"The Senate will consider itself, and will be considered by the people, as the balence wheel in the great machine of government, calculated and designed to retard its movements, when they shall be too rapid, and to accelerate them, when they shall be too slow," said its principal founder, James Wilson of Carlisle, in 1790 after having been appointed by President Washington to the first United States Supreme Court.
|Two panels from Violet Oakley's paintings, "The Creation and Preservation of the Union." The left panel represents Washington presiding over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787. The right panel shows Lincoln at Gettysburg in November 1863. Oakley is one of the first women in the history of American art to have been commissioned for the mural decoration of a major public building. Oakley was commissioned to paint the Senate Chamber as well as the Supreme Court Chamber and the Governor's Reception Room.|
The Pennsylvania Senate, founded in 1791, remains as one of the vital components of Pennsylvania self-government.
Of the Senate's relationship with the larger House of Representatives, Wilson predicted: "They will be rivals in duty, rivals in fame, rivals for the good graces of their common constituents."
The Pennsylvania Senate is composed of 50 members, each representing a region of the Commonwealth with a constituent population of approximately 240,000 people. The Senate, during a 23 month session, will consider as many as 2,000 of its own bills, of which a tenth become law.
The Senate plays a critical role in the budget process. Although the Constitution stipulates that "all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House," no tax change becomes law without the Senate's approval. When the General Fund Bill moves to a Conference Committee, as often occurs, three Senate leaders meet with three House leaders to reach a compromise.
During the struggle for independence, Pennsylvanians, wary of a central government with a strong, dominate executive branch, had great faith in the legislative branch as both a means of balancing power and of protecting the rights of the people. They credited the legislative branch for helping to secure the independence of the citizenry. At the 1790 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention Pennsylvanians chose a bicameral General Assembly, one year after the first United States Senate met in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Senate was established by a vote of 56-5. Wilson, the Federalist credited with the founding of the Pennsylvania Senate, was also a founder of the United States Senate. He and Representative Albert Gallatin, a Democrat from Fayette County, were the outspoken advocates of the Pennsylvania Senate, although neither statesman ever served in it.
On December 10, 1790, the Senate held the first session in its chamber at Independence Hall. At that time Pennsylvanians were represented by 18 Senators, serving four-year terms and by 65 Representatives serving one-year terms.
Richard Peters of Philadelphia, the last Speaker of the unicameral House, was selected the first Speaker of the Senate. A number of Representatives also became Senators, including future Governor Joseph Heister of Berks County and Revolutionary War hero, Colonel Timothy Matlack who was named Chief Clerk of the Senate. Matlack, at Senator Heister's request, printed the first Senate Journal in both English and German.
In 1838 the Pennsylvania Constitution increased the Senate to 33 members and the House to 100 members. During the Civil War, Major Harry White, a Republican Senator from Indiana County, was captured by the Confederates. The Senate became deadlocked with 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats. With no majority, legislative action came to a halt. The situation heightened when Governor Andrew G. Curtain, a Republican, became seriously ill. At that time, the office of Lieutenant Governor did not exist. The Speaker of the Senate was the next in succession. Had the weakened Curtain resigned, the Republican Speaker would have become Governor, and a new Democratic majority would have named the next Speaker of the Senate. Such confusion would have hindered the war effort. However, Curtain recovered and survived for several years. Major White escaped, returned to the Senate and eventually was elected Speaker.
A decade later the 1874 Constitutional Convenetion increased the Senate to 50 members and created the office of Lieutenant Governor. Unlike the Vice President in the United States Senate, the Lieutenant Governor cannot use his tie-breaking vote for final passage of a bill. However, he presides over Senate proceedings, which has political significance when he and the Senate majority party are of different political affiliations or when the chamber is equally devided between Republicans and Democrats. The Lieutenant Governor runs individually in the spring primary but is elected with the Governor in the November general election.
The President Pro Tempore also is a constitutional officer. He presides in the absence of the Lieutenant Governor and is second in succession to the Governor. The President Pro Tempore is elected by the Senate membership. The President Pro Tempore appoints committee chairpersons, votes on all bills, and is the leader of the Senate. The position of President Pro Tempore replaced the abolished position of Speaker of the Senate in the Constitution of 1874. In joint General Assembly issues, it is the President Pro Tempore who confers with the Speaker of the House.
Throughout its history, eight members of the Senate have ascended to the position of Governor. Thirteen members have been elected Lieutenant Governor. In recent years, an average of half of the Senate's members formerly served in the House.