Presiding Officer: Senate
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Presiding Officer: Senate
Colton C. Campbell
Analys t i n American N ational Government
Government & F inance Division
The C onstitution des ignates t he Vice Pres ident of t he United S tates as t he pres iding
officer of the S enate and further p rovides t hat i n t he absence o f t he Vi ce P resi d ent , t h e
Senate may elect a P r e sident pro t empore, who by custom, is usually the m ost s enior
Senator of t he majority party, to perform the duties of t he chai r. In daily practice,
however, t he duties and functions of the chair are carried out by an acting P resident pro
tempore, and t emporary p residing officers, often j unior Senators, who rotate in the chair
for s hifts o f generally one hour each. S ince 1977, only m ajority-party S enators have
been appointed to preside over t he Senate, ex cept during t he power-sharing period of the
107 th Congress (2001-2002), when chamber control was evenly divided. This report will
be updated as warranted.
Election and Histori cal Position of Presi dent of the S enate
The S enat e does not el ect i t s regu l ar p resi di ng offi cer.1 R at h er, t he P resi d ent o f t he
Senate (Vice P resident of the United S tates) and t he Pres ident pro tempore are made the
S e n a t e ’ s p r e s i d i n g o f f i c e r s b y A r t i c l e I, S e c t i o n III, o f t h e C o n s titution, which provides
that the Vice P resident “shall b e P r es i d en t of t he Senate, but shall h ave n o vote, unless
they be equally divided”; and the “Senate shall choose ...aPresidentprotempore,inthe
absence o f t he Vi ce P resi d e n t , or when he shal l ex erci s e t he offi ce of P resi d ent o f t he
United S tates.”
For m ost of its first century, t he Senate filled t he post of P resident pro t em pore on
a t emporary b asis, whenever t he Vice President was not present. By 1890, the S e n a t e
began t he practice o f t he President p r o tempore holding office continuously until the
1 FloydM.RiddickandAlanS.Frumin,Riddick’s Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practices
(Washington: GPO, 1992).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
el ect i o n o f a successor. 2 The practice of elect i n g t he longes t-serving m aj ority-party
Senator as P resident pro t empore h as been followed s ince 1945, with one ex ception. 3
In modern practice, neither the Vice P resi dent nor the P resident pro t empore s pends
much time presiding over the Senate. Vice Presidents have never been extended
significant l egislative power other t han t heir ability to cas t t he deci ding vote i n t he event
of a tie. A few have attempted t o guide Senate act i o n , b u t most have followed t he
precedent s et by J ohn Adam s, who, as Vi ce P resi d ent , rem ai n ed al oof from t he day-t o -day
business o f t he S enate. Vice P residents t oday p reside only upon ceremonial occasions or
when a close vote on a meas ure or a m e n d m ent of i nteres t t o t he Administration or
ex ecut i v e busi n ess i s l i k el y t o o ccur.
The responsibilities o f t he President p ro tem pore h ave changed over time. P residents
pro t empore h ave b een entrusted with making appointments t o an assortment of national
commissions, usually with the advice of the party floor lead ers ; administering oaths
required by t he Constitution i n t he absence of t he Vice Pres ident; signing l egislation i n
the absence of the Vice P resident; and jo i n tly pres iding with the S peaker of the House
when the t wo chambers sit t ogether i n j oint sessions or joint m eeti n gs . 4 Contemporary
Presidents pro t empore i nfrequently preside over t he Senate. Instead, t hey d esignate (in
writing o r i n p erson) an acting P resident pro t em pore t o p reside for t he day, 5 who, after
t h e s t art of each dai l y m eet i n g, t u rns t o p art y offi ci al s w ho arr a n g e for j uni or Mem b ers
to pres ide t hereafter. Thes e s ubsequent Senators are primarily first-term Members who
preside for shifts of generally one hour each. The chair i s addressed as “Mr. P resident”
or “Madame P resident,” depending on who i s i n t he chair.
Duti es and Functi ons of the P r esi di ng Offi cer
The general duties of t he Senate pres iding officer consist m ostly of preserving order
and d ecorum o n t he Senate floor and i n t he galleries. As a S enator, the p residing officer
may vote on all matters. The Vice President m ay not vote ex cept t o b reak ties, but he may
al so decl i n e t o vot e i n s uch i nst ances, al l o wi ng t h e m at t er t o b e d efeat ed on a t i e vot e.
Within the general duties, however, s ome of t he more important fun c t i o n s of the
presi d i n g o ffi cer are
! recognizing t he first S enat or who s eek s recognition t o speak, with
ex ceptions for t he priority gi ven t o party and committee l eaders when
managi ng legi slation;
2 Robe r t C. Byr d , The Senate, 1789-1989: Addresses on t he Hi story of t he United States Senate,
vol. 2 ( Washington: GPO, 1991), pp. 167-205. See a lso CRS Report RL30960, The Presiden t
Pr o Tempore of t he Senate: Hi story and Authority of the Office , by Richard C. Sachs.
3 Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan was t he second-ranking Republican when
elected President p ro tempore i n 1947. See David R. T a rr and Ann O’Connor, e ds., Congressrd
AtoZ,3 ed. ( Washington: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999), p. 348.
4 Robe r t C. Byr d , The Senate, 1789-1989: Addresses on t he Hi story of t he United States Senate,
vol. 2 ( Washington: GPO, 1991), pp. 167-205.
5 Riddick, Senate Procedure , p. 1025.
! recogn iz ing M embers who wish t o i ntroduce b ills from the floor, or to
offer amendments and m otions to bills being debat ed;
! ruling on points of order, with the advice of the parliamentarian, subject
t o appeal t o t h e ful l S enat e;
! enforcing voting and amending procedures; and
! referring bills to committees , on t he advice of the parliamentarian.
Other functions include
! answering parliamentary i nqu i r i es, with the assistance of the
! announcing S enators t o House-Senate conference committees when
gi ven s uch authority by unanimous consent;
! appointing m embers to special committees when gi ven s uch authority by
! administering oaths; and
! generally enforcing t he rules of t he Senate.
In the l ate 1960s, t o encourage freshmen S enators t o grow m ore accustomed to the
Senate’s rules and procedures, t he majority leader created what has b ecome known as t he
“Golden Gavel Award.” The p lain go ld-pai nted wooden gavel is a m ark o f d istinction,
awarded t o t hose who preside for 100 hours during any year. To highlight this mark of
achievement, t he majority or minority leader stops other floor bu s i n ess to honor the
reci pi ent . 6 Between 1990 and 2000 only 2 9 S enators achieved t his milestone. 7
6 U.S. Se na t e , [ ht t p : / / www. s e n a t e . g o v / r e f e r e n c e / r e s o u r c e s / p d f / g o l d e n g a v e l . p d f ] , vi s i t e d Nov. 25,
7 Based on f ull t ext s earch, “Golden Gavel,” i n t he Congressional Record.