Some argue that it doesn’t matter what Senators do when they’re behind the dais because they’re not really in charge. Formally, the Senate’s presiding officers are charged with maintaining order and decorum, but in practice they are usually mere mouthpieces for the Senate’s parliamentarian, who whispers what they should do.
“Whenever you’re making any ruling, you’re simply making a ruling the parliamentarian has whispered to you,” said George Washington University professor Robert Dove, who served as a Senate parliamentarian for 36 years. “There’s no independent judgment up there. ... It’s not a powerful position in any sense of the word. They are totally reliant on whoever is sitting in the parliamentarian’s chair.”
The weak role of the Senate’s presiding officer differs greatly in the House, where they have significant influence over debate. That’s in part because the Constitution tasks the vice president with the Senate job, even though he might be of a different party than that chamber’s majority.
With the threat of a hostile vice president, the Senate over time devolved the powers of the presiding officer, said Steven Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Because he’s not elected by the Senate, he’s not subjected to control of the majority party, so that majority party is not going to put rules in place that might be used against their interest,” said Smith, who is co-authoring a book on Senate leadership. “So the presiding officer of the Senate is very weak in comparison with presiding officers in most American legislative bodies.”
Still, some argue that sitting in the chair can be a learning experience.
Udall, who has spent more than 235 hours in the chair (“Who’s counting, right?” he joked), remarked that he has learned a great deal about his colleagues and the history of the Senate while sitting on the dais.
“It’s considered under the Senate rules a very prestigious position, and then it’s delegated to the more junior members,” Udall said. “Part of the reason it is delegated is because they want us to learn the rules and get to know our colleagues.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) agreed, calling it a “front-row seat to the democratic process” in an email.
The job also forces new Senators to learn quickly who their colleagues are. When Hagan first chaired, she misheard Udall when he was trying to tell her where the “mic,” or microphone, was as he departed. Instead, she thought the parliamentarian’s name was Mike.
“When things are happening very fast, you definitely have to be cognizant of everything that’s going on in the chamber — who’s standing up, who’s next in line, if there’s parliamentary maneuvers going on — to make sure you understand the rules,” she said.
Coons, who said the job improved his punctuality, also sees time in the chair as an opportunity to learn. Following an emotional speech from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) about the first responders to ground zero on 9/11, he wrote her a letter and signed on as a co-sponsor for her bill.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.