Skip to content

Inouye’s New Title Is Historically Ho-Hum

When Sen. Daniel Inouye became President Pro Tem last month, all it took was the simple adoption of a Senate resolution.

Hardly a Senator was on the floor to offer a speech or congratulations, and no one seemed to treat the Hawaii Democrat’s new status, caused by the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), like a big deal.

Neither, it appears, does Inouye. At 85 and vying for his ninth term in office, Inouye is now the third in succession to the presidency, but he offers only a sly grin at the mention of his new role.

“Nice title,” he said in an interview. “It was not within my scope of immediate interests.”

So describes the attitude toward the President Pro Tem, a largely ceremonial position whose prerogatives include presiding over the Senate — a role regularly handed off to freshman Members — and signing off on bills before they head to the White House for the president’s signature.

By custom, the most senior member of the majority party is elected by his peers to the post that awards its occupant a plush office in the Capitol, extra staff and a $193,400 annual salary equal to that of the majority and minority leaders.

“The job is to be alive and not much more,” quipped Thomas Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Inouye became the President Pro Tem on June 28, taking on the role held intermittently by Byrd since 1989. As the chamber’s longest-serving Member who held nearly every leadership post during his 52-year career, Byrd was already mentoring colleagues and weighing in on floor tactics before he earned the honorary title that allowed him to further expand his influence and army of staff.

Yet colleagues suggest that Byrd’s unprecedented tenure made him a figure to admire and that his title as President Pro Tem was a mere afterthought when reflecting on the Democrat’s accomplishments.

“The honor and recognition they receive is the recognition for their service,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “But it’s not a position that compares to the Majority Leader or to committee chairman.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Byrd presided over the Senate, a responsibility that technically falls to the President Pro Tem in the absence of the vice president, only occasionally. He preferred instead to exercise his influence on the floor with colorful speeches during high-stakes debates.

“Very few President Pro Tems preside,” Ritchie said. “Sometimes they come in at the opening ceremony for the chaplain’s prayer, then turn it over to a junior Senator. In the later years, Byrd wasn’t well and didn’t do it. In his prime, he liked to do that.”

Sen. William Frye (R-Maine) remains the longest-serving President Pro Tem, carrying the position for 15 years, from 1896 to 1911. He stepped down from the post in April 1911, when he was 80 years old, because of his health, and he died a few months later. The oldest President Pro Tem in history was Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who stepped down in 2001 at 99 years old.

While the age of the President Pro Tems has trended older over the years, questions about their fitness for the job were raised mainly in whispers. But Members became more vocal after 9/11, when the continuity of government became a more pressing issue in light of the national catastrophe.

Some have suggested the Majority Leader — the chamber’s most active participant — should also serve as President Pro Tem because Majority Leaders presumably are younger and selected on criteria other than just longevity and so in theory are more fit to lead in an emergency. Still others suggest the likelihood that the president, vice president and Speaker are all unable to serve is so slim that reforming the President Pro Tem role is unnecessary.

Former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he received several briefings on what would happen in a national emergency when be became President Pro Tem in 2003.

“If a person is capable of being a Senator, that person is capable of being the president for a period of time,” Stevens said. “I don’t think anyone should view the President Pro Tem as being anything but a caretaker until the government can reorganize.”

While Byrd was pressured to relinquish his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in 2007 because of his health, no one questioned his President Pro Tem spot.

Since World War II, the majority has given its most senior member the job of President Pro Tem, and that person has always doubled as the chairman of a powerful committee. Thurmond served as President Pro Tem and chairman of the Judiciary Committee from 1981 to 1987 and as President Pro Tem and chairman of the Armed Services Committee from 1995 to 1999. Byrd, Inouye and Stevens all wielded the Appropriations Committee gavel while President Pro Tem.

Those power positions have helped quell any attempts at reforming the office.

“I haven’t put a lot of thought into that,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said when asked whether the President Pro Tem role should be changed. Besides, she quipped, “I’m in enough trouble with Danny Inouye now, I think I’d better keep away.”

Recent Stories

Graves decides not to run after Louisiana district redrawn

Garland won’t face contempt of Congress charge over Biden audio

Hold on to your bats! — Congressional Hits and Misses

Editor’s Note: Mixing baseball and contempt

Supreme Court wipes out ban on ‘bump stock’ firearm attachments

Photos of the week ending June 14, 2024