The Privileges of Membership

The Senate enjoys two constitutional prerogatives that set it apart from the House of Representatives. It alone has the authority to advise and consent on the president's appointments and treaties, as well as to conduct impeachment trials for federal officials. Both powers are exercised sparingly, but with dramatic impact.

The Power to Advise and Consent

The “advise and consent” provision in the Constitution is the Senate's most powerful check on the president. Over the years, it has been a steady source of friction between the upper chamber and the White House, and at times has put a severe strain on the relationship.

Since 1789, the Senate has rejected 21 treaties, the most notable being the Treaty of Versailles, which it voted against in 1919 and 1920. As a consequence, the United States did not join the League of Nations, which was the precursor to the United Nations. This was a huge defeat and embarrassment for President Woodrow Wilson, who had helped create the League following World War I.

During each session of Congress, the Senate approves thousands of presidential appointments — ambassadors, federal judges, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and other executive branch officials. Over the course of a single term, a president can make up to 35,000 military and civilian appointments that require Senate confirmation.

In recent years, the confirmation process for presidential nominations has become more contentious. For a long time, the Senate focused solely on the qualifications and competency of presidential appointments when considering approval, with the result being that very few nominees were rejected. But with the rise in partisan tension and the growing trend toward divided government, the confirmation process has become more politicized. Such was the situation for Judge Robert Bork, who was nominated to the Supreme Court and rejected by the Senate because his viewpoints were considered by some to be out of the mainstream. A couple of years later, Justice Clarence Thomas narrowly avoided a similar fate in one of the most vitriolic and divisive confirmation hearings in history. In many ways, the confirmation power has become the most potent political weapon the Senate wields against the president.

For most appointments, the Senate follows an unwritten practice known as “Senatorial courtesy,” whereby the senators from the nominee's state have great influence over the final vote. Should a senator be opposed to a nominee from his home state, chances are the rest of the Senate will follow suit. Often, the president will consult with the home state senators before making a nomination.

Trial by Senate

While the House of Representatives has the sole ability to impeach federal officials, the Senate has exclusive domain over trial and conviction. Impeachment trials have been held only sixteen times in Senate history, with the result being seven convictions, seven acquittals, and two officials stepping down before the proceedings concluded. All seven convicted officials were federal judges. No president has ever been removed from office. Richard Nixon would have been the first president convicted by the Senate had he not resigned in August of 1974.

In 1805, the Senate established the precedent that impeachment would not be used for political retribution when it acquitted Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, an outspoken Federalist and vocal critic of the Jefferson administration. Had Chase been convicted, it would have set the disturbing precedent that officials could be removed simply because of their political beliefs, and would have dramatically altered the nature of government and politics.

Nearly 200 years later, a similar controversy was revisited when President Clinton was impeached for allegedly perjuring himself before a grand jury during the Paula Jones deposition. Given the Constitution's vague language about what constitutes an impeachable offense, there was fierce disagreement over the propriety of Clinton's impeachment and trial.

Most scholars and commentators took the position that conviction and removal should be reserved for indictable crimes only, while some took a broader interpretation and sought to use it as a political weapon. The narrow viewpoint won the day, as President Clinton was easily acquitted of both counts.

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