The U.S. Constitution – Lession #5: The U.S. Senate


Today’s lesson on the U.S. Constitution focuses on the power of the U.S. Senate as found in Article I, Section 3.  Again I will deal with this section clause by clause.

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

The concept key to the U.S. Senate is the idea of equal representation.  No matter how large or small the state is, in terms of its population, each state will get two senators.  This was part of the Great Compromise to satisfy the smaller states, who felt that both houses being based on population would negatively affect them.  The Senators serve a longer term than the members of the House or the President largely because of the extra activities the Senate is involved in besides law making. They need members who serve longer terms so that have experienced members at work all the time and not constantly worried about elections.

The section of text that is is bolded is no longer valid since since the ratification of the 17th Amendment.  The state legislatures were given the power to choose the state senators because the role of the Senate was to protect the rights of the state and its sovereignty under the Constitution.  The powers listed in the Constitution were to limit that of the federal government.  Anything else not specifically delegated to the national government or denied to the states, belonged to the state as their reserved powers.  This ideal and power was codified by the 10th Amendment.  With senators now being elected by the general electorate they have become more beholden to the people and not to the state itself, which also needs protection from a powerful federal government.  This is where the issues of states rights are to be determined.

Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.

 This clause designs the U.S. Senate as a continuous body (an elected body where all the seats are never up for election at the same time).  Every two years the Senate elects approximately only one third of its members.  This is to make sure that there are always experienced members inside that house.  The Class numbers do not mean anything than when the senator is up for reelection.  The Majority Leader of the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada is a member of Class III, which means he is up for reelection in 2010.  The other senator from Nevada, John Ensign, is a member of the Class I, which means he is up for reelection in 2012.  Again the class number is just a number that determines when your term ends.

The bolded section again a part of this clause that was amended with the ratification of the 17th Amendment.  It is now changed that the executive may make a temporary appointment with the approval of the state legislature.  But ultimately the people need to elect a new senator at the next possible election.  This provision came into question both in Illinois and Massachusetts in the last year.  Roland Burris was appointed, by the now impeached Governor Rod Blagoavich, to President Obama’s senate seat.  He will be up for reelection in November of this year.  Compare that to the situation with the late Ted Kennedy’s seat.  Massachusetts had a law that said the state must hold a special election when a vacancy occurs in the Senate.  That law was changed this year, on Kennedy’s behalf.  That led to the appointment of a temporary senator until the election of Sen. Brown just two weeks ago.

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.

This clause lists the constitutional qualifications for a person to be elected to the office of United States Senator.  The qualifications are set slightly higher than those of the House of Representatives to show the increased prestige and importance of this august body.

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.

This sets up the presiding officer of the Senate, which is actually part of the Executive Branch of our government.  In our modern day the Vice President does not sit in and preside over the U.S. Senate on a daily basis.  They only preside in modern America if it is the State of Union address, when they sit next to the Speaker of the House, or if the Senate will be voting on some measure that is sure to end up as a tie.  They will then cast the deciding vote.

The Senate shall choose 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.

By the practices and traditions of the Senate, the President Pro Tempore is typically the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate.  Currently that is Senator Robert Byrd, who incidentally is the oldest member of the Senate.  THough, typically the Senate Majority Leader wields more power in the Senate than the President Pro Tempore.

The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

The next two clauses focus on the specific power of the Senate to be the trial court for all impeachments.  They can only act after the House of Representatives agrees on the charges against the officer of the government.  The Senate acts as the jury for the trial while members of the House prosecute the case along with the defense attorney for the accused.  It requires two thirds of the members to convict the impeached official, which is a similar standard to a typical jury.  There has to be an overwhelming majority to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.  Also the Chief Justice presides over presidential impeachments because it would be a conflict of interest if the Vice President were to be the presiding officer of his superiors impeachment trial.

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

The only punishment that a person can receive from a guilty verdict in an  impeachment trial is to be removed from office and/or be prohibited from hold any other office in the U.S. government.  The people convicted of impeachment may also be punished in criminal or civil courts of the United States.

That does it for this lesson.  Next time we will look at Article I, Section 4, which outlines the election of Congressional members and when they meet.  If there are any questions, comments, feel free to post them.  Class dismissed.

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