The Senate Chamber

The U.S. Senate Chamber

The U.S. Senate Chamber

One of the many great pleasures of my fellowship has been to go over to the Senate gallery to watch the action on the floor in person.  It is possible for the public to go as well, although timing is everything since the House galleries are open on all weekdays, the Senate galleries are generally only open while the Senate is in session.  I was extremely fortunate that while my BFF (Best Friend Forever) was in town recently, the Senate was holding a rare Friday session, so I was able to take her up and show her around.

Because of the strict rule that absolutely no electronics are allowed in the galleries, there are check-in facilities in the Capitol Visitors’ Center.  At that point, you must divest yourself of electronics, food, and drink.  My BFF and I deposited cameras, phones, and keys in the box along with two bottles of water and a rather comical shower of granola bars.  Having lightened our loads, we took the elevator to the third floor where we went through an additional security screening.  The magnetometer to scan people is pretty standard, but rather than having an X-ray machine for bags, they look through the contents.  I passed through without any problem, but my BFF got rejected for her spare pair of sandals.  The guard explained that there was to be no shoe-throwing in the Senate.  BFF was able to drop off the sandals at the upstairs check-in, so we were not diverted for long.

As we arrived, the Senate floor was relatively active.  When I had taken my niece into the gallery this spring, she looked around and said, “But there’s no one here!”  Indeed when C-Span was added to the House, they instituted a regular pan of the room to emphasize that a fiery or inflammatory speech might be given to an empty chamber.  My BFF got to observe part of the ongoing debate about the immigration bill and specifically see the discussions among the Democrats and Republicans about how to move forward on border security.  Active meant that there were five senators on the floor.  Everyone else would have been keeping track of the action by watching C-Span, so being off the floor does not imply that senators and staff are detached.  Usually it just means that they are involved in other meetings and hearings.

Each senator’s desk was supplied the 4” thick stack of paper that is the immigration bill.  Some of the desks no longer sported their copies, I assume to clear space for the portable podiums that the Senators use to support their notes for speeches.  The podiums are quite handy to get an idea of who is intending to come to the floor and give a speech since the Senate pages will put the podiums in place well in advance of the arrival of the senator.

The Well of the chamber

The Well of the chamber

In some ways, the Senate floor resembles a theatrical production; there are numerous different supporting roles that contribute to a smoothly functioning process.  The high central desk is where the presiding officer sits.  Since both the Vice President and the President Pro Tempore (the longest serving senator in the majority party) are usually busy elsewhere, the job of presiding gets rotated among the junior senators in the majority party.  I think it’s a good way for them to learn Senate procedure, and it’s been fun to watch the new folks learn the ropes.  In the desks immediately below and in front of the presiding officer sit the parliamentarian, the clerk, and a few other folks.  The party secretaries sit at desks in front of those people on the lowest level.  All of these seats are in the central semi-circle called the Well.  Interestingly, senators’ personal staff are not allowed in the Well, but the high school students who serve as Senate pages move freely throughout the chamber.  Usually there are a half dozen  pages sitting on the steps on each side of the central platform, but they spring into action when needed, and especially during a vote, they are all active, even if it is just opening doors for senators.  Personal staff are allowed to sit in the L-shaped galleries in the rear of each side of the chamber or special staff chairs may be placed aside a senator’s chair if he or she wants staff support during a speech.  We do NOT sit in the senators’ chairs.  That was impressed upon us very strongly!

The public gallery is overhead to the presiding officer’s right hand, which placed my BFF and I above the Democratic cloakroom.  The Cloakrooms are where the stage managing occurs for each party.  To introduce or “drop” a bill, it must be taken to the Cloakroom of the respective party.  The floor staff, in conjunction with the cloakroom staff, keep track of which senators have voted, so if a senator hasn’t yet voted, the cloakroom will call the senator’s staff to find out if the senator is coming.  Likewise, staff can call the cloakroom to say, “The Senator is on the way from the airport.  Please hold the vote open until he or she arrives.”

Considering the amount of time I spend watching the action in the Senate on C-Span, I’m still always surprised by how small and intimate the chamber feels when I’m observing in person.  Likewise, C-Span always focuses on a single person, whereas when I can look around the chamber, I can watch the interactions between senators as well as the conversations that take place in the background while someone else is talking.  It is tradition in the Senate that they don’t refer to each other by name.  It’s always, “The Senator from Colorado,” or “My colleague from Connecticut.”  Technically before you mention the name of another senator, you are supposed to ask for and receive his or her permission.

Watching votes is particularly fun since all of the senators come to the floor within a 15 minute period.  It took my fellow Bennet Fellow a little while to get the hang of how a vote works.  The Clerk calls the roll alphabetically once, but because the senators wander in and out voting, the Clerk pauses while recording votes, and there may be several minutes of gap in between names.  Senators also vote whenever they show up, not necessarily in alphabetical order.  My fellow Fellow just wasn’t seeing how it all went together until Senator Bennet arrived on the floor.  I said, “Watch him!”  The Senator, from the other side of the well, caught the eye of the clerk, and gave a brief thumbs up.  “See!  He just voted.”  A few minutes later, Senator Franken walked in the main door, took only about three steps into the chamber, gave a thumbs up from across the room, and turned around and walked out again.

From the bird’s eye perch in the staff gallery, it’s big fun to watch the dynamics during a vote.  It only takes a moment to vote, but since this is the major time that the senators interact, many of them hang around for a while to chat.  Some folks assiduously stay on their own side of the chamber, whereas others adroitly work the floor and chat up colleagues on both sides.  Casual meetings on the floor are also convenient times for senators to influence each other on upcoming bills or votes, so leveraging that time can be very advantageous.

The biggest challenge of the presiding officer occurs if someone wants to speak after a vote is concluded.  It must be very intimidating to try to be authoritative in asking your senior colleagues to take their conversations out of the well and out of the chamber.  The presiding officer doesn’t even have a full gavel, there’s just this strangely shaped stone available to rap on the desk.

Since I arrived, two senators have passed away while still in office.  In December, Senator Inouye’s coffin lay in state in the Capitol rotunda, and more recently, Senator Lautenberg lay in state (laid in state? Was lying in state?  What’s the past tense of “lie in state” anyway?) in the well of the Senate.  For both men, I went up to the Senate staff gallery to see the tradition of draping the senator’s desk in black velvet with a bowl of white roses on top.  I also paid my respects to each by visiting each coffin.  I confess that the event for Senator Lautenberg gave me a well-concealed thrill since I actually got to go onto the floor of the Senate.  I did my best to be respectful of the ceremony while still absorbing every detail of being on the floor that I could.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Senate gallery, I highly recommend it.  It’s pretty thrilling to watch how the government works from the inside.

The outside door to the Chamber

The outside door to the Chamber after Senator Lautenberg’s ceremony

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Senate Chamber

  1. Zack Schagrin

    How were you able to go onto the Senate floor when Sen. Lautenberg laid in state? Did you work for the Senate?

    • Hi Zack, Yes indeed I was working as a staff member. In general staff can sit in the benches around the rear walls, so paying my respects to Sen. Lautenberg actually allowed me to go into the middle of the chamber and the “well.”

      • Zachary Schagrin

        Wow thats awesome. Thanks for the quick reply. I am a huge fan of Senate history and an avid follower of current happenings in the Senate. Senator Byrd’s history of the Senate is my favorite book set and I love watching C-SPAN 2.

        As you are a former staffer, I was wondering if you know if it’s possible for senators or senators’ staff members to bring constituents to the benches around the rear walls of the Senate chamber–even on days when the Senate is not in session? It is a dream of mine to be able to see the Senate chamber from floor level. If not, do you know if Senators or staffers can take constituents to see the floor from either of the cloakrooms or from one of the hallways outside the chamber. Thanks a lot for any insight you have to offer!

      • Zach, you are a man after my own heart. I spent my year in the Senate reading all kinds of Senate history since I worked in the Russell Office Building where the Senate Library is.

        As you’ve probably learned, one of the big differences between the House and the Senate is that the Senate is the much more formal chamber. There are dress codes for staff if they want to go into the chamber, and as staff, we never walked onto the floor unless we were actually accompanying our Senator. We always walked around the edges. I, personally, like that level of formality, but the downside is that to the best of my knowledge, there’s no chance for the general public to go onto the Senate floor or even to the benches around the outside. (My name had to be read into the official record for me to have floor privileges.) The House is a lot more casual, and when they aren’t in session, it’s pretty common to get a staffer to take you out onto the floor and allow you to sit in the seats.

        My one consolation is that the Ted Kennedy museum (or whatever it is ) that is annexed to the JFK Library near Boston features a replica of the Senate chamber minus some of the features of the Well. That’s my best alternative to the real deal.

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