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Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.


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On January 4, 1939, in the U.S. Senate Chamber, Vice President John Nance Garner issues the oath of office to Senator Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma. 202012 30When a New Congress Begins
December 30, 2020
On January 3, 2021, the U.S. Senate will convene to open the 117th Congress. The Senate typically operates according to long-standing rules, traditions, and precedents, and the first day of a new Congress is no exception. On this day, the Senate follows a well-established routine—parts of which date back to the first Congress in 1789. The Constitution mandates that Congress convene once each year at noon on January 3, unless the preceding Congress designates a different day. In odd-numbered years, following congressional elections, a “new” Congress begins.

On January 3, 2021, the U.S. Senate will convene to open the 117th Congress. The Senate typically operates according to long-standing rules, traditions, and precedents, and the first day of a new Congress is no exception. The Constitution mandates that Congress convene once each year at noon on January 3, unless the preceding Congress designates a different day.1 In odd-numbered years, following congressional elections, a “new” Congress begins. From 1789 until 1934, a new Congress began on March 4. The Twentieth Amendment, adopted in 1933, changed the opening date to January. Regardless of the change in date, the first day of a new Congress for the Senate follows a well-established routine—parts of which date back to the first Congress in 1789. The day begins with the opening prayer and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the swearing-in of senators-elect (and sometimes appointed senators), the establishment of a quorum, notifications to the House of Representatives and the president, and often the election of a president pro tempore and other officers. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate, as a continuing body, does not have to adopt or readopt its rules with each new Congress. Article 1, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution provides for staggered six-year terms for senators. The Senate is divided into three classes for election purposes, and every two years only one-third of the senators are elected or reelected, allowing two-thirds to continue serving without interruption. Before senators-elect can begin exercising their legislative responsibilities, each must present his or her certificate of election and then take the prescribed oath of office in an open session of the Senate. The certificate of election, issued by the governor from the incoming member’s state, confirms that the person was duly elected. Affixed with the state’s official seal, it is delivered to the secretary of the Senate for official recording. After the opening prayer and recitation of the pledge, the vice president of the United States, who serves as the president of the Senate, announces the receipt of certificates. Following established tradition, senators-elect are then escorted down the center aisle of the Senate Chamber to the presiding officer’s desk. Typically, the other senator from the member-elect’s state serves as an escort. Occasionally, the senator-elect chooses an alternative or additional escort, such as a former senator or a family member who also served in the Senate. The vice president, or, in the vice president’s absence the president pro tempore, administers the oath of office. Senators-elect take the oath to defend the Constitution by raising their right hand and agreeing to the words spoken by the presiding officer:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Some hold in their left hand a personal Bible or other text of personal significance. The final act in the oath-taking ceremony occurs as the secretary of the Senate invites each newly sworn senator to sign his or her name on a dedicated page in the Senate Oath Book. Following the official oath-taking ceremony in the Senate Chamber, newly sworn senators join the vice president in the Old Senate Chamber, where they reenact the swearing-in ceremony. Prior to 1987, when the opening day of the Senate was first broadcast on live television, the official swearing-in ceremony was normally off-limits to cameras of any sort. The long-standing ban on photography in the Chamber led newly sworn members to devise an alternative way of capturing this moment for their families, constituents, and posterity. In earlier years, the vice president invited newly sworn senators and their families into his Capitol office for a reenactment for home-state photographers. In 1983 the reenactment ceremony moved to the restored Old Senate Chamber and has been held in that historic setting ever since. Once the senators-elect have been sworn in, the vice president directs the Senate clerk to call the roll to establish a quorum, which the Constitution requires in order for the Senate to conduct business. The majority leader then moves to adopt resolutions to notify the House and the president that the Senate has a quorum and is ready to proceed. The language of those resolutions has changed very little over the last 230 years. In 1791 the Second Congress convened in Philadelphia. After senators-elect presented their credentials and the vice president administered the oath of office, the Senate passed the following motion:
Ordered, That Messrs. Butler, Morris, and Dickinson, be a committee to wait on the President of the United States, and inform him that a quorum of the Senate is assembled agreeably to the Constitution, and ready to receive any communications he may be pleased to make to the Senate.2
On January 3, 2019, the Senate adopted this resolution:
Resolved, That a committee consisting of two Senators be appointed to join such committee as may be appointed by the House of Representatives to wait upon the President of the United States and inform him that a quorum of each House is assembled and that the Congress is ready to receive any communication he may be pleased to make.3
While the committee members appointed to “wait upon the President of the United States” did so in person in the 18th and 19th centuries, today the committee informs the president by telephone.4 The Senate next proceeds to other administrative business, which often includes the election of the president pro tempore, the secretary of the Senate, the sergeant at arms, and the chaplain. The Senate typically adopts a resolution early in the new Congress to set procedures for operating the Senate during the next two years. The resolution may include committee ratios, committee membership, and other agreements made between the majority and minority parties on the operation of the Senate. This is usually a routine matter approved by unanimous consent agreement, but there have been occasions when the Senate faced unique challenges, making organization difficult. With much of the “housekeeping” out of the way, the Senate is ready to take up legislative and executive business. With each new Congress, all pending legislation and nominations of the previous Congress expire, requiring many bills and resolutions to be reintroduced. Guests seated in the Senate galleries and those watching from home will note that members often stand behind their Senate desks to deliver their remarks. At the start of each Congress, the desks are reapportioned between the two sides of the Chamber based on the number of senators from the two political parties. For many years, the desks were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. When a seat became available, the first senator to speak for it won the right to it. Today, at the beginning of each Congress, senators are given the option to change their seats, based on seniority. Three desks that are not assigned in this manner are the Daniel Webster Desk, the Jefferson Davis Desk, and the Henry Clay Desk. Senate resolutions govern the assignment of these desks. To learn more about the opening day of a new Congress or other Senate traditions, visit Frequently Asked Questions about a New Congress, Guide to Senate Traditions, or Learn about the Senate.
Notes
1. U.S. Const., amend. XX, § 2. 2. Senate Journal, 2nd Cong., 1st sess., October 24, 1791, 323. 3. “Informing the President of the United States That a Quorum of Each House Is Assembled,” Congressional Record, 116th Cong., 1st sess., January 3, 2019, S5 (daily edition). 4. Valerie Heitshusen, "The First Day of a New Congress: A Guide to Proceedings on the Senate Floor." Congressional Research Service, RS20722, updated December 22, 2020, 4.
Thaddeus Caraway (D-AR) as Santa Claus with Senate Pages, 1923 202012 14Christmas Gift Giving in the Senate
December 14, 2020
The Senate is an institution steeped in tradition. While some traditions prove to be long lasting, others come and go. Such is the case with one tradition of gift giving in the Senate around the Christmas holiday.
Categories: Traditions | Vice Presidents

The Senate is an institution steeped in tradition. While some traditions prove to be long lasting, others come and go. Such is the case with one tradition of gift giving in the Senate around the Christmas holiday. Christmas was not always an eventful holiday in the Senate. Prior to the 1850s, senators took very little time off while the Senate was in session. The legislative session started in the first week of December and, in the era before widely available railroad service, it was too onerous to travel home for a short holiday break. The Senate was typically in session on December 24, adjourned for Christmas Day, then returned to business on December 26. Not until 1857 did senators resolve to take a recess for the Christmas and New Year holidays. In 1870 Congress passed legislation that made Christmas a holiday for federal employees in the District of Columbia. By the 1890s newspapers reported that attendance in both houses of Congress was “steadily diminishing” as the holiday approached, noting the Capitol was “practically deserted.”1 The absence of senators during a holiday recess meant there was time for those who stayed in town, especially staff, to celebrate the season. Soon, gift giving became part of the Senate’s holiday tradition. On Christmas Day 1862, for example, the Chamber’s messengers presented their supervisor Isaac Bassett—the assistant doorkeeper who began his 64-year Senate career as a page in 1831—with an engraved gold-topped cane to thank him for his service, in particular for “always showing the utmost courtesy to the messengers under his direction.”2 Another notable gift came in 1902, when Senate Sergeant at Arms Daniel M. Ransdell received a package from an unknown sender. Ransdell carefully removed the gold-foil wrapping from the package to find 14 ounces of anthracite coal. Before assuming that he was on the “naughty list,” know that the lump of coal was actually a welcome gift. Ransdell had been short on fuel for heating the Capitol that season.3 In the late 19th century, holiday celebrations—which had long been public displays of revelry—became more focused on children. In the Senate, gift-giving traditions centered on the youngsters employed as Senate pages. In 1887 California senator Leland Stanford, a multimillionaire, gave each page a five-dollar gold coin at Christmas. Isaac Bassett was charged with dispensing the gift and, though not a rotund man, his white hair and long beard and his “merry eye and cheerful voice” led the pages to dub him Santa Claus.4 Vice President Thomas R. Marshall began a tradition in 1913 of an annual Christmas dinner with the pages in the Senate dining room. Pages were treated to a sumptuous holiday spread and toasted for their hard work. Marshall then offered sage advice to the sated boys on how to succeed after they left the Senate’s employ. Calvin Coolidge continued the tradition when he became vice president in 1921.5 Some senators took advantage of the annual dinner to give the pages tokens of their appreciation. In 1915 Senator George Oliver of Pennsylvania and Senator James Martine of New Jersey gave each page a crisp new dollar bill. The following year Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware joined Oliver in giving cash gifts to the 16 pages. For a number of years Senator John Kendrick of Wyoming gave each page a new necktie. In an oral history interview conducted decades later, page Donald Detwiler recalled a Christmas dinner in 1917 at which Senator James D. Phelan of New York presented each page with a book.6 When the vice presidency was vacant in 1923—Coolidge had ascended to the presidency after the death of Warren G. Harding—a newspaper reporter quipped that “tiny Tim,” the smallest of the Senate pages, had lost his Santa Claus because no substitute had emerged to carry on the holiday tradition.7 The pages needn’t have worried. A few days after Christmas, Maud Younger, congressional chairwoman of the National Woman’s Party, learned that the pages might miss their celebration and invited them to her home for a feast. Arkansas senator Thaddeus Caraway donned a Santa Claus suit and arrived at Younger’s home with a bag of gifts. In 1925 Senator Robert Stanfield of Oregon took over the role of Santa and distributed gifts to the pages on the steps of the Capitol.8 When Vice President Charles Dawes revived the Christmas page dinner in 1925, the appreciative pages decided to turn the tables and offer their own gifts to the vice president. They delivered gifts to Dawes in a giant paper-mache pipe, a nod to his affinity for smoking a Lyon pipe (he became so identified with it that it became known after as the Dawes pipe). The gifts included a copy of the Senate rules “shot full of holes,” a clever reference to Dawes’s much-publicized harangue against Senate procedures that he had delivered from the presiding officer’s chair earlier that year. At the 1927 dinner, the pages presented Dawes with a new set of rules they had written to give the vice president complete control over Senate debate. Another gift was a model of a yellow taxicab, to mark the day that Dawes slept peacefully at the Willard Hotel when he was needed to cast a critical tie-breaking vote. Dawes had been awakened and hopped into a cab to rush back to the Chamber only to find he was too late to cast a vote. A few years later, the pages presented Vice President Charles Curtis with a tool to maintain order in the Chamber: a giant paper-mache gavel. The pages informed Curtis that should a senator become disorderly, the gavel was “guaranteed to mash ’em flat.” In return, Curtis gave each page a silver dollar.9 The vice president’s annual Senate page Christmas dinner and the associated gift giving continued a few more years, but the nascent tradition came to an end in the 1930s. Part of the reason for its demise was the adoption in 1933 of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which moved the start of congressional sessions from December to January. With the Senate recessing by fall in the years that followed, neither the vice president nor the pages were on duty at the Capitol for the holiday season. By the 1960s, when Senate sessions were growing longer and often extending into December, both the page program and the vice presidency had undergone changes. Rather than employing local youngsters for multiple years, the page program began accepting high school students from around the country to serve one semester at a time. By this time, the vice president also spent less time at the Capitol. Assuming more executive duties, the vice president began presiding only on ceremonial occasions or when needed to break a tie vote. Once a cherished Senate tradition, the annual gift exchanges disappeared and became lost to the past.
Notes
1. Congressional Globe, 35th Cong., 1st sess., December 23, 1857, 156; Jacob R. Straus, "Federal Holidays: Evolution and Current Practices," Congressional Research Service, R41990, updated July 1, 2021; “Holiday Pressure Is Growing,” Washington Post, December 19, 1892, 6; “Around the Capitol,” Baltimore Sun, December 25, 1894, 2. 2. Isaac Bassett Papers, Box 20, Folder G, p. 180, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. [online version available through Archives Research Catalog (ARC Identifier 5423124, p. 22) at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/5423124]. 3. “Coal His Christmas Gift,” New York Times, December 25, 1902, 3. 4. “Christmas Celebration at the Federal Capital,” Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1900, 18; “Senate Pages Christmas Gifts,” Washington Post, December 23, 1887, 2. 5. “Marshall Is Pages’ Host,” Washington Post, December 24, 1915, 4; “Coolidge Invites Pages,” New York Times, December 23, 1921, 12. 6. “Senators Remember Pages and Officials,” Washington Times, December 25, 1915, 6, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, accessed December 1, 2020, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1915-12-25/ed-1/seq-6/; “Senate Pages Receive Gifts,” Washington Evening Star, December 23, 1916, 10, Chronicling America, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1916-12-23/ed-1/seq-10/; Washington Evening Star, January 4, 1925, Chronicling America, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1925-01-04/ed-1/seq-85/; “Senate Chief Pages Get Christmas Gifts,” Washington Herald, December 25, 1915, 9, Chronicling America: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045433/1915-12-25/ed-1/seq-9/; "Donald J. Detwiler: Senate Page (1917–1918),” Oral History Interview, August 8, 1985, Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C., available at https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/oral_history/Detwiler_Donald.htm. 7. “Pages in Senate Have Lost Santa Clause thru Promotion,” Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1923, 16. 8. “Senate Pages Get Feast After All,” Boston Daily Globe, December 29, 1923, 7. 9. “Curtis Gets a Huge Gavel,” New York Times, December 25, 1930; “'Study Senators' Is Advice to Pages,” Washington Evening Star, December 25, 1929, 4, Chronicling America, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1929-12-25/ed-1/seq-4/ ; “Dawes Gives Christmas Party,” Washington Post, December 24, 1926, 4; “New Set of Rules Is Dawes’s Gift from Pages in Senate,” Hartford Courant, December 23, 1927, 10; “Senate Pages Turn the Tables on Dawes,” New York Times, December 24, 1926, 2.