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The United States Senate observes a number of traditions, some formal and some informal. Some of the current and former traditions are described below:


New Senators


Maiden speeches

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, of course, this obsolescent Senate tradition survives only in part — the special attention given to a member's first major address, or maiden speech.

Jefferson Bible

Beginning in 1817 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.[1]

Daily rituals

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 a representative of any faith.

Departing senators

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 is placed over the deceased Senator's desk, and a large contingent of Senators often fly 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.

Senate chamber

A number of items located around the Senate chamber are steeped in tradition.

Senate desks

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 [2] 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. Judd Gregg has this desk as of 2005.

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 2005.[3]

Senate gavel

Senate gavel

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.[4][5][6]

Bean soup

According to custom, bean soup must be available on the menu every day in the congressional dining areas. This tradition, which dates back to the early twentieth century, is said to be based on an edict by Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho (or in another version of the story to Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota). The recipe and the specific type of bean are allowed to vary.

Senatorial courtesy

By custom, the Senate will not 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 senators 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.

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