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The Power of the Senate in the Bicameral Legislature

Do the Senate and the House of Representatives exert equal political power? Professor Steven Calabresi argues that the Senate is the more powerful part of the legislature. The Senate not only produces or counteracts legislation, but also confirms important cabinet officials and judges. The smaller size of the Senate and the equality of the number of members from each state allows for even one Senator to be a powerful force for or against a nomination or legislative action. https://youtube.com/watch?v=JEvWiygNtvE


The US Constitution is unique, because not only do we have full bicameralism in that the House of Representatives can't do anything without the Senate agreeing to it except for impeaching people. The US Constitution is also unique because the Senate is actually more powerful than is the House of Representatives. And it's more powerful in several ways. First, it has to agree to all the bills that the House passes before they can be presented to the president for his signature or passed over his veto. So in that sense, the Senate has the same power as the House. But in the addition, the Senate has the power to advise and consent to presidential nominations of executive officials and also of federal judges. And so the Senate plays a key role in picking the cabinet, subordinate cabinet members, the Supreme Court, the federal courts of appeals, the federal district judges, and the US attorneys who are federal prosecutors of whom there are 93 spread around the United States. Over the course of 225 years, the president and Senate have balanced out their advice and consent powers in some interesting ways. Senators from the same party as a president typically get to pick the US attorney in their home states and often the district judges in their home states. With Federal Court of Appeals judges and with the Supreme Court, the president has a much freer hand, although even there over American history, about a quarter of all Supreme Court nominations have been rejected by the Senate, and the Senate does police the Federal Courts of Appeals quite vigilantly. One thing that the Senate does is that in a multi-member court of appeals like the second circuit, which includes New York State, Connecticut, and Vermont, each state, by senatorial understanding, has a certain number of seats on the second circuit. Because the Senate is so much smaller and more collegial, and because the states are coequal, a single senator can put a hold on a nomination, can block legislation, and many things in the Senate can be filibustered. That is to say senators can debate them endlessly, even though the senators doing the debating are a minority of the Senate. For most actions in the Senate, you actually need to get 60 votes to invoke cloture to end a filibuster to bring a matter up for a vote. And that means that the Senate is powerful and a roadblock to the House in ways that even the framers of the Constitution didn't imagine would happen.

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