Home Commentary and Analysis The Chain of Command in the US Senate
The Chain of Command in the US Senate

The Chain of Command in the US Senate


By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gave a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition in which he announced that the Senate would be confirming all of President Trump’s nominated conservative judges in the near future.

Why is the Majority Leader the policymaker in the Senate and not the President of the Senate or its President Pro Tempore? In the House of Representatives, the power has resided in the Speaker since the founding of our country. In the Senate, leadership is a bit more complicated.

Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution designates the Vice President as the President of the Senate. He presides over the Senate and breaks tie votes. Other than that, the VP has no official role because he is not an elected senator. When the VP is not actually in the Senate, Article I allows for a President Pro Tempore (Latin meaning “for the time being”) to act in the VP’s stead.

Senators with Longer Tenure Have More Power

The Senate is oriented around the concept of seniority; senators who have served longer have more power. As such, the President Pro Tempore is the senior member of the majority party in the Senate. His duties include presiding over Senate sessions and receiving notification of the incapacitation of the President.

The President Pro Tempore is also third in the presidential line of succession (should something adverse happen to the President) after the VP and the Speaker of the House. Since 2015, the senior member of the majority party has been Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). So, Hatch is the current Senate President Pro Tempore.

In 2001, a new title was created to recognize former Presidents Pro Tempore. Since then, Senators Strom Thurmond, (R-SC), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Ted Stevens (R-AK), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have held the title President Pro Tempore Emeritus.

So, who has the real power in the Senate if it is not the President of the Senate or the President Pro Tempore? As recent events have shown, the power resides with Majority Leader McConnell.

The Majority Leader, who is elected by the Senate party in power, manages the legislative and administrative business of the Senate, including appointing committee chairs. As such, the election of a Majority Leader is based more on merit than on seniority.

Therefore, it is expected that any major policy position taken by the Senate will normally be announced by the Majority Leader, not the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. He served as the Air Attaché to South Korea from 1995-1997 and to Jordan from 2000-2002.