United States Senate
Senate, United States, the smaller of the two legislative bodies of the Congress of the United States. Along with the House of Representatives, it drafts and passes laws that, when signed by the president, govern the United States and its citizens. The Senate exercises some powers that the House of Representatives does not, such as approving treaties between the United States and other countries. The Senate has 100 members, two from each state.
II CONSTITUTIONAL ORIGINS
The framers of the Constitution of the United States designed the Senate to be more stable and insulated from popular sentiment than the House of Representatives (often called simply the House). “The use of the Senate,” explained statesman James Madison in 1787, “is to consist in proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” Senators serve six-year terms, in contrast to the two-year terms of representatives. Only one-third of the Senate runs for office in each election, giving it more continuity than the House, where the entire membership is elected every two years. Members of the House have always been popularly elected, but senators were appointed by state legislatures until 1913. Keeping the selection of Senate members out of voters’ hands, the framers reasoned, would help the Senate focus on the country’s broad interests and keep it from becoming mired in short-term political shifts. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution gave voters the power to select the Senate through direct elections.
The framers of the Constitution also designed the Senate to protect state interests, particularly the interests of states with small populations. To equalize small and large states, the Constitution guarantees two senators to each state, regardless of population. The Senate now has 100 members, two each for states that range in population from California (more than 33 million people) to Wyoming (fewer than 500,000 people). The Senate tends to overrepresent the least populous states at the expense of more populous states. The House of Representatives, in contrast, allocates seats to the states according to population.
The 1787 Constitutional Convention devised the special characteristics of the Senate after the delegates rejected James Madison’s Virginia Plan, which proposed that the Senate be appointed by the House of Representatives. Madison’s plan would have granted more power to the states with large populations. The Constitutional Convention delegates also rejected William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan, which proposed one legislative body instead of two, with equal representation from each state regardless of size. This arrangement would have favored the smaller states. The resulting settlement, known as the Great Compromise or Connecticut Compromise, favored small states in the Senate and large states in the House, and delegated special powers to each.
The Constitution requires a senator to be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state from which he or she is elected. It is more difficult to win election to the Senate than to the House of Representatives, because unlike members of the House, who are elected in districts of about half a million people, Senators campaign for election across their whole
state. A Campaigning for the Senate
Most Senate campaigns must reach millions of voters, so they rely on costly television and newspaper advertisements. Most campaigns also spread their campaign messages through direct-mail leaflets sent to voters’ homes. The cost of advertisements and direct mail routinely costs millions of dollars; in 2000 the average winning Senate campaign spent more than $7 million. (The average winning House campaign, in comparison, spent more than $800,000 in 2000.) This style of campaigning requires that Senate candidates have deep cash reserves and broad popular support if they hope to win election.
B Who Serves in the Senate
The high cost of Senate races tends to narrow the pool of Senate candidates to experienced politicians with extensive networks of wealthy donors and to wealthy individuals willing to finance their own races. As a result, members of the Senate tend to be somewhat older than their House counterparts, and many are more politically experienced. Some senators are former state governors, and about a third have served in the House. A small number are political novices who largely financed their own campaigns. Because there are relatively few senators and because senators generally represent considerably more people than do House members, they receive more attention from the press and the public. Some become presidential contenders: In 1996, for example, the Senate produced four Republican presidential hopefuls, including the eventual nominee, Senate majority leader Bob Dole. In 2000, several senators or former senators were major contenders for their party’s nomination, and a number of Democratic senators cast their eyes on the 2004 presidential contest.
Members of the Senate often have relatively wealthy backgrounds, and many senators are millionaires. The unusual wealth of senators stems partly from the fact that about three-fourths of senators work in banking, business, or law before winning election to the chamber. Few working-class people—those who work for others and earn an hourly wage—come even close to winning a Senate seat. The scarcity of working-class senators is caused by many factors, including the high cost of campaigns and the need for connections to the political and social elite to mount an effective campaign.
The Senate membership also fails to reflect the country’s racial composition. Only four African Americans—Carol Moseley Braun, Edward Brooke, Blanche Bruce, and Hiram Revels—have ever held Senate seats. Other minorities have also found it difficult to win Senate seats. In 1993, when Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado took his Senate seat, he stood as the lone Native American in the chamber, and the first elected to the body since the 1930s. Octaviano Larrazolo of New Mexico became the first Hispanic American elected to the Senate in 1928. Hiram Fong of Hawaii, the first Asian American in the Senate, served from 1959 to 1977. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii became the first native Hawaiian elected to the Senate in 1990.
Women have also found it difficult to win Senate seats, although senators’ wives have often been appointed to fill seats when their husbands have died in office. Hattie Caraway became the first woman to win a full six-year term in 1932. By 2001, 31 women had served in the Senate, more than half of whom were elected to six-year terms. At the start of the 107th Congress (2001-2003), 13 women served in the Senate. In 2000 Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of U.S. president Bill Clinton, became the first first lady elected to the Senate.
IV WHAT THE SENATE DOES
A Powers Along with the House of Representatives, the Senate wields lawmaking powers of the national government granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution. This includes the broad enumerated (listed) powers of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution—for example, issuing currency, regulating banking and interstate or foreign commerce, providing for military forces, and declaring war. Article I, Section 8, also gives Congress implied powers—to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for carrying out the enumerated powers, and to investigate and oversee the executive branch. The Senate also has the power to conduct impeachment trials against the president, federal judges, and other officials. The Senate can only impeach someone after the House brings charges, however. A two-thirds majority vote of the senators in the chamber is necessary for a conviction.
The Senate has two special duties not shared by the House. When the president negotiates treaties with other countries, they must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate before becoming law. Although the Senate rejects few treaties outright, it often refuses to act or it tries to change them. The Senate approves without change about seven of every ten treaties submitted by the president. The Senate also confirms by a majority vote the president’s choices for cabinet members, ambassadors, federal judges, and many other important government officials. The Senate usually allows presidents free rein in selecting cabinet officers and other members of their own administrations. On the other hand, the Senate often closely scrutinizes nominees for the Supreme Court and other judicial positions, which are lifetime appointments.
Some bicameral (two-house) political systems have an upper chamber with more power than the second, lower chamber. Some experts claim that one house of Congress is more important than the other—for example, that the Senate has more prestige or that the House pays more attention to legislative details. However, the two houses stoutly defend their equal roles and zealously guard their powers. Although the Senate was the stage for eloquent debates before the Civil War, and the House and its committees shaped federal programs in more recent decades, neither chamber dominates today.
B The Committee System
The Senate has a system of specialized committees similar to that in the House of Representatives. Permanent legislative committees—usually called standing committees—have the most important duties. The Senate’s 16 standing committees and their nearly 70 subcommittees hold hearings, draft new bills, review bills proposed outside the committee, and supervise legislative research staff. The committees and subcommittees then make recommendations to the Senate as a whole to approve or reject the bills. The Senate normally follows these recommendations. Standing committees also supervise government agencies that fall under their area of specialization.
Key committees include the Appropriations Committee, which recommends annual federal spending amounts; the Finance Committee, which considers revenue measures; and the Budget Committee, which prepares the annual budget. Other standing committees, roughly paralleling those in the House, consider such subjects as foreign relations, the armed services, banking, commerce, and agriculture. Normally a senator sits on about three committees and seven subcommittees.
The Senate also creates joint committees in cooperation with the House. Joint committees, which usually have an equal number of members from the House and the Senate, can conduct hearings but cannot consider legislation. The Senate also establishes select, or investigative, committees to conduct inquiries into specific scandals or problems. Select committees usually have temporary authority, and most lack the power to formally consider legislation.
As in the House of Representatives, power in the Senate is generally distributed according to the seniority system, in which political parties appoint their members to committee positions based on their years of service in the chamber. The most senior senators— those with the most years in the chamber—are ensured of appointment to the most influential committees, but because the Senate is relatively small, even junior senators usually serve on at least one important committee. The Senate is less structured than the House of Representatives. Because the Senate’s rules allow virtually unlimited debating time for its members, senators can potentially block any type of legislation by prolonging debate. This tactic, known as a filibuster, means that individual senators can try to influence virtually any bill before the Senate by threatening to block the measure.
The majority and minority parties in the Senate select floor leaders to organize their members. These leaders, sometimes called the majority and minority leaders, are helped by assistants called whips. The whips try to persuade members of their parties to support the party on Senate votes. When the two parties cannot agree on legislation, these party leaders help negotiate a compromise. Responsibility for particular bills falls upon leaders called floor managers, generally the bill’s prime sponsor or the chair of the committee responsible for it. The floor manager of the majority party tries to shepherd the bill through the Senate, and the minority floor manager tries to alter the measure or defeat it outright.
The Senate conducts votes, debates, and other business under the direction of the Senate’s presiding officer. The presiding officer is usually a junior senator who is assisted by a parliamentarian—an expert in Senate procedure. The duties of the presiding officer are sometimes assumed by the Senate’s president pro tem (temporary president), who is usually the most senior member of the majority party. On even more unusual occasions, the vice president of the United States presides over the Senate. Article I, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution grants this authority to the vice president, but vice presidents usually limit their appearances to ceremonial events and infrequent instances when a Senate vote is tied. The vice president cannot vote unless the chamber is tied.
D Rules and Procedures
The Senate follows rules governing procedures for amending and voting on bills, quorum requirements (the minimum number of senators needed to conduct business), and many other matters. These rules give Senate leaders less control over their members than their House counterparts. Because only a third of the Senate changes with each election, Senate rules remain in place from session to session. In contrast, House rules are modified and adopted after each election, every two years. The Senate often speeds its business by unanimously agreeing on how to consider a bill. This procedure, which is known as a unanimous consent agreement, allows the majority and minority leaders to arrange procedures that will satisfy all senators who have a special interest in the measure at hand.
The Senate follows more elaborate rules when the chamber is divided over a bill. These procedures can sometimes slow the proceedings to a crawl. Senators cherish their right to be consulted on bills being considered, to offer amendments, and to speak at length on measures. The Senate rules that permit filibusters give members the power to obstruct legislation merely by threatening to use the procedure. A filibuster can only be stopped if 60 senators vote to invoke cloture, a rule that imposes time limits on further discussion of the issue at hand. Because of the flexible rules for debating, and thereby blocking, legislation, Senate leaders spend much of their time seeking compromises that will satisfy their colleagues and allow the chamber to act. The House of Representatives, in contrast, imposes much more restrictive time constraints on debates.
Senate floor debate is quiet and even leisurely compared to that of the House of Representatives, and (as in the House) attendance is usually sparse. Senators address the chamber from assigned desks on the Senate floor, taking their time and engaging their colleagues in prolonged exchanges called colloquies. An informal code of conduct prevents senators from insulting one another. For floor votes—votes of the entire Senate—a clerk calls the roll and records senators’ votes individually. Senators stream onto the floor to cast votes or answer quorum calls, but even then the hubbub is subdued.
V THE LIFE OF A SENATOR
Senators generally work very long hours. Most arrive at their offices early in the morning to meet with their staff and plan the day’s work. Committee meetings, floor votes, and informal meetings with other senators fill the day. Senators must also make time to give interviews to the press, handle pressing citizen complaints, and plan legislative strategies with their colleagues. On top of this full schedule, senators try to make time to study complex policy questions.
To help them in lawmaking and in dealing with citizens of their states, senators are provided with staff aides and funds according to the population of their state. Some senators have more than 70 people on their staff, but the average senate office has about 35 aides. Some of these workers assist in drafting legislation in complex areas, such as military weapons, transportation planning, and agriculture. Senators rely on their most trusted assistants to confer with other members of the Senate about pending legislation. Senate staff also work on large projects, such as securing federal grants to fund roads and schools in their state.
Some Senate staff spend all their time on constituency service, solving problems that individual citizens have with government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Veterans Administration. Most senators maintain offices in several major cities in their state. These offices help senators keep in touch with voters and make it easier for their staff to work on citizens’ problems. Many senators choose to assign as many as one-third of their staff to these offices.
In 2001 senators were paid an annual base salary of $145,100. They also receive reimbursement for travel and housing expenses.
VI HISTORY OF THE SENATE A Early Years
The Senate today bears little resemblance to the institution created in 1789. When it met for the first three Congressional sessions in New York City and Philadelphia, the Senate met behind closed doors. The House of Representatives held public proceedings, leading to widespread controversy over the Senate’s secrecy. Under pressure from the state legislatures, which appointed all Senate members, the Senate opened its doors to the public in 1795. (Since 1795, the chamber has on very rare occasions held secret sessions to discuss national security policy and other sensitive subjects.)
During these early sessions, senators debated politely and avoided personal attacks. The quiet tone of the Senate stood as a model of civility compared to early House sessions, where members often traded insults and shouted at one another. Although Senators showed more tact than their counterparts in the House, both chambers developed party splits that dominated voting and debates on nearly all issues. By the early 1790s the Federalist Party, which advocated close ties with Britain, dominated the House and the Senate. The Democratic-Republican Party, which supported states’ rights and opposed close relations with Britain, offered spirited opposition and won control of Congress in the elections of 1800.
In the Senate’s first 20 years it assumed only modest responsibilities. The chamber saw itself as an advisory panel for the president, responsible for revising legislation drafted in the House. From 1789 to 1809, almost all laws originated in the House. The Senate created ad hoc committees—temporary, single-issue committees—to consider House proposals. The vice president of the United States, who had few other responsibilities, usually presided over the Senate. Both the House and the Senate allowed the White House to guide the legislative agenda until James Madison succeeded Thomas Jefferson as president in 1809.
Madison, unlike Jefferson, could not bend Congress to his will through party discipline. The House continued to draft most pieces of legislation and send them on to the Senate for revision. Both chambers often snubbed Madison’s attempts to lead the process. During Madison’s presidency the Senate broke with the earlier two decades of near-automatic acceptance of White House appointments. The Senate rejected many of the president’s cabinet nominees and forced him to accept their choices for the positions. The Senate also challenged Madison’s lead in foreign policy. The Senate took center stage, for example, in the debate over policy toward Britain in the years prior to the War of 1812.
The Senate’s growing workload prompted the chamber to replace the system of ad hoc committees with 12 standing legislative committees in 1816. Over the next three decades the Senate eclipsed the House as the nation’s leading legislative body. In the 1830s the Senate attracted some of the most articulate speakers in the country, including three men known as “the great triumvirate”: John Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. These leaders elevated Senate debates to a level of eloquence never heard before in Congress. Crowds packed the Senate gallery to see the debates over slavery, states’ rights, and agricultural policy, which historians still regard as some of the finest moments in Senate history.
B Civil War and Reconstruction
By the 1850s debates over slavery carved deep rifts between the Senate’s dominant parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Southern Democrats bitterly fought an alliance of Republicans and antislavery Democrats. The issue destroyed the chamber’s civil tone. In the 1850s and early 1860s floor discussions often degenerated into shouting matches, and many members brought guns to the chamber. During a tense debate in 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi drew a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. An even more violent episode erupted in 1856 when Representative Preston Smith Brooks of South Carolina became enraged over a speech by abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Two days later Brooks entered the Senate chamber, cornered Sumner, and repeatedly beat him over the head with a cane.
In 1860 and 1861 long-standing disputes over economic policy, slavery, and states’ rights led 11 Southern states to secede from the United States. The secessionist Southern states formed the Confederate States of America, sparking the Civil War (1861-1865). The Confederate states withdrew their representatives from Washington, D.C., leaving the House and the Senate in the hands of antislavery forces. Although Congress agreed with President Abraham Lincoln that the Southern secession should be met with force, lawmakers resented the president’s broad seizure of power. Lincoln asserted sweeping authority, including the right to draft soldiers, suspend civil liberties, and raise funds for the war. The Senate and the House created the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to act as a check on Lincoln, but the committee failed to rein in the president. The Senate and the House cooperated with the White House on many wartime measures, but Lincoln took the lead in most matters.
The conclusion of the war in 1865 left many issues related to slavery unresolved. Reconstruction—the process of incorporating the rebel states back into the United States—sparked bitter congressional disputes. Lincoln and Congress proposed different plans for Reconstruction. The struggle between Congress and the White House intensified after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln in 1865. Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean who favored moderate Reconstruction policies, assumed the presidency.
Johnson fought with Congress over the terms of reincorporating the Southern states. Congress passed a law restricting the president’s power to remove appointed officials, overriding Johnson’s veto of the measure. In one of the most dramatic episodes in Senate history, Johnson faced impeachment in 1868 under charges that he had ignored the new limit on his power to remove appointees. Johnson prevailed in the Senate by a single vote. The proceedings established an important principle that a president could not be removed from office simply over disagreements with Congress.
Eventually Congress passed many Reconstruction laws, including legislation to implement the voting rights for African Americans granted by the 15th Amendment. The extension of the vote led to the 1870 election of Hiram Revels, a Republican clergyman and teacher from Mississippi, who became the first African American to win a Senate seat. But after the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876 many Southern states instituted poll taxes (taxes levied on people who vote), literacy tests, and other rules that effectively prevented African Americans from voting. The restrictions rolled back the gains that African Americans had made in Congress, preventing African American candidates from winning election to the Senate until 1966, when Edward Brooke won election from Massachusetts.
The end of Reconstruction in 1877 ushered in a system of strong party control of the Senate. Party leaders such as Republican Roscoe Conkling of New York used party meetings known as caucuses to rally party support before important votes on legislation. Party power weakened in the 1880s, but in the 1890s Republicans led by William Allison of Iowa reestablished party control of Senate committee appointments and the chamber’s legislative agenda. Under the renewed system of party leadership, most important debates occurred behind closed doors in party caucuses rather than in Senate committees or on the floor of the chamber. The strong hand of the parties, combined with the increasingly common use of filibusters, led to widespread public criticism of the Senate.
C The Progressive Era
The political debates of the Progressive Era, which lasted roughly from the 1890s until the 1920s, focused on the need to democratize all levels of the political system and to restrict the influence of large businesses in American society. Progressive reformers attacked the party system that controlled the Senate, claiming that it was prone to manipulation by corporate interests.
The drive for progressive reforms also fed pressure to change the rules for selecting senators. State legislatures, which held the power to choose senators, frequently deadlocked on voting to select a Senate delegation, especially when the two chambers of a legislature were controlled by different parties. In many cases powerful business interests controlled the selection of senators, sometimes bribing legislators to vote for a particular candidate. By 1909, 33 state legislatures had urged Congress to draw up a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators, and 29 states had devised procedures whereby citizens could vote their preference of senatorial candidates (the vote was not binding on the legislature). The House of Representatives passed numerous resolutions calling for the Senate to subject its members to direct election, but the Senate rebuffed these efforts. The Senate relented only after the states threatened to call a constitutional convention, and it voted for the 17th Amendment in 1912. The amendment, which transferred senatorial selection from the legislatures of each state to “the people thereof,” passed the House and was ratified by the states in 1913.
The Senate embraced another important reform in 1917 when it adopted the first cloture rule, which allowed the chamber to end filibusters by a two-thirds vote of present members. The Senate has modified the rule several times since then, and it now takes three-fifths of all Senate members to invoke cloture.
The Democrats won both the White House and Congress in 1912. Congress followed the lead of President Woodrow Wilson in banking reform, military mobilization for World War I (1914-1918), and reducing the tariff. Largely to deal with presidential legislative proposals, Senate Democrats chose the first majority floor leader in 1913—John Worth Kern of Indiana. Cooperation with Congress faltered after the war, and the Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations, the central goal of Wilson’s postwar foreign policy.
Wilson was followed in the White House by Republicans Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, presidents who generally allowed Congress to take the lead in drafting legislation. The Republicans held majorities in the Senate from 1921 to 1933, but the chamber passed little significant legislation in this period because some Republicans tended to support Democrats in floor votes, resulting in deadlock. Despite the devastating stock market crash of 1929 and the unemployment that followed, neither Congress nor President Hoover took decisive steps to resolve the crisis in the early 1930s.
D The Great Depression and the New Deal
Public discontent over America’s declining economy led to a major political transformation in 1932. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency easily, and voters also gave the Democrats control of both houses of Congress. Senate leaders persuaded their colleagues to pass much of the New Deal, Roosevelt’s broad agenda of government intervention in the economy. However, Roosevelt’s support in Congress plummeted in 1937 when he tried to win control of the Supreme Court by expanding it and appointing allies to the new positions. Both the House and the Senate rejected the so-called court-packing plan. Roosevelt maintained much of his influence in Congress despite the setback. The New Deal led to an unprecedented increase in the government’s role in the economy and a corresponding increase in
responsibility for the Senate.
E World War II to the 1950s
Many Americans objected to U.S. entry into World War II (1939-1945), and until 1940 the Senate consistently rejected Roosevelt’s attempts to involve the country in the conflict. In the wake of German advances throughout Europe in 1939 and 1940, Congress approved large increases in defense spending in 1940. After the United States entered the war in 1941, the Senate relinquished much of its control over foreign affairs, deferring to Roosevelt to lead the war effort. The Senate created a committee to investigate military spending, the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The committee—commonly known as the Truman Committee after its popular chairman, Harry S. Truman—had generally cordial relations with the White House. Based in part on his success as chair of the committee, Truman became Roosevelt’s choice for vice president in the 1944 election, and he assumed the presidency when Roosevelt died in 1945.
After the war ended in 1945, Congress sought to reform its operations to handle the larger workload created by the New Deal. With the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, Congress slashed the number of legislative committees in each chamber, increased staffing levels, and provided more research assistance. The number of subcommittees soon shot up to earlier levels, but the additional staff and research resources made it easier for the Senate to engage the White House in complex policy debates.
By 1950 the Senate—along with much of the country—was gripped by anti-Communist hysteria. Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a series of highly publicized investigations intended to root out Communists in the State Department, Hollywood, and even the U.S. Army. McCarthy’s aggressive attacks on suspected Communists spread fear and suspicion through many sectors of American society. With little evidence to back up his claims that spies for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had infiltrated the country, McCarthy eventually fell into disfavor. In 1954 the Senate censured McCarthy for abusing his authority. The controversial senator’s tactics were soon labeled McCarthyism, a term now used to refer to groundless and mean-spirited attacks.
F The 1960s and 1970s
The Civil Rights Movement created pressure for social reform that fueled many Senate debates during the 1960s. Southern Democrats had blocked many civil rights measures with filibusters in the 1950s, but in the 1960s liberals in the Senate used the tactic of invoking cloture to push for votes on civil rights laws. Prior to 1962 the Senate had voted to invoke cloture only four times since the procedure was adopted in 1917. Liberal Democrats revived the rarely used procedure, successfully forcing votes on three separate civil rights laws. The Senate saw another landmark for civil rights in 1966 when Republican Edward William Brooke of Massachusetts won election to the chamber, the first African American in the Senate since Reconstruction.
Congress had struggled in the 1950s and 1960s to maintain its power in the face of the growing reach of the executive branch. Despite the Senate’s unease with its loss of power to the White House, the chamber voted 88 to 2 in favor of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson broad discretion to run the war in Vietnam. The resolution, which passed unanimously in the House, marked a near total concession by Congress of its constitutional authority to declare war. As the war dragged on, however, senators increasingly voiced doubts about American involvement in Vietnam. In 1966, for example, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, held a series of hearings that crystallized antiwar sentiment.
In 1973 the Watergate scandal, which included allegations of burglary, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and wire-tapping by President Richard Nixon and his staff, led to a dramatic showdown between the White House and the Senate. The Senate created the Select Committee on Presidential Conduct, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, to investigate the matter. Alexander Butterfield, a senior Nixon aide, told the Senate committee that Nixon had taped many White House discussions. When the existence of the tapes became public, Nixon refused a subpoena (legal order) to turn them over to prosecutors. In 1974 the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to release the tapes, which indicated that the president had aided in the cover-up. Later that year the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon, and he resigned rather than face almost certain impeachment proceedings. The Watergate scandal marked one of the most important instances in which Congress and the Supreme Court acted to curb presidential power.
At the same time the Watergate scandal was unfolding, revelations came to light that the military had deceived Congress and the public about the conduct of the Vietnam War. In reaction, Congress attempted to curb the president’s power to send troops into combat. The War Powers Resolution, which Congress passed over Nixon’s veto in 1973, limited the president’s ability to send troops into combat without congressional consent. Although the law restored some elements of congressional control over sending troops overseas, Congress has generally refrained from enforcing its provisions.
In the wake of Watergate, the House and the Senate also took action to make Congress more efficient, democratic, and open to the public. In an effort to curtail filibusters by a small number of obstructionist senators, the Senate decided in 1975 to lower the threshold for invoking cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths of all Senate members. The Senate also weakened the seniority system used for appointing committee chairs, deciding in 1975 that the powerful positions be filled by a party vote in some cases. In that same year the Senate opened most committee meetings and hearings to the press and public. Although Senate debates had long been open to the public, the committee meetings in which bills were drafted had often been held behind closed doors.
G Recent Years
Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981, the first time they had led the chamber since 1954. Senate Republicans backed the agenda of President Ronald Reagan, who had wide popular support. The so-called Reagan Revolution sailed through Congress once the Republicans persuaded a few House Democrats to join them in backing the plan. Key elements included major tax cuts and increases in military spending. Although the program was popular with most Americans, Congress failed to balance the spending increases and tax cuts with offsetting reductions in government spending, causing the national debt to soar.
By 1982 the national debt reached $1 trillion, and it soared to $2 trillion in 1986. Annual interest payments on the debt, combined with spending for politically popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare, left little discretionary spending in the government budget. The fiscal strain prevented Congress from creating new programs. In the late 1980s the Senate and the House became increasingly preoccupied with finding ways to cut government spending. The Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1987 and held it until 1994.
In 1992 Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois broke one of the last symbolic barriers to Senate membership when she became the first African American woman to be elected to the chamber. Moseley Braun was only the second African American elected to the Senate since the end of Reconstruction.
In 1993 the Senate began a probe into the involvement of President Bill Clinton in an Arkansas real estate deal in the 1970s. The scandal, known as the Whitewater Affair, led to an extensive Senate investigation that raised troublesome issues for the White House but by the end of 1997 had failed to implicate Clinton in any wrongdoing. The Republican Party won control of the House in the 1994 elections, the first time in more than 40 years that the party controlled both chambers of Congress. The aggressive leadership style of Speaker Newt Gingrich helped the House eclipse the Senate in shaping the country’s political agenda for much of the mid- and late 1990s.
The Senate played a critical role in the 1998 scandal surrounding President Clinton’s affair with a young White House intern. The highly partisan House passed two articles of impeachment against Clinton in December 1998, making the issue the Senate’s first order of business in 1999. Senate leaders, seeking to avoid the rancorous partisanship of the House, unanimously agreed on rules for the impeachment trial. After a monthlong trial in which it heard arguments from House prosecutors and the president’s lawyers, the Senate rejected both articles of impeachment, an action that met with public approval. Both votes fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict the president.
After the 2000 elections, the Senate comprised 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, the first time since 1881 that the Senate was equally split between the two major parties. Partisan control of the Senate hinged on the vice president’s tie-breaking vote. From January 4, 2001, until the inauguration of Vice President Dick Cheney on January 20, the Democrats technically controlled the Senate because Al Gore was still vice president. After the inauguration, Republicans assumed all committee and subcommittee chairmanships. Under a unique power-sharing pact, the two parties shared staff and office space equally. However, in May 2001 Senator James Jeffords announced he would leave the Republican Party and become an independent. Jeffords’s defection gave Democrats control of the Senate until the November 2002 midterm elections, when Republicans recaptured their majority in the Senate and enlarged their majority in the House.