Alabama State Senate Chamber The Alabama Senate is the upper house of the Alabama Legislature. It consists of 35 members who are elected to four-year terms and take office at midnight on the day of their election. Members of the Alabama Senate must be at least 25 years old and have lived in their district for one year and in the state for three years. Each senator represents a district of approximately 137,000 residents in each of Alabama’s 67 counties. As in the U.S. Congress, which is a bicameral legislature (legislated by two houses), the Alabama Senate must work with members of the House to draft bills affecting individual communities throughout the state as well as Alabama as a whole, and also vote on the adoption of bills to the state’s constitution. Article IV of the 1901 Constitution outlines the size, composition, and duties of the Senate and the House. In Section 50, Article IV, the membership of the Senate is set at 35 members, which is far fewer than the 105 members elected to the House of Representatives. Also, in Article IX, Sections 197 and 198, Senate membership is set at no less than one-fourth or more than one-third of the total membership of the House. Furthermore, Amendment 97 stipulates that a special election be held when there is an unexpected vacancy in either house.
Vivian Figures Some notable state senators have included Republican Benjamin F. Royal, who was the first African American member of the Senate, elected in 1868, during Reconstruction. Republican Ann Smith Bedsole from Mobile, Mobile County, who was the first woman elected to the Senate in Alabama, in 1982, and was also the first Republican woman elected to the House in 1978. The first African American woman elected to the Senate was Democrat Sundra Escott-Russell, of Birmingham, Jefferson County, who served from 1993 until 2006, taking her position after vacating the House seat that she held since 1981. The second African American woman elected to the Senate was Democrat Vivian Davis Figures of Mobile. She was also the first woman elected to any party leadership position in the Senate, chosen by her fellow party members to serve as minority leader in 2013. Also of note, Republican Richard Shelby of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, went on to become a U.S. senator after beginning his political career as Democrat at the age of 35 by beating the incumbent state senator in 1970.
Senate Structure and Powers
Currently, the Alabama Legislature convenes in regular annual sessions on the first Tuesday in February, except during the first year of the four-year term, when the session begins on the first Tuesday in March. In the last year of a four-year term, the legislative session begins on the second Tuesday in January. The length of the regular session is limited to 30 meeting days within a period of 105 calendar days. There are usually two meeting or “legislative” days per week, with other days devoted to committee meetings.
The lieutenant governor serves as the president of the Senate, but the only time that he or she participates in proceedings is to cast a tie-breaking vote. When the lieutenant governor is absent during proceedings, the Senate selects one of its members to preside, and that person is referred to as the “president pro tempore,” or temporary president, which is also the key leadership position in the Senate. Kay Ivey The other major leadership positions are the leaders of the majority and minority parties, selected by the party members in the Senate.
There are 21 standing (permanent) committees in the Senate, including Education and Youth Affairs, Finance and Taxation Education, and Judiciary. Senators meet in committees to work through legislative matters that pertain to specific policy areas in which a committee specializes. It is in these committees that senators do the actual work of governing. For example, the Committee on Confirmations is responsible for approving all nominations by the governor, or any other appointed position, such as the members of the special board to govern Alabama’s two-year colleges. Members are assigned to their respective committees by the Committee on Assignments, consisting of the president pro tempore, lieutenant governor, senate majority leader, and three additional members appointed by the president pro tempore. The president of the Senate serves as an ex officio member of each committee, with the power to vote on all committees except for the standing Local Legislation committees. The president may also appoint a senator who is not already on a committee to serve as his official substitute. The House of Representatives is responsible for drafting legislation involving revenue, but the Senate has the constitutional authority to revise or reject those bills.
In the spirit of democratic compromise, the legislature also has joint committees, or “joint interim legislative committees,” as they are called, that are made up of members from both the House and the Senate. The joint committees are responsible for conducting research and investigating the benefits and costs of creating legislation intended to meet the needs of Alabamians. As in the House, the majority party in the Senate chooses committee chairs and committee membership and is thus able to control the legislative agenda. In other words, the majority party chooses what legislation is considered and has a great deal of influence over what laws are eventually passed. Ultimately, all proposed legislation makes its way to a conference committee that is composed of members of both houses appointed by the presiding officers to resolve differences between the two houses on an amended bill. The conference committee makes recommendations and, when necessary, suggests amendments as needed or requested by members; these amendments are then considered by each house for further action. Five of the joint interim committees are permanent: Contract Review Oversight Committee, Alabama State Legislature Energy Policy Committee, Alabama State Legislature Finances and Budget Committee, Alabama State Legislature Reapportionment Committee, and Alabama State Legislature Transportation Committee.
Much of the work that goes into drafting legislation takes place in committee meetings, during which members of the House and Senate are expected to find solutions to issues facing the state. The framers of the 1901 Constitution recognized the importance of committees and stipulated that no bill can be enacted into law until it has been referred to, acted upon by, and returned from a standing committee from each house.
The Senate over Time
During the twentieth century, the Alabama state legislature was essentially a one-party system. Only one Republican served in the Senate between 1922 and 1978. The tables turned at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the Republican Party rose to prominence for the first time since Reconstruction. However, the Republican Party of the modern era would hardly be recognized by members of the party as it existed during the late nineteenth century.
Alabama Republican Party Logo The national Republican Party organized in 1854 as the “anti-slavery party” and was not involved in Alabama state politics until after the Civil War. Under Republican control, federal Reconstruction efforts forced the Alabama legislature to protect the political rights of emancipated slaves. The Constitution of 1868 was created by a biracial convention to ensure that African American Alabamians were protected by law and represented in the legislature, promote economic development, and strengthen state-run programs. During Reconstruction, more than 100 African American men served in the legislature as members of the newly minted state Republican Party. The first legislature elected in 1868 under the new constitution consisted of a 100-member House, represented by 97 Republicans and three Democrats, and a 33-member Senate, with one Democrat and 32 Republicans. Benjamin F. Royal was elected from Bullock County that year and became the first African American state senator in Alabama history.
The Republican majority held until 1874, when a disputed election resulted in competing legislative houses. By a very narrow margin, the House went to the Republicans and the Senate was controlled by the Democrats, but over the course of the next six years the number of Republicans in the legislature declined dramatically. In 1875, Alabama adopted a new constitution designed to reign in the Republican Party’s influence by reducing the size of the government and government services, lowering taxes, and reduce the political power of African Americans. The constitution set in motion a series of restrictions on African American voter participation and expansions of segregation laws that effectively decimated the Republican Party and all but ended representation by African Americans for decades.
Alabama Democratic Party Logo Notably, for much of Alabama’s history, the position of lieutenant governor had much more influence over Senate proceedings than it does today. Beginning with the 1901 Constitution, Senate Democrats began adopting rules to increase power in the position, such as making all committee assignments, naming all committee chairs, and controlling the flow of legislation. In 1999, however, the Republican Party gained control of the position, and the two parties agreed to share control in the Senate after much legislative stalemate. At the time, Sen. Steve Windom, the first Republican to hold the position of lieutenant governor in the twentieth century, threatened to stall some of the legislative agenda of Democratic governor Donald Siegelman. Before Windom could act, Democrats, who held the majority by a small margin, voted to strip the lieutenant governor’s power to make committee assignments and direct the flow of legislation. Consequently, Windom was unable to block much legislation, and Siegelman essentially presided over the Senate. The dispute escalated and became national news when Windom refused to leave his post, even to use the restroom, for fear that the Democrats would take control in that brief amount of time it would take him to relieve himself. Only recently has the position started to regain some of its authority over the Senate lost at that time.
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McCurly, Robert L., Jr., and Keith Norman. Alabama Legislation. Tuscaloosa: Alabama Law Institute, 1997.
Somervill, Barbara A. Alabama. New York: Scholastic, 2008.
Squire, Peverill, and Gary Moncrief. State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.
Webb, Samuel L. Two-Party Politics in the One-Party South: Alabama’s Hill Country, 1874-1920. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.