Grassley Positioned to Become President Pro Tempore of the Senate

Sen. Charles Grassley, first elected to the Senate on Reagan’s coattails in 1980, currently ranks 3rd in seniority among Republicans in that body, being junior only to Orrin Hatch (R-UT), first elected in 1976, and Thad Cochran (R-MS), first elected in 1978; Grassley has been on track to move up to 2nd for the last two months, after Hatch announced in January that he would not run for re-election this year; the elevation would have come either at the very end of this year (if Hatch resigned a few days early to enable the governor of Utah to appoint his successor to the unexpired portion of his term and thus gain seniority) or at the beginning of the next. But now the schedule has been advanced by another development: Cochran, long ailing, announced on Monday that he would resign on April 1st rather than attempt to serve out his term, which lasts until the end of 2020; that means Sen. Grassley will be 2nd in seniority among Senate Republicans already within four weeks, on April 1st, and 1st in seniority in less than nine months, by the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019, when there are still four years left in his seventh term.

Those who do not closely follow events in Washington, D.C., might not know that the U.S. Senate has one elected presiding officer, called the “President pro tempore,” the Latin phrase in the title meaning “for the time being”; although the title still makes sense, its sense is different from the original one: in the beginning the President pro tem was only elected during the absence of the Vice President, who normally presided in the Senate, and only served temporarily, until the return of the latter; in 1890 the position began to be held continuously, until the election of a successor, even though the Vice President, through the Eisenhower years, continued to spend much of his time presiding in the Senate.

Since the honor of serving as President pro tempore goes to the senior member of the party which controls the Senate, in order for Sen. Grassley to accede to the position, two further conditions must be fulfilled: he must keep breathing, and Republicans must maintain control of the Senate. His prospects seem quite good on each score, since he is still going strong, visiting all 99 counties every year, just as he always has, and the Republicans, although barely controlling the Senate now with only 51 seats, are defending just nine of the 35 seats, which are up in the fall. It is theoretically possible for Grassley to become President pro tempore even if Republicans lose control of the Senate, if Hatch does resign at the end of December; Grassley would then serve only for a week or so—but longer than Milton Young (R-ND), who was allowed to serve one day (5-6 Dec. 1980) in the term of Warren Magnuson (D-WA), a sort of combined birthday present and consolation prize, since he had served nearly six full terms (Mar. 1945-Jan. 1981), but retired just as Republicans gained control of the Senate, unexpectedly, in the Reagan landslide of 1980. (Young, being instead the senior member of the minority party, is the sole exception since 1949 to the rule that the President pro tem is the senior member of the majority party.)

Although in practice junior senators of the majority party do most of the presiding in the Senate, in part so that they might learn parliamentary procedure, and in part because the President pro tempore is likely to be busy chairing an important committee, the latter is the second-ranking Officer of the U.S. Senate, behind only the Vice President, whom the Constitution makes the President of the Senate, and has the right to preside over sessions in the absence of the same; it is the President pro tempore, moreover, who is responsible for appointing the acting presiding officers on days when the Senate is in session. The remaining responsibilities of the post are few: in the absence of the Vice President, the President pro tempore presides, along with the Speaker, at joint sessions of the Congress; in the absence of the Vice President, again, he may administer oaths required by the Constitution and sign legislation; in addition, certain laws empower him to make appointments to various national commissions. The institutional functions bring an increase in pay: the President pro tempore, like the Majority and Minority leaders, makes $19,400 more than other senators ($193,400 vs. $174,000).

The current line of succession to the presidency, established by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, puts the President pro tempore of the Senate third in line, after the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives; if either the presidency or the vice presidency becomes vacant, the President pro tem is second in line until a new Vice President, in conformity with the 25th Amendment, is appointed and approved by both houses of Congress.

If Sen. Grassley does succeed Sen. Hatch, he will not be the first Iowan to reach that pinnacle: Albert B. Cummins, a Republican who served as Governor of Iowa from Jan. 1902 until Nov. 1908, and in the Senate from Nov. 1908 until his death in July 1926, although not the senior senator from his party, served as President pro tempore between 19 May 1919 and 6 March 1925. He preceded Sen. Grassley in another post as well, that of Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which he led after the death of Frank B. Brandegee in Oct. 1924 until his own death less than two years later.