Guest Commentary: What A Senate President Pro Tem Does

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Sen. Richard T. Moore
Sen. Richard T. Moore Photo Credit: File Photo

MILFORD, Mass. – Following my recent appointment as Senate President Pro Tempore, also known as pro tem, for the Massachusetts Senate, I received many congratulatory comments from friends, constituents and legislative colleagues. Frequently, the congratulations, especially from those outside the State House, were followed by the question, just what does the Senate President Pro Tempore actually do?

The title sounds impressive, and the position really is as well! The office of Senate President Pro Tempore is a customary leadership post in many state legislatures. The Senates of 37 states have a position of Senate President Pro Tempore, while two others have a comparable position of Vice President. The origins of the position come from the model set forth in the organization of our United States Senate.

In Massachusetts, the duties of the job are to assist the Senate President and the Senate Majority Leader in the running of the Senate and to preside during sessions when the Senate President is temporarily absent – hence, the term "Pro Tempore," which is Latin meaning "for the time being." It is considered one of the top two senior leadership posts after the Senate President.

The post of Senate President Pro Tempore was first created in Massachusetts during a reorganization of Senate Officers and Committees in 2006. Sen. Stan Rosenberg of Amherst, the new Senate Majority Leader, was the first occupant of the office. As was the case with Sen. Rosenberg, I will likely be tasked by the Senate President to lead Senate policy initiatives in a variety of issues that tend to cut across the regular jurisdiction of several standing committees, or for which there is no specific committee of jurisdiction for the issue at hand.

While the position is only six years old in Massachusetts, the office of Senate President Pro Tempore has a very long tradition in the United States Senate. In fact, there has been a President Pro Tempore since the U. S. Senate achieved its first quorum on April 6, 1789. There have been 89 U.S. Senators who have held this position of honor on the national level where the President Pro Tempore is third in line of succession to the Presidency after the Vice President and Speaker of the House. Of course, at the state level, I fully realize that my new post is more than a few heart beats away from the governorship!

The first President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate was John Langdon of New Hampshire, a merchant and former delegate to the Continental Congress, who was chosen to preside in the Senate to oversee the counting of the electoral ballots to choose George Washington as America's first president. Three senators from Massachusetts have held the position in the national Congress: Theodore Sedgwick (1798); Joseph Bradley Varnum (1813-1814); and Henry Cabot Lodge (1912).

While the position of Massachusetts Senate President Pro Tempore, or Senate President Pro Tem as it is sometimes called, is of much more recent vintage than the position at the national level, it will give me the opportunity to participate in policy development on a wide range of issues. Of course, I'll still retain a keen interest in advancing access to safe, high quality and affordable health care as well. Furthermore, I still represent the residents of the 14 towns in the Worcester and Norfolk Senatorial District and will continue to vote on their behalf as well.

In fact, while it is a significant honor to be appointed as Senate President Pro Tempore in recognition of my legislative experience and leadership on issues important to the district that I serve and to the Commonwealth, it is also a tribute to the people who have supported me over the years. Without their long-standing friendship and support at the ballot box, some other senator from a different region of the state would be assisting the Senate President with the running of the Massachusetts Senate. 

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