President Pro Tempore: Definition, Role & Duties

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  • 0:00 Unusual Aspects of the Senate
  • 1:11 How to Break a Tie in…
  • 2:30 Duties of the…
  • 3:02 Presidential Succession
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

If the vice-president is the president of the Senate, and his job is mainly breaking ties, what happens when he can't be around? That's when the president pro tempore steps in...and amazingly, he's a lot more important than just that.

Unusual Aspects of the Senate

The U.S. Senate is one of the odder places in the legislative universe. All fifty states, regardless of size, get to send two Senators to Washington, D.C…which means North Dakota (which has fewer residents than New York City) gets exactly the same representation in the Senate as California, a place so huge, it has the eighth largest economy in the world. Similarly, senators aren't bound by the same rules as members of the House of Representatives, such as the rules about how long a debate can be. Which means they can talk…forever, if they can manage it. This non-stop talkfest, is known as a filibuster. It is a tactic used to block or delay a final vote on a bill. In 1956, Senator Strom Thurmond staged a filibuster that lasted 24 ½ hours.

One of the most interesting oddities about the Senate, though, is that it always has an even number of members, thanks to that two per state rule. And so, in theory, there's always a chance of a tie. A law can't become a law unless it passes both houses of Congress and then is signed by the president. How can acts of government get past a tied vote? We will soon find out.

How To Break a Tie in the Senate

The U.S. Constitution, with its even number of Senators, created this problem, and the Founding Fathers also created a solution. In Article I, Section 3, Clause 4 of the Constitution, the honor of breaking a tie is given to the official president of the Senate, who is better known as the vice-president of the United States.

Now, in the earliest days of the Republic, this meant that the vice-president actually went to the Senate, sat in a big chair, and presided over events. This proved to be less than fantastic, though, especially for the first president of the Senate, John Adams, who was George Washington's vice-president. Adams found very quickly that the position was functionally useless (especially since, as he was not a senator, he couldn't technically join in any debate, though he did, frequently). Despite his frustration with the limitations of the position, Adams still holds the record for tie-breaking votes, (29), which was of course, the main reason a 'president of the Senate' existed at all.

The problem that developed was that sooner or later, the vice-president, as useless as the job was in practice, was not able to be in the Senate all day during its sessions, waiting around for a tie vote. The Founding Fathers realized this, too, and so they created (again, in Article 1, Section 3) the position of president pro tempore.

Duties of the President Pro Tempore

The president pro tempore (Latin for 'for the time being') has been, since 1890, the senior senator of the majority party. His or her job, when the V.P. isn't around, is to preside over Senate sessions. In reality, however, he hardly even does that. Because the Senate is a deliberative body, it operates according to parliamentary procedure; so even though there has to be a presiding officer, the job usually is rotated between junior senators of the majority party to give them experience in the otherwise baffling rules of the Senate itself.

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