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US Senate



The Senate is one branch of the United States Congress, which is one of three branches of government.

On 4 March 1789, the Senate convened for the first time at New York City's Federal Hall. On 6 December 1790, Congress began a ten-year residence in Philadelphia. On 17 November 1800, Congress convened in Washington, DC. In 1909, the Senate opened its first permanent office building, which was named in honor of Sen. Richard B. Russell (D-GA) in 1972.

Much of how the Senate is organized is enumerated in the US Constitution:
    The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 1
In the Senate, the states are represented equally, two Senators per state. In the House, the states are represented proportionally, based on population. This plan for representation is known as the "Great Compromise" and was a sticking point at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

The tension stemmed from the fact that states are not created equal in size or population. In effect, the Senate represents the states and the House represents the people.

The framers did not want to emulate the life-long term of Britain's House of Lords. However, in today's Senate, the re-election rate for incumbents is about 90 percent -- pretty close to a life-long term.

Because the Senate represented the states, constitutional convention delegates believed senators should be elected by state legislatures. Before and after the civil war, legislative selection of senators became more and more contentious. Between 1891 and 1905, 45 deadlocks occurred in 20 states delayed the seating of senators. By 1912, 29 states eschewed legislative appointment, electing senators through a party primary or in a general election. That year, the House sent a constitutional amendment, the 17th, to the states for ratification. Thus, since 1913 voters have directly elected their Senators.

The six-year term length was championed by James Madison. In the Federalist papers, he argued that a six-year term would have a stabilizing effect on the government.

    Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 2
Today the Senate is composed of 100 Senators, with one-third being elected each election cycle (every two years). This three-class system was based on structures already in practice in state governments.
    No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 3
Most state governments required that legislators be at least 21 years of age. In The Federalist Papers (No. 62), Madison justified an older age requirement because the “senatorial trust” called for a “greater extent of information and stability of character” than the more democratic House of Representatives.
    The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote unless they be equally divided.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 3, Clause 4
The constitutional convention delegates believed that the Senate needed a way to avoid a tie. And, as in other points of contention, the delegates looked to the states for guidance, with New York providing clear guidance (Vice President = Lt. Governor) in legislative responsibility. The president of the Senate would not be a Senator and would cast votes only in case of a tie.
    The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
    US Constitution, Article 1, Section 3, Clause 5
The presence of the Vice President is required only in the case of a tie. Thus the day-to-day business of presiding over the Senate lies with the President pro tempore -- elected by fellow members of the Senate.

Next: Senate: Constitutional Powers

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