To many people outside the US, the way the US government has been organized may be somewhat eccentric. First, the Founders established 3 branches of government: the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. However, the Legislature actually has 2 distinct houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. But do you know the purpose of the US Senate?
So, how come there’s a Senate in the first place? Its original purpose was actually to act as a check for the House of Representatives, who were popularly elected. At first, Senators weren’t even directly elected at all. That only happened when the 17th Amendment passed in 1913. Before then, Senators were indirectly elected because they were chosen by the state legislatures.
Today, Senators are directly elected by the people in the state they represent. The Vice-President presides over the Senate, and casts the deciding vote should there ever be tie.
Senators and State Representation
Each state has 2 Senators each. With 50 states in the Union, that totals to 100 Senators. This is in contrast to Congressmen (member of the House of Representatives) who represent districts with the requisite number of people. This means that California with its teeming horde of people, have 53 congressmen, but 7 states only have 1 congressman each. These are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.
This means that states are represented equally in the Senate, regardless of the number of people who may be living within their borders. It emphasizes the political identity of each state, so that California’s interests cannot have a greater voice in the Senate than the combined voices of several states. Each state is equal in the Senate.
As a legislative body, the US Senate works in conjunction with the House to representatives to pass bills. A bill must pass both legislative bodies before it becomes valid. The Senate leaders also have an important role in assigning their own party members to various Senate committees that oversee government departments and agencies.
However, the Senate does have the power of “advice and consent”. That means that any treaty that the President enters must be ratified by the Senate, and this requires a two-thirds majority. Crucial public appointments must also be approved by the Senate, though this only requires a simple majority. This is a requirement for important Cabinet members, ambassadors, and most importantly for the members of the Supreme Court.
The Senate also plays a central role in impeachment proceedings. It’s true that the House of Representatives has the responsibility to recommend the impeachment of a sitting President, Vice-President, or any other government official such as a judge.
However, it’s the Senate which runs the impeachment proceedings, and the Senators are the ones who act as jury in the case. With a two-thirds majority, they have the power to remove even the President from office.
Finally, the Senate also has the power to begin its own investigation into important national topics. Historically, these cases have included special investigations regarding the Vietnam War, organized crime, and possible corruption in regards to the Watergate break-in and ensuing cover-up of the crime. Again, this emphasizes the special purpose of the US Senate to advise the executive branch on crucial national matters.