Problem

In the summer of 1787, Constitutional Convention delegates fiercely debated several issues as they wrote the new Constitution. One of those issues was the question of how representation would be apportioned in the new legislature. Larger states advocated for proportional representation based on population or wealth, while smaller states wanted all states to be represented equally. 

Solution

The delegates resolved this debate through what is known as the Great Compromise. They created a bicameral legislature, or a legislature with two houses. In the upper house, all states would be represented equally, and in the lower house, representation would be based on state population.  

Senate

The Senate is the upper house of Congress. Each state has two senators, giving the chamber a total of 100 members. Along with the lower house, the House of Representatives, the Senate is responsible for proposing, deliberating, and voting on bills. The Senate also has the power to ratify treaties, confirm presidential appointments to the executive and judicial branches, and adjudicate impeachment proceedings. 

How It Works

Senators are elected for six-year terms. Every two years, about a third of the Senate is up for reelection. Longer, overlapping terms give the Senate more stability and continuity than the House, in which all 435 members are re-elected every two years. To be a senator, you must be at least 30 years old, have been a U.S. citizen for a minimum of nine years, and live in the state you will represent. 

The Vice President serves as the president of the Senate and votes on legislation in the event of a tie. If the Vice President is absent, the presiding officer is the president pro tempore, who is usually the longest-serving senator from the majority party. Both the majority and minority parties also elect a leader responsible for coordinating their party’s actions. These individuals are called the majority leader and minority leader, respectively. 

Along with the House, the Senate is responsible for lawmaking. Senators serve on various committees, each of which has a different legislative focus. Committees debate, discuss, and amend legislation before it is considered by the full Senate. There are three types of committees: standing committees, which are permanent, select and special committees, which are created for a specific purpose and can be permanent or temporary, and joint committees, which have members from both the House and the Senate. Each committee has its own staff, budget, and subcommittees. There are committees on finance, foreign relations, and the judiciary, among others. 

Every year, committees consider hundreds of bills. Before a bill can be voted on by the full Senate, it must first be approved by both subcommittees and full committees. These committees often invite witnesses, cabinet officers, other administrative officials, business and labor organization representatives, and members of the general public to hearings about a bill. They may ask for testimony from those in favor of or opposed to the bill. 

If a bill passes committee, it is reported to the full Senate, where all members debate and vote on it. Once both the House and the Senate have approved a bill, it is sent to the president. If it receives the president’s signature, the bill becomes a law. 

The Senate has many other responsibilities besides creating laws. For example, it has the power to review, amend, and approve treaties the president has signed. Treaties must have the support of two-thirds of the Senate. Additionally, the Senate approves or rejects presidential nominations to the executive and judicial branches, such as nominations for justices of the Supreme Court. 

Another notable Senate power is the power of impeachment. If the House of Representatives impeaches a federal official such as the president, it is the Senate’s responsibility to conduct the impeachment trial. If the Senate convicts an individual, they are immediately removed from office. The House has impeached sixteen officials, of whom seven were convicted by the Senate. However, the three presidents who have been impeached – Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald J. Trump – were all acquitted. 

So What?

The Senate is one of the most critical parts of our government. Without the Senate and the House, laws could not be introduced, debated, and passed. The Senate’s legislative role gives it a significant say in how our government and daily lives work. Senators are meant to represent their constituents; if you have a concern or an issue you want to advocate for, you can call, email, or write your senator and explain why. You could help convince your senator to support a particular bill or vote a certain way. 

Additionally, the Senate is responsible for checking the power of the executive branch. The system of checks and balances is integral to our democracy because it makes sure that no branch of government becomes too powerful. The powers to ratify treaties, confirm nominations, and conduct impeachment trials are essential checks on the executive branch and the president in particular.

    Learn More

    1. “Learn More About the U.S. Government.” Senator Ed Markey, www.markey.senate.gov/services/learn-more-about-the-us-government.
    2. “The U.S. Senate.” U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, www.visitthecapitol.gov/about-congress/us-senate.
    3. “Powers & Procedures.” United States Senate, 8 Nov. 2019, www.cop.senate.gov/history/powers.htm.
    4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “United States Senate.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 May 2020, www.britannica.com/topic/Senate-United-States-government.

    Think Further

    1. Why did delegates from small states want all states to be equally represented in the legislature regardless of population?
    2. Originally, senators were elected by state legislatures. In 1913, the 17th Amendment established direct elections, meaning senators were now elected by the people. Why do you think the Founding Fathers did not institute direct elections for senators? What are some potential arguments in favor of switching to direct elections?
    3. Why is it important for bills to be debated in smaller committees and subcommittees before they are considered by the entire Senate?

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