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ArtI.S3.C2.1 Staggered Senate Elections

Article I, Section 3, Clause 2:

Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.

The Framers provided for change in the Senate to occur gradually while ensuring that the Senate remained responsive to popular interests by providing for one-third of Senate seats to be filled every two years.1 Consequently, the Framers adopted Article I, Section 3, Clause 2, which provided, among other things, a mechanism for staggering Senate terms. This clause provided that one-third of Senators selected to the First Congress would serve a two-year term, one-third of Senators would serve a four-year term, and one-third of Senators would serve a six-year term. After these initial terms concluded, all Senate seats would have six-year terms. In dividing the Senate seats into the three classes, Congress allocated them so “that both senators from the same state should not be in the same class, so that there never should be a vacancy, at the same time, of the seats of both senators.” 2

By staggering the filling of Senate seats so that only one-third of Senate seats may be changed at any time, Article I, Section 3, Clause 2, ensured that modifications to the Senate’s membership would be gradual and occur over a series of elections.3 Discussing the benefits of this system, Justice Story noted:

[I]t is nevertheless true, that in affairs of government, the best measures, to be safe, must be slowly introduced; and the wisest councils are those, which proceed by steps, and reach, circuitously, their conclusion. It is, then, important in this general view, that all the public functionaries should not terminate their offices at the same period. The gradual infusion of new elements, which may mingle with the old, secures a gradual renovation, and a permanent union of the whole.4

Moreover, because all Members of the House of Representatives are subject to election every two years, the make-up of the House and its agenda may change significantly from election to election. As such, six-year staggered Senate terms provide Congress an institutional stability anchored by the Senate that may counterbalance rapid, fluctuating changes in the House. Discussing this balance in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Justice Joseph Story stated: “[The Senate] combines the period of office of the executive with that of the members of the house; while at the same time, from its own biennial changes, . . . it is silently subjected to the deliberate voice of the states.” 5

Staggering when Senate seats are filled also ensures that states have at least one Senator with previous experience in the Senate. States may realize benefits from their Senators acquiring seniority in the Senate. Committee chairmanships and other leadership roles allow Senators to prioritize their states’ interests. Moreover, institutional knowledge of, and greater experience with, the Senate facilitates the ability of Senators to advance state interests. By providing that Senators from the same state were not assigned the same term (two, four, or six years) at the first Congress, Congress ensured that states did not have two senators who were new to the Senate at the same time.6

Finally, because Senate elections are staggered, the Senate is a continuing body. Consequently, while each election cycle ushers in a new House of Representatives, there has only been one Senate. As the Supreme Court observed in McGrain v. Daugherty, the Senate “is a continuing body whose members are elected for a term of six years and so divided into classes that the seats of one-third only become vacant at the end of each Congress, two-thirds always continuing into the next Congress, save as vacancies may occur through death or resignation.” 7 Consequently, because the Senate is a continuing body, the Supreme Court has reasoned that expiration of Congress did not moot a warrant for a witness who had refused to testify before a Senate committee.8

See, e.g., 2 The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 418, 435 (Max Farrand ed., 1911). back
Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 724 (1833). back
Id. at § 712. back
Id. at § 713. back
Id. at § 712. back
Id. at § 724 ( “In arranging the original classes, care was taken, that both senators from the same state should not be in the same class, so that there never should be a vacancy, at the same time, of the seats of both senators.” ). back
McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 181 (1927). See also Edward S. Corwin, The Constitution and What it Means Today 12 (Harold W. Chase & Craig R. Ducat eds., 1973) (1958) ( “While there have been 92 Congresses to date, there has only been one Senate, and this will apparently be the case till the crack of doom.” ). back
McGrain, 273 U.S. 135. back