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How the Senate keeps track of its precedents

An intricate architecture of rules and practices governs the legislative process in the Senate. The institution’s procedural structure rests on five interlocking supports: the Constitution; the Standing Rules of the Senate; statutory rules; standing orders; and informal precedents. The Senate determines its own rules according to the Constitution. Article I, section 5, clause 2 stipulates that “each House [of Congress] may determine the rules of its proceedings.” With the power granted them by this provision, senators adopt Standing Rules, pass statutory rules and standing orders (i.e., unanimous consent requests and simple resolutions), and set precedents.

Of these procedural authorities, precedents are the most important when it comes to governing how the Senate operates daily. The late Robert C. Byrd, D-WV., described precedents as reflecting “the application of the Constitution, statutes, the Senate rules, and common sense reasoning to specific past parliamentary situations.” Former Senate Parliamentarian Floyd M. Riddick observed that precedents embody the practices of the Senate under the Constitution, its Standing Rules, and any relevant rule-making statutes. They fill in gaps contained in the Senate’s other procedural authorities whenever they fail to address specific parliamentary situations.

Multiple Collections

The considerable number of precedents that senators have set over the years underscores the degree to which the Senate’s procedural architecture allows them to interpret its meaning and application as the legislative process unfolds. The first collection of precedents, entitled, A Compilation of Questions of Order and Decisions Thereon, was prepared in 1881 by the Chief Clerk of the Senate, William J. McDonald. The compilation was organized alphabetically by topic and briefly covered the procedures governing issues such as offering amendments, floor debate, and voting. It was a short 25 pages in length. Another compilation followed in 1893 entitled, Precedents Related to the Privileges of the Senate. George P. Furber, the Clerk of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, compiled this 350-page volume. Furber’s compilation was augmented in 1894 by Henry H. Smith, the clerk of the Committee to Investigate Attempts at Bribery, etc. This expanded collection of precedents totaled 975 pages in length and was titled Digest of Decisions and Precedents of the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States.

In 1908, the Senate published its first collection of precedents, compiled by Chief Senate Clerk, Henry H. Gilfry, that resembled the volume utilized by senators and their staff today. The Senate published updates of Gilfry’s compilation, Precedents: Decisions on Points of Order with Phraseology in the United States Senate, in 1914, 1915, and 1919. These volumes averaged approximately 700 pages in length. Like McDonald’s earlier compilation, Gilfry’s Precedents was organized alphabetically and served as a useful reference work for senators.

Senate Parliamentarian Charles L. Watkins and Assistant parliamentarian Dr. Floyd M. Riddick first prepared the most recent compilation of Senate precedents in 1954. The collection, Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practice was updated in 1964, 1974, and 1981. Its most recent edition, Riddick’s Senate Procedure, was updated in 1992 by Alan Frumin and is over 1600 pages in length. This lengthy tome contains over a million precedents that govern the legislative process in the Senate today. The Senate has not yet published in a comprehensive volume the many precedents that its members have set in the years since 1992.

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Topics: Legislative Procedure