The opening of the 116th Congress is particularly exciting for Iowans because it’s the first time in our state’s history that both Iowa senators will hold leadership positions.
Sen. Joni Ernst has been elected by our Senate colleagues to serve as vice chair of the Senate Republican Caucus. She is the first woman to hold the position in nearly a decade. My colleagues also voted to name me as the new Senate president pro tempore. It’s an honor for me and the state of Iowa.
As a lover of history, I was eager to learn more about the origins of the office of president pro tempore. Unlike the vice president and Speaker of the House, the president pro tempore isn’t as recognizable and the duties are not as well-known.
The president pro tempore is one of a handful of offices specifically named by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution. It’s been a position in the U.S. government for as long as the presidency, and since 1890, the position of president pro tempore has customarily been the majority party senator with the longest continuous service. With the retirement of my friend and colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the honor is now mine after 38 years of service in the United States Senate.
One of the more well-known facts about the office of the president pro tem is that it’s third in line to succeed the presidency after the vice president and Speaker of the House. That wasn’t always the case. From 1789 to 1886, the president pro tempore was second in line behind the vice president. Then, in 1886, both the president pro tempore and the Speaker of the House were removed from the line of succession completely, replaced by presidential cabinet members. It wasn’t until 1947 that both positions were restored.
There has only been one other president pro tempore from Iowa, despite the position’s long history of 90 different senators. Republican Sen. Albert Baird Cummins was the first Iowan to hold the position and served in the role from 1919 until 1925. Coincidentally, he was also a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.
Duties of the position have changed over time. According to the Constitution, the main duty of the president pro tempore is to preside over the Senate when the vice president is either absent or exercising the Office of the President. When the position was first created, it was largely ceremonial because the duties of the Vice President were different than they are today. Until the year 1919, the vice president wasn’t included in the presidential cabinet. The vice president’s main concern duty was to preside over the Senate. In fact, before 1961, the vice president’s office wasn’t even in the White House – it was on Capitol Hill. That left little for the president pro tempore to do except fill in if the vice president was ill, traveling or otherwise indisposed.
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Today, unless there is a tie to break, the vice president is rarely involved in the affairs of the Senate. That means the president pro tempore is responsible for presiding over the Senate. Duties include recognizing senators to speak, maintaining order and ensuring Senate proceedings run smoothly. I plan on using this platform to promote important principles I have stood for during my entire Senate career, including transparency, accountability to the people and oversight of the federal government.
The office of the president pro tempore is rich with history and I feel privileged to step into this role on behalf of the people of Iowa. It’s true that I’m only three heartbeats away from the presidency, but my heart is and always will be in Iowa and in the U.S. Senate, where I’ve worked for the people of Iowa for the past 38 years. I look forward to serving the people of Iowa and the entire nation in this new capacity.
• Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of New Hartford has represented Iowa in the Senate since 1981.