Tag Archives: filibusters

How broken is the U.S. Senate?

Senate Rule XXVI, Paragraph 5, requires unanimous consent for committees and subcommittees to hold hearings after two in the afternoon while the Senate is in session.  The Republicans had turned this old rule into a new means of obstruction.

Harry Reid controls the Senate’s schedule, but Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who is the Minority Leader, can object. Since nearly everything in the Senate depends on unanimous consent, the main business of the place is a continuous negotiation between these two men.

The Senate has been referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”  But the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, seems very limited.  The floor of the Senate is where the theatrics occur, not conversations which make point and counterpoint and challenge each other.  A senator typically gives a prepared speech that’s already been vetted through the staff. Then another guy gets up and gives a speech on a completely different subject.  While these speeches are given their colleagues aren’t even around.  The presiding officer of the Senate — freshmen of the majority party take rotating, hour-long shifts intended to introduce them to the ways of the institution — sits in his chair on the dais, and the only people who pay attention to a speech are the Senate stenographers.  Between speeches, there are quorum calls, time killers in which a Senate clerk calls the roll at the rate of one name every few minutes. The press gallery, above the dais, is typically deserted, as journalists prefer to hunker down in the press lounge, surfing the web for analysis of current Senate negotiations; television screens alert them if something of interest actually happens in the chamber.

While senators are in Washington, their days are scheduled in fifteen-minute intervals: staff meetings, interviews, visits from lobbyists and home-state groups, caucus lunches, committee hearings, briefing books, floor votes, fund-raisers. Each senator sits on three or four committees and even more subcommittees, most of which meet during the same morning hours, which helps explain why committee tables are often nearly empty, and why senators drifting into a hearing can barely sustain a coherent line of questioning. All this activity is crammed into a three-day week, for it’s an unwritten rule of the modern Senate that votes are almost never scheduled for Mondays or Fridays, which allows senators to spend four days away from the capital.

Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money.  Tom Daschle once sketched a portrait of the contemporary senator who is too busy to think: “Sometimes, you’re dialing for dollars, you get the call, you’ve got to get over to vote, you’ve got fifteen minutes. You don’t have a clue what’s on the floor, your staff is whispering in your ears, you’re running onto the floor, then you check with your leader—you double check—but, just to make triple sure, there’s a little sheet of paper on the clerk’s table: The leader recommends an aye vote, or a no vote. So you’ve got all these checks just to make sure you don’t screw up, but even then you screw up sometimes. But, if you’re ever pressed, ‘Why did you vote that way?’—you just walk out thinking, Oh, my God, I hope nobody asks, because I don’t have a clue.”

How many rules of senatorial procedure are relics from days gone past?  How often do we have to hear about the Senate being deadlocked before we expect something more and better from our elected officials?  How much of what actually happens on the floor of the Senate makes a mockery of public policy?



Filed under Playing Politics, Political Reform