In contrast to the House, where seating is not assigned, the Senator’s desks are the focus of numerous traditions.
Originally, a set of 48 desks were commissioned in 1819, and they were installed in what is now known as the Old Senate Chamber. When the Senate outgrew its old space and moved to its current chamber, the desks were also moved since the space was reconfigured for the Supreme Court who occupied the chamber until they finally got their own building in 1935. The desks currently on display in the Old Senate Chamber are reproductions of the originals, complete with inkwells. The last four desks in the current Senate chamber were built in the 1950s when Alaska and Hawaii became our last two states.
Traditionally in the Senate Chamber, Democrats sit on the right of the Presiding Officer and Republicans sit to the left. That may seem reversed from what is expected, but as you sit in the chamber, the D’s are to the left and the R’s are to the right. Currently, over half of the Senators either are Democrats or caucus with them, but apparently it just means that the desks are squeezed together a bit more snugly on the Democrat side and Republicans have a little more space on their side. On a few past occasions, one party has had a supermajority that went beyond the capacity to crowd the desks together. In those instances, a small group of Senators occupied part of the back row of the other party’s side. This was referred to as a “Cherokee strip,” named after the Oklahoma panhandle that originally belonged neither to the state nor to the Indian Territory. The most recent Cherokee strip was in the 76th Congress from 1939-1941, long before anyone had invented the term, “politically correct.” In the 89th Congress, which started in 1965, they put four Senators into a fifth row instead.
At some point a tradition began of tracking the providence of each desk, so a combination of Roman numerals and Arabic numbers were affixed to each desk. Eventually in the early 1900s Senators began their own tradition of scratching their names inside the desk drawers to keep a record. After all this time of being trained not to deface desks, apparently it has become more acceptable if you are a Senator.
Some Senators want to use and keep certain desks, so when a new Congress begins and the seating map changes as more senior Senators gravitate toward the center and the front, the desks are unbolted from the floor and are relocated to the new spot. Massachusetts has a particularly rich history with this tradition. It was important to Senator Ted Kennedy to use the desk that his brother, John F. Kennedy used when he was in the Senate. Ted even requested that the desk be left in its original spot in the back row, even after Ted had accrued enough seniority to move forward. The desk of Robert F. Kennedy was used by Senator John Kerry until his colleague, Ted, passed away in office, at which point Kerry took ownership of the JFK desk but had it moved to his current seating location.
Like Senator Ted Kennedy, this past December, Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii passed away while he was in office. Traditionally the Senate mourns the passing of their colleague by draping the desk in black fabric and placing a bowl of white flowers on top. I made a special trip to the Senate gallery to observe the tribute to Senator Inouye.
There are three desks that are the subject of resolutions in the Senate to establish who gets to use them. The desk of Daniel Webster is always assigned to the senior Senator from New Hampshire, which is the state where he born, rather than Massachusetts, who he represented in the Senate. Senator Jeanne Shaheen currently occupies this desk. The Webster desk is also different from the rest since it lacks a 19th century modification that added an extra storage and workspace on the top. I believe Webster commented something like, “If my predecessor was able to do his work on this limited space, I will endeavor to do the same.” The desk is put up on blocks to make it the same height as the rest of the modified desks.
The desk of Jefferson Davis was nearly destroyed during the Civil War by soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts regiment, who were camped out in the chamber. Fortunately, the Assistant door keeper rushed in and pointed out that it was government property that they were there to protect. The desk was repaired with a different colored wood to identify the location of the damage. By Senate Resolution, this desk is occupied by the senior Senator from Mississippi, currently Sen. Thad Cochran. The last designated desk is that of Henry Clay, the great compromiser, who helped delay the Civil War by a number of years. His desk is occupied by the senior Senator from Kentucky, currently Sen. Mitch McConnell.
One of my favorite desk traditions is the Candy Desk. Starting in 1965, California Senator George Murphy started keeping his desk stocked with candy for his colleagues. Since then it has been the responsibility of the Republican Senator who has the back row aisle desk closest to the heavily trafficked Republican cloakroom entrance to keep snacks handy. In the 112th Congress that just ended. Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois occupied the candy desk and featured Mars, Milky Way, and Snickers bars, which are popular sweets from candy makers in his home state.