September 14, 2018

U.S. Senate: Powers and Functions

The Congress is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. To complicate matters, this duo is also known as the Legislative Branch. The Senate is the more powerful of the two with distinct powers and functions not shared with the “House.”

US Senate

In a nutshell, the Senate possesses the power to review and debate bills, treaties, and proposed legislation and to provide some oversight to the president’s administration. Their chief job is to represent the interests of each state in the political process versus the House, which is charged to represent the interests of the people.

There are 100 senators at any one time, two for each state. They serve six-year terms and can be re-elected indefinitely. For example, Ted Kennedy served as a Massachusetts senator from 1962 until his death in 2009.

About the U.S. Senate

The U.S. Senate is broken down into various components including the following:

  • The Vice President of the United States is directly associated to the Senate. In theory he directs the Senate business, but on any given day an alternate, called the president pro tempore, usually presides.
  • Party leaders or majority leaders represent their respective parties in presenting arguments and leading debates.
  • Committee leaders preside over the various Senate committees.
  • Committees – there are 20 – deal with specialized areas of legislation, or laws and statutes.
  • Joint committees – there are 4 – are made up of both Senate and House members and are responsible for specialized topics of business, such as taxes (Joint Committee on Taxation) and economics (Joint Economic Committee).

Unique Powers

Article I of the U.S. Constitution declares that the Senate can wield the following special powers:

  • Review and provide advice on presidential appointments and nominations.
  • Ratify treaties by a majority vote. What does this mean? The senate has the power to approve or deny an international agreement. It only needs a 2/3 vote of members to move to the president who can then “ratify” it.
  • Elect the Vice President of the U.S., if necessary. This would only happen if state electoral votes were tied and the House would have to be in agreement.
  • Create new legislation—bills, laws, etc. The House and Senate can introduce new legislation–usually at the subcommittee level—but the Senate has the most power to debate, modify, and even block proposed legislation. The exceptions are the introduction of revenue-related bills or legislation governing the use of federal money. Only the House of Representatives can introduce these.
  • Consider any legislation and bills introduced by the president.
  • “Try” any impeachment proceedings started in the House of Representatives. The Senate also has extensive investigative power and can hold official hearings, summon witnesses, etc. A famous example of this is the 1973 Senate Watergate Hearings.

Senate Committees

The business of the Senate is so varied that there are committees created to handle topical areas of business. Committees are further subdivided into subcommittees and can change over time or as needed. For example, during the Watergate years a special committee—the Senate Watergate Committee– was formed and made responsible for investigating the incident.

You can learn more about the U.S. Senate, read transcripts of hearings and daily business, and get additional information on the various committees, by visiting [ ]