What does the Secretary of the Senate do?

Matt Brady

The United States secretary of the Senate has been a designated office since 8 April 1789. New secretaries are nominated by the majority of the Senate and officially elected when both parties agree to the selection. When the office was first created, the secretary was responsible for buying supplies and for recording data, such as minutes in session. As the government grew into a larger institution, so did the responsibilities of the secretary, who began to disburse salaries to government employees and maintain larger volumes of public records. As the office is really more peer-appointed than publicly elected, there aren't any stringent term limits.

The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.
The US Capitol Building, the seat of the US Congress.

The first secretary of the Senate was Samuel Allyne Otis, who prior to taking the office had served in the Continental Congress and as a prominent member of the Massachusetts legislature. Otis served for 25 years at the post, enough time for him to watch the appointment grow from a fledgling office to a position defined by an increasing array of important duties. No one but Asbury Dickins, the fourth secretary, served a longer term — and Dickins only served a few months longer than Otis.

The American flag.
The American flag.

Since the office was created in 1789, the secretary has been allowed to employ a principal clerk, also called a chief clerk. This individual was to help with menial tasks, such as acting as a reading clerk for the Senate. As the responsibilities of the secretary grew, so did the role of the chief clerk, and by the 1960s, the job had evolved into a respected position with numerous responsibilities. The chief clerk became known as the assistant secretary of the Senate, and became responsible for filling in for the secretary in the event of absence, as well as handling administrative duties of the 26 departments under the Office of the Secretary.

Most Senate secretaries spent their careers serving the Senate in one capacity or other. A few even spent terms as elected Senators. In 1985, the first woman, Jo-Anne Coe, was elected to the position. Since Coe was sworn in, there have been numerous female secretaries elected to the office, a considerable number considering that no female ever held the position before 1985.

Today, the secretary of the Senate is deeply involved with a variety of Senate proceedings and duties. He or she handles responsibilities that range from the financial to the legislative to the administrative. These duties are assisted by the assistant secretary.

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