U.S. senators: are they as powerful as portrayed in the media?

(Not sure if this belongs in GQ, please feel free to move it elsewhere.)

In movies and TV shows set in the United States, we are often shown a senator as some sort of important decision maker. See Stargate XG-1, the early X-Men movies, Eureka, etc. Secret agency directors and high-ranking military officials are shown taking orders from a senator. Character A asks Character B: “Do you really want Senator X to find out about this?”, and so on.

I’m from Canada (where the Senate is a bunch of unelected, elderly people who ratify laws).

I’m aware that there are only 2 senators per state, etc., but they’re still just elected officials who get to propose bills and vote on them. Oh, and act as a court once in a while. And I’ve heard of McCarthy.

The question: Is there any context where an individual senator (not acting on behalf of the Armed Services Committee) will end up giving orders to, or requiring reports from, an agency head or an officer in the military? Or is this just a mechanism used in fiction to avoid having to invoke the White House all the time?

(Let’s assume the elected president and vice-president are alive and sane.)

No, there’s that division of powers thing: the Senate (along with the House) enacts laws; the military and the rest of the Executive branch answer to the President. No way a senator gives anyone in the executive a direct order. That said, an influential senator who is chairman of an important commitee is someone who you pay attention to. Ultimately the legislature controls the purse strings and can kill any executive department by refusing to fund it. It’s a matter of informal “clout” rather than direct authority.

Yeah. Senators can’t give orders, but if the chairman of the committee that controls your budget, and who has the power to subpoena you and your staff for any reason, makes a strongly-worded suggestion about something, it’s a good idea to pay attention.

Yes, it’s a matter of influence and clout, not actual chain-of-command legal authority. There’s a powerful but crooked senator who’s shown giving orders to non-Senate folks in Timecop. That kind of thing always bugged me.

A lot of the formal power a senator has comes from their positions on various committees. Before a bill can be voted on by the general body, it has to get into and then through a committee. Since all bills on a particular subject would go through a particular committee, having an enemy on that committee could effectively block legislation. While there are plenty of ways to get around this, it’s not always feasible.

Most senators didn’t get were the are by being nice team players; they play hardball politics and work to control vast amounts of budget in order to increase their political clout.

A skilled Senator has a very good chance to be able to screw up anything that has to get passed through the Senate except war declarations, whole budgets and Supreme Court appointments, and somewhat on Cabinet level appointments. The Senate rules have way too many ways for one member to indefinitely delay all the little stuff.

All these posts are about budgets and appropriations. What about the fictional politicians who threaten to send the IRS after citizens who don’t cooperate? Is there anyone in the IRS who thinks that a senator - or even a bunch of senators - could shut them down as a group, or get them fired as an individual?

I’m not doubting it happens. I’m just wondering how it works. Or maybe I am doubting it happens. So much of Hollywood is made up that I don’t know what to believe.

If a senator wants something done, people jump because he has power in the general sense. In my government office, a request for something by a senator will get the executives hopping like fleas on a hot-plate, even though the senator doesn’t have any direct power over our agency. That senator does have the power to make life miserable in informal ways even if he isn’t in the chain of command. How do I know he won’t mention to the President, next time he dines at the White House, what a crappy job I’m doing? It’s not like I’ll ever get invited to rebut over dinner.

If he approves budgets or is part of a hearing of some kind then he has a lot of power to make you miserable. Really, who do the “secret agency directors and high-ranking military officials” answer to if not a senator or rep. acting as an agent of the people?

How about this example from current news? http://www.broadcastnewsroom.com/article/Baucus:-Senate-investigating-veterans-charity-2039245

That’s enough power to put the fear of senators in me…

Not if I did nothing wrong! :stuck_out_tongue:

Here’s a site with some famous photos, showing one way that a powerful senator wields power.

The photos show Senator Lyndon Johnson (senator from 1949 to 1961) engaging in face-to-face acts of personal persuasion, the infamous “Johnson Treatment”

Senator Joe McCarthy “investigated” a lot of people who didn’t do anything wrong, and still managed to ruin a great many careers. Read up on Owen Lattimore, for example. From Wikipedia:

Here’s how I used MY senator’s power to MY advantage:

In my 20’s I wanted to visit a Mexico with my then-girlfriend. We discovered that I would need proof of my citizenship, like a passport or immigration naturalization certificate. Unfortunately, my parents had lost my original naturalization certificate some years before. Lucky for me, they had kept a Xerox copy of it (itself not legal, but whatever) that had my immigration “A” Number on it.

Armed with that copy, I went to the local Federal office and asked for a duplicate copy of my naturalization certificate. They said “OK” and had me fill out the forms. When I turned the forms in, I asked, “How long will it take to get my new certificate?” The answer shocked me: “About a year.” “Why?” I asked; “I need it to go on vacation in 2 months.” “We’re too busy to handle it any faster than that,” was the abrupt answer I got.

So I wrote to my favorite state senator to complain about the crappy service and long wait at this local Federal office. A week after I mailed it, the Senator’s office sent me a letter saying they were looking into the matter.

Three weeks later, I got a phone call from the same local Federal office I had the problem with: “When would you like to come in and get your new Naturalization certificate?” “Tomorrow?” I said. “Come on in at 10AM” they replied.

When I arrived at the office, I got a proper, professional but very cool reception. After they issued my my certificate, a supervisor came up and pointedly asked me, “Can you please call the Senator’s office and tell him that there is no need for his Aide to come down here to inspect us.” I replied “Sure thing” and got out of there.

It turned out that my Senator had threatened to start a Congressional investigation of how this office operated, if I did not receive my documents in a timely manner, he let the office know that they would be fair game. The office took the threat seriously and expedited my document request to keep the Senator out of their hair, and out of their office.

So Senators do have a big stick and some are not afraid to use it. This was 40 years ago and, if anything, Senators have even more juice now than they did then.

Excellent points. Thank you, Senegoid and gunnergoz.

Johnson was a real control/power freak, super competitive, but with a quick wit and a real sense of humor. Robert Dallek, who has written a two part biography of Johnson, gives us this story:

State or U.S. senator?

Good example. A senator is very powerful in the beaurocracy. On top of investigations, they can put the kibosh on hiring and promoting the top level beaurocrats and budget increases. All through influence, and unwritten rules among the senators about retaining their power. Even in the highly partisan senate that we have now senators otherwise at loggerheads will back each other in a showdown between beaurocrats and senators. There are 100 senators, but there are over 4 times that many representives in the House. And a senator’s term is longer, and there’s less turnover in elections. You might take a chance at annoying a representative, he may only be around for a year or two more. But the senators tend more toward lifetime positions. Some representatives are in office for a long time also, and they probably have the same kind of influence that a senator does.

So which one did you decide on?

That is how it works. My older brother worked for the EPA. One woman complained to the EPA that her neighbor was poisioning her by improperly using pestisides on his property. The EPA had to go out and inspecct and test the soil and every thing came back clean. They made a report back to the woman. she did not like their answer and complained to her Senator, they lhad to go back out and retest. Same results reported back to Senator. She complained to her Congresonal Rep. EPA explaind that they had already tested, the reps office ssaid well test again. Test came back clean. She then wrote to the White House, same results. She keep writting to different officess and each time they had to go out and retest each time. Some one in my brother’s office did a little math, it was costing the EPA about $200,000 each year to do the testing on this womans property. I say each year because at the new year she would start by writting her Senator’s office and then down the line, because this was a new complaint. After a few years everytime they went out to her property to test they sent a copy to every office on the womans list.