photography services. The Recording Studio also creates the official video archive of the Senate’s floor activities.
Senators have offices in their home states to maintain contact with their constituents. These offices rely on the sergeant at arms for lease negotiations, equipment, and technology.
Visitors to the Capitol on official business are greeted at the Appointment Desk. The Appointment Desk staff directs them to their destinations.
The Capitol Guide Service provides guided tours of the public areas of the Capitol. The Guide Service helps staff and visitors with disabilities by conducting special tours, furnishing wheelchairs, providing brochures and maps in Braille, and supplying sign language interpreters and telecommunications devices for the deaf.
The Office of the Assistant Sergeant at Arms for Security and Emergency Preparedness provides the management structure to oversee and integrate security and emergency preparedness planning, policies, and programs for the Senate. Working in close cooperation with the secretary of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Capitol Police, this Office is responsible for continuity of operations training and assistance to the Senate as well as integrating Senate security plans.
The sergeant at arms and the secretary of the Senate work together to build the skills and abilities of Senate staff through an education and training program. The program builds professional capabilities and enables staff members to serve the Senate better.
The sergeant at arms shares responsibility with other congressional offices for the U.S. Capitol Police, the Capitol Guide Service, and the Capitol Switchboard.
The Senate Gavel
The sergeant at arms has custody of the gavel that the Senate uses to start each day’s session. A member of the sergeant at arms staff delivers two gavels to the floor before the Senate goes into session each day and stores them after the Senate adjourns.
One gavel dates from at least 1834, although according to one account, Vice President John Adams may have used that gavel to call the first Senate to order in New York City. The gavel had been deteriorating since the 1940s, and in 1952, the Senate had silver pieces attached to both ends to limit further damage.
In spite of the Senate’s best efforts, in 1954, the institution came to need a new gavel; the old one shattered during a heated debate. That year, the government of India presented the Senate with the gavel currently used to call the Senate to order. The gavel is ivory and has no handle.
Evolution of the Office
While the doorkeeper was first empowered to keep senators in the Chamber, he also kept others out. The Senate’s sessions were closed to the public for its first six years. When the sessions were opened to the public, the doorkeeper controlled access to the Senate and maintained order in the Senate Chamber and in the galleries.
In 1798 the Senate appended the title “sergeant at arms” when it authorized then-Doorkeeper James Mathers to compel former senator William Blount to return to Philadelphia, where the Senate met, to face an impeachment trial. This broadened the position’s scope of duties. The added designation mirrored the title that is still used by the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Soon after the retitling, the Senate gave the sergeant at arms authority to “summon and command the absent Members” to appear in the Chamber to establish a quorum—the language was later modified to “…request the attendance of absent Members.” The Senate has occasionally voted to have the sergeant at arms “arrest” absent members and bring them to the Chamber, usually to try to end filibusters.
The duties of the sergeant at arms grew to include protecting the Capitol grounds and keeping the stables. In 1867 the sergeant at arms was given authority to make regulations to preserve and protect the Capitol and the Senate Office Buildings and to police the grounds. In the 19th century the sergeant at arms became the Senate’s wagon master and keeper of the Senate stables, so when the Senate purchased its first automobile in 1913—used by the vice president—the sergeant at arms assumed responsibility for automobile leasing and maintenance, traffic control, and parking around the Capitol.
As head doorkeeper, the sergeant at arms has responsibility for the Senate Press Gallery. The scope of this role expanded in 1897, when James D. Preston, a doorkeeper in the Senate Press Gallery under the sergeant at arms, started collecting legislative bills and other information for reporters and facilitating interviews with senators. Preston eventually assumed the title of superintendent of the Press Gallery. In the 1930s and 1940s, superintendents headed new Press Galleries for radio and television, periodical press, and press photographers.
The sergeant at arms’s supervision of Senate pages started with the appointment of the first page, nine-year-old Grafton Hanson, appointed at the urging of Senator Daniel Webster in 1829. Since then, pages have run messages to and from the floor to senators and helped set up the Chamber in the mornings.
In 1854 the Senate created the position of Senate postmaster. The Senate’s first post office operated out of the sergeant at arms’s own office.
The development of new technologies again increased the responsibilities of the Sergeant at Arms Office. In the mid-1900s, the Office started providing telephones, typewriters, mimeographs, and dictaphones to Senate offices. In the 1970s and 1980s, the tools changed to fax machines, computers, copiers, and automated systems.
Mathers, who died in office, was originally elected to be Senate doorkeeper. On February 5, 1798, the Senate expanded his duties to include those of sergeant at arms. Being elected just one day after the Senate achieved its first quorum, Mathers became the first Senate officer. The position of doorkeeper held particular importance in the Senate's early years as sessions were conducted in secret until 1795.