Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Origin of the Senate: The Great Compromise

On July 16, 1787, the 55 Founding Fathers meeting in Philadelphia reached what is commonly called the "Great Compromise." The compromise emerged from the struggle between the large states and the small states over the apportionment of seats in the Congress. The framers easily accepted by principle of bicameralism—a two-house national legislature—but disagreed strongly over how each chamber would be constituted. This was the most contentious issue at the Constitutional Convention and nearly led to its dissolution. The large states favored the "nationalist" principle of popularly-based representation, but the smaller states insisted on a "federal" principle ensuring representation by states. The smaller states feared that if representation was based on population, the larger states would quickly dominate the new Congress.

In the end, the framers reached an agreement: House seats would be apportioned among the states based on population and representatives would be directly elected by the people; the Senate would be composed of two senators per state—regardless of size or population—indirectly elected by the state legislature. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 39, "The House of Representatives will derive its powers from the people of America....The Senate, on the other hand, will derive its powers from the States, as political and co-equal societies; and these will be represented on the principle of equality in the Senate." The principle of two senators from each state was further guaranteed by Article V of the Constitution: "no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of equal Suffrage in the Senate."

Decisions made at the Constitutional Convention about the Senate still shape its organization and operation today, and make it unique among national legislative institutions. William E. Gladstone, four-time British Prime Minister during the 19th century, said the United States Senate, is a "remarkable body, the most remarkable of all the inventions of modern politics." Plainly, the framers did not want the Senate to be another House of Representatives, and the institutional uniqueness of the upper house flows directly from the decisions they made at the Constitutional Convention.

Several of those constitutional decisions led to important and enduring features of the Senate and its legislative process. These features include constituency, size, term of office, and special prerogatives.


The one state - two senator formula means that all senators represent constituencies that are more heterogeneous than the districts represented by most House members. As a result, senators must accommodate a larger range of interests and pressures in their representational roles. Further, because each senator has an equal vote regardless of his or her state's population, the Senate remains an oddly apportioned institution: senators from the twenty-six smallest states, who (according to the 2000 census) represent 17.8% of the nation's population, constitute a majority of the Senate—a reality which has aroused little public interest or concern.

The framers, of course, could not have foreseen the country's population increases, migratory patterns, or huge disparities in state sizes. While members from small and large states all have comparable committee and floor responsibilities, few are likely to deny that senators from the more populous states, such as California, face a broader array of representational pressures than lawmakers from the smaller states, such as Wyoming. An indirect effect of Senate apportionment, some scholars contend, is that contemporary floor leaders of either party are likely to come from smaller rather than larger states because they can better accommodate the additional leadership workload.


The one state - two senator formula also meant that from the outset the Senate's membership was relatively small compared to the House. When it first convened it March 1789, there were 22 senators (North Carolina and Rhode Island soon entered the Union to increase the number to 26). As new states entered the Union, the Senate's size expanded to the 100 that it is today.

The Senate's relatively small size has significantly shaped how it works. In the smaller and more intimate Senate, vigorous leadership has been the exception rather than the rule. The relative informality of Senate procedures testifies to the looser reins of leadership. Significantly, there is large deference to minority views and all senators typically have ample opportunities to be heard on the issues of the day. Compared with the House's complex rules and voluminous precedents, the Senate's rules are brief and often set aside. Informal negotiations among senators interested in a given measure are commonplace. Although too large for its members to draw their chairs around the fireplace on a chilly winter morning—as they did in the early years—the Senate today retains a clubby atmosphere that the House lacks.

Term of Office, Qualifications, and Selection

A key goal of the framers was to create a Senate differently constituted from the House so it would be less subject to popular passions and impulses. "The use of the Senate," wrote James Madison in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, "is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." An oft-quoted story about the "coolness" of the Senate involves George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who was in France during the Constitutional Convention. Upon his return, Jefferson visited Washington and asked why the Convention delegates had created a Senate. "Why did you pour that tea into your saucer?" asked Washington. "To cool it," said Jefferson. "Even so," responded Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."……To Read More…..

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