The U.S. Senate, What It Does, and Its Power

What It Does and How It Affects You

Senator Rob Portman and Mitch McConnell
••• Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Senate is the senior body in the U.S. Congress. The junior body is the House of Representatives

Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. The other two branches are the executive and judicial branches. The executive branch is the president and federal workers. The judicial branch is the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts.

What Does the Senate Do?

The Senate has three functions concerning national interest that only it can perform. 

First, it confirms or disapproves any treaties the president negotiates with other countries. To pass, it must be approved by a two-third vote.

Second, it confirms or disapproves presidential appointments. These include the Cabinet, officers, Supreme Court justices, and ambassadors. It also includes the board members and the chair of Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank. That gives the Senate influence on monetary policy and interest rates. The Senate can call any of them to testify.

Third, the Senate holds a trial for a federal official who commits a crime against the country. It acts as jury and judge. Since 1789, the Senate has tried 17 federal officials, including two presidents. The House initiates presidential impeachments but the Senate tries the case. The House impeached Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton but the Senate found them both innocent.

How It Works

The Senate does all its work in committees. Committees determine which bills will go to the floor of the full Senate for a vote. Committees also draft legislation. They have access to expert information that provides an advantage when debating bills on the floor. Committee chairs have the most power.

There are 26 committees. The average Senator sits on committees. At least one of them is a committee they request.

There are five types of committees:

  1. Standing committees are permanent legislative committees. 
  2. Select committees are formed to deal with a particular issue or policy. 
  3. Special committees investigate problems and issue reports. 
  4. Joint committees are composed of members of the House and Senate. They handle matters that require joint jurisdiction. These include the Postal Service, the Government Printing Office, and the Joint Economic Committee.
  5. Subcommittees handle specialized aspects of legislation and policy.

The most influential assignments are Appropriations, Armed Services, Commerce, Finance, and Foreign Relations. These committees control spending and crucial government functions. Every Senator sits on at least one of them. 

Leaders of investigations also gain power by holding hearings that grab media attention. In 1973, a special committee held hearings on the Watergate burglaries and cover-up. The hearings resulted in the conviction of several of President Nixon’s aides for obstruction of justice. As a result, Nixon resigned from office.

Senators get reelected by serving on committees affecting their constituents. For example, those from rural states would do well by sitting on the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committees. 

Number of Senators

There are 100 elected Senators, two from each state. Two Senators were chosen for logical reasons. One would not be enough, because the state would have no representation if he became ill. Three or more were too expensive for states at that time.

Some of the Founding Fathers argued that the Senate should be representational like the U.S. House of Representatives. But smaller states realized they would have little input in what happened. They threatened to leave unless they received the same number of Senators as the larger states.

This configuration means the Senate gives small states the same amount of power as the large ones.

Senate Term Length

Each Senator is elected for a six-year term. The terms are staggered so that only one-third of the seats are up for election every two years. Two Senators from the same state are not up for election in the same year except when to fill a vacancy.

There are limits on the number of terms. The length is longer than that in the House to provide stability. Longer terms also made the Senate less political. Senators are less subject to vagaries in the voting population. Very few Founding Fathers wanted terms longer than six years. It would be too similar to the life-long terms in the British Parliament.

The head of the Senate is the U.S. vice-president. He only casts a vote in case of a tie. This removes the partiality or threats of political favoritism if the head of the Senate were elected from that body. 

Who Has More Power, the House or the Senate?

The Founding Fathers created the two houses of Congress to be equal so there would be a balance of power. A bill cannot become law unless both houses approve it. Budget bills and impeachment proceedings can only begin in the House, but must be approved by the Senate.

But there are some areas that give the Senate, and individual Senators, an edge.

Since there are fewer Senators, each one has more power than an individual Representative. Their longer term also gives them more opportunity to build personal power. Each Senator represents the entire state, whereas Representatives only speak for their own districts.

As a result of this power and national exposure, 16 senators became presidents. Of those, three went directly from the Senate to the White House. There were 19 representatives who became president, but only nine did not also become Senators.

Only the Senate approves federal judges. Since they have lifetime appointments, this gives the Senate almost permanent power in this arena.

The Senate Majority Leader sets the agenda for each year. He decides what bills, issues, and appointments get discussed and voted upon.

How the Senate Affects the U.S. Economy

The Senate is a major force in determining fiscal policy by guiding federal spending and taxation. The 1974 Budget Control Act gave it that power. It also gives Congress three additional powers:

  1. Have its own standing budget committee to create its own version of the budget. It bases this on the president's budget and on hearings held with agency officials.
  2. Meet in a Conference Committee with the House to create a final budget resolution.
  3. Review the spending appropriation bills prepared by the House for each agency. The revised and approved bills go to the president for signature as the final step in the federal budget process.

Like most elected officials, Senators usually advocate expansionary fiscal policy. They know voters like tax cuts and the benefits of more spending. But during the boom phase of the business cycle, they should raise taxes and cut spending to slow growth. This is known as contractionary fiscal policy.

Fiscal policy should work with monetary policy to create healthy economic growth but it often doesn't. Why? Legislators and their constituents have different ideas of the best way to create a healthy economy. Republicans believe in supply-side economics, which advocates tax cuts. Democrats prefer increased spending paid for by taxing the wealthy.

The Senate Budget Committee relies on the expertise of the Congressional Budget Office for estimates of the costs and consequences of budget decisions.

How It Affects You

A good Senator can help you personally. To find out who your Senator is, go to the Senators of the 110th Congress. To find out how your Senator has been affecting you, go to the link on that page.