The Structure of Congress

The Senate

The Senate is made up of 100 members. Each state elects two senators, and each senator serves six-year terms. The Vice-President of the United States is the President of the Senate but votes only when a Senate vote is tied.

Some consider the Senate to be superior to the House and worthy of more respect or prestige. This notion may stem from the Senate’s small size, how it was originally chosen, and some of the special powers it exercises. Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures as opposed to being elected directly by the people, suggesting that senators represent states rather than the people directly, and arguably ensured that Senators would possess greater reputation and stature in their states. Similarly, six-year terms suggest additional distance from the people, allowing for a greater detachment from the variable political winds of any particular issue. This distance and detachment in theory allows senators to determine the best course of action with respect to the country’s business without being consumed with the immediate demands of re-election.

Like the House of Representatives, the Senate has a few specific powers and responsibilities. The Senate must advise and consent with respect to the president’s nominees to governmental positions, including Supreme Court justices and cabinet-level secretaries. The idea of “advise and consent” has evolved into the present practice of confirmation hearings to consider nominees. In recent years these hearings have at times been quite contentious and have served to focus media attention on the Senate’s proceedings in confirming federal judges. 

After the House impeaches federal officials Senate tries impeachments, determining whether the impeached officer is convicted or acquitted. 

The 17th Amendment: Direct Election of Senators 

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

Ratified in 1913, the 17th Amendment now requires that senators be directly elected by the people in their respective states. The amendment came as a result of mounting pressure over the course of several decades—progressive had been calling for reform in the way senators were chosen. Indeed, even before the 17th Amendment was passed, a number of state legislatures bound themselves to select as senator the candidate who won a general election for the post as a result of progressive leanings. Nonetheless, there still seems to be more prestige to representing the whole of a state rather than a single congressional district. It remains a point of great contention if senators today should be expected to represent their states differently or with greater civic virtue than House members.