Traditions of the United States Senate
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From the Senate's earliest days new members have observed a ritual of remaining silent during floor debates for a period of time. Depending on the era and the Senator, this has ranged from several months to several years. Today, this obsolescent Senate tradition survives only in part — the special attention given to a member's first major address, or maiden speech.
Beginning in 1904 and continuing every other year until the 1950s, new members of Congress were given a copy of the Jefferson Bible, an edited version of the Bible by Thomas Jefferson that excluded what he felt were statements about the supernatural. Until the practice first stopped, copies were provided by the Government Printing Office. A private organization, the Libertarian Press, revived the practice in 1997.
The procedural activities of the Senate are guided by the Standing Rules of the Senate. Tradition states that each day is begun with the Chaplain's Daily Prayer, which can be given by the Senate chaplain, or a representative of any faith.
At the end of a session of Congress it is traditional for Senators to read speeches into the Congressional Record praising the efforts of colleagues who will not be returning for the next session.
If a Senator dies in office, it is traditional for the Senate to adjourn for a day and for U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff. A black cloth and a vase filled with white roses are placed over the deceased Senator's desk, and a large contingent of Senators often travel to the home state of the departed senator to pay their respects.
Washington's Farewell Address
No Senate tradition has been more steadfastly maintained than the annual reading of President George Washington's Farewell Address. This tradition, originally designed to be a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest hours of the American Civil War, began on February 22, 1862.
A number of items located around the Senate chamber are steeped in tradition.
In 1819 new desks were ordered for the senators to replace the original set which was destroyed in the British attack on Washington in the War of 1812. The Daniel Webster desk has the oldest design as it lacks a 19th-century modification to add extra storage space to the top. When Daniel Webster acquired this seat, he pronounced that if his predecessor could organize himself to work with the reduced desk space, so could he. Every subsequent senator who has sat at that desk has also declined to have it improved. In keeping with a 1974 Senate resolution, this desk is assigned to the senior Senator from Webster's birth state, New Hampshire. Jeanne Shaheen has been the occupant of this desk since 2011.
The Jefferson Davis desk was partly destroyed by overzealous Union Army soldiers who began to bayonet the desk previously used by the Confederate leader and former Senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, before the Senate Doorkeeper could intervene to protect what was government property. The desk was repaired and is still in use today, by the senior Senator from Mississippi, Thad Cochran as of 2012.
In the early twentieth century, a tradition of senators engraving their own name on the bottom of the desk drawers emerged.
The unique Senate gavel is made of ivory and has an hourglass shape with no handle. It was presented to the Senate by the Republic of India and first used on November 17, 1954. It replaced the gavel in use since at least 1789, which had deteriorated over the years and finally cracked during the 1954 Senate session when then Vice President Richard Nixon (acting as President of the Senate) used it. Prior to this an attempt to further prevent damage to the old gavel was done by adding silver plates to both ends. Both gavels are kept in a mahogany box that is carried to the senate floor by a page; at the adjournment of a senate session the gavels are taken to the Sergeant at Arms' office for safekeeping.
According to custom, bean soup is available on the Senate dining room menu every day. This tradition, which dates back to the early twentieth century, is variously attributed to a request by Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho, or, in another version of the story, to Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota. The Dubois includes mashed potatoes and yields five gallons of soup.
There are two Senate soup recipes:
The Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup Recipe
2 pounds dried navy beans
four quarts hot water
1 1/2 pounds smoked ham hocks
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the navy beans and run hot water through them until they are slightly whitened. Place beans into pot with hot water. Add ham hocks and simmer approximately three hours in a covered pot, stirring occasionally. Remove ham hocks and set aside to cool. Dice meat and return to soup. Lightly brown the onion in butter. Add to soup. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Serves 8.
Bean Soup Recipe (for five gallons)
3 pounds dried navy beans
2 pounds of ham and a ham bone
1 quart mashed potatoes
5 onions, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
four cloves garlic, chopped
half a bunch of parsley, chopped
Clean the beans, then cook them dry. Add ham, bone and water and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and mix thoroughly. Add chopped vegetables and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour before serving.
By custom, a senator will not vote to confirm a presidential appointment if the senior senator of his own party objects or if a senator from that state most directly impacted does not agree. As a practical matter this means that appointments of United States federal judges, United States Attorneys, and United States Marshals will not be confirmed if any senator from the judicial district raises an objection.
This custom is not absolute. The president will sometimes push for an appointee despite the privilege if the senator raising an objection is from the opposition party.