When the Senate Functioned

October 19th, 2011 at 11:59 pm | 46 Comments |

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Once upon a time, legend has it, the United States Senate could work.  While lost in the mists of time, the exact way the Senate worked apparently had to do with something called, “regular order.”

This “regular order” went something like this. The Majority Leader calls up a piece of legislation.  The clerk begins to read the legislation.  The Majority Leader asks unanimous consent that further reading of the bill be dispensed with.  The Majority Leader  turns to the majority manager of the legislation, often the chairman of the committee that reported out the legislation.  After opening statements by both the majority and minority managers of the bill, a Senator was free to offer an amendment.

Then, miracles of miracles, the amendment was debated and voted on.

Next, another amendment might emerge from another Senator.  And, so on.  That was “regular order.”

At the end of this logical pattern, all amendments having been dealt with, the Senate would vote on the final legislation, as amended, if amended.

Sometimes this process took weeks, sometimes a full month or more, depending upon the scope and nature of the legislation. Sometimes it took ten minutes.

The old saying, “That boy could screw up a one-car funeral,” comes to mind to describe the United States Senate of today.

The present state of annual appropriations illustrates the complete breakdown of the Senate mechanism.

Fiscal Year 2012 has begun.  As the Constitution makes perfectly clear, no monies can be spent in the absence of an appropriations.  Yet, not a single FY 2012 appropriations bill has passed the House and Senate and gone to conference.  Under the recently-passed Budget Control Act, the caps on spending for the next two years is crystal clear.  One would think that since top-line numbers are the same in the House and Senate, appropriations (for the first time in eons) would be relatively easy to pass into law.

That thinking would be wrong.

Why?  Because “regular order” as outlined above has some very unpleasant consequences.  It makes Senators vote.  Worse, it makes them vote sometimes on issues they would rather ignore.  When Republicans were in control, Democrats devised amendments on “tough” subjects. Now that Democrats are in control,  Republicans do the same thing.

Both caucuses react the same way—we don’t want to.  So the Majority Leaders of the past decade or so have done all they can to avoid allowing such amendments.  Under regular order, those amendments occur.  Under the new normal of disorder, those amendments can be at least side-stepped for a while.

Of course, that means that appropriations bills once again fail to pass.  It means that we suffer another round of Continuing Resolutions, Omnibus or Mini-bus appropriations measures, and the periodic threat of a government “shutdown.”

While the Senate figures out ways to avoid voting on anything that might possibly become a nasty 30-second commercial next election season, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also spawned by the Budget Control Act, still cannot agree on what baseline it will use to calculate the size of any spending restraint or tax increases it might recommend by the November 23 deadline.

So:  the Senate won’t vote, the Select Committee doesn’t know what to cut from, and at least five of the would-be GOP nominees for President seem to wander around in an alternative universe during these endless debates.

Wonder why Congress has a 12 per cent favorable rating.

Recent Posts by Steve Bell



46 Comments so far ↓

  • Graychin

    From where I sit, I can only see one party that doesn’t want to vote on anything.

    • Elvis Elvisberg

      From James Fallows:

      “To make it clear: requiring 60 votes for everything is new, and it is overwhelmingly a Republican tactic.” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/10/chronicles-of-false-equivalence-chapter-2-817/246667/

      Fallows concludes: “Since Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley and the end of the Democrats’ 60-vote majority, Mitch McConnell has flat-out won, and (in my view) the prospects of doing even routine public business have lost, by making the requirement for 60 votes for anything seem normal rather than exceptional. And by eventually leading our major media to present this situation as an “everyone’s to blame” unfortunate and inexplicable snafu, rather than an intended exercise of political power by one side.”

      Unfortunately, this post from Bell falls into that pitfall of major media– inability to point out that the two sides are not, in fact, equal on this point.

      • jdd_stl1

        Elvis,

        Thanks for sharing that link. I’ve been looking for that kind
        of data on the Senate.

        • Elvis Elvisberg

          Glad you found it useful, jdd_stl1.

          It occurs to me that Bell’s tone here– “no wonder everyone hates all those idiots in Washington!”– recalls a point longtime Republican staffer Mike Lofgren made in his recent Truthout article. The whole thing is worth reading, but this is the relevant part:

          Far from being a rarity, virtually every bill, every nominee for Senate confirmation and every routine procedural motion is now subject to a Republican filibuster. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that Washington is gridlocked: legislating has now become war minus the shooting, something one could have observed 80 years ago in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. As Hannah Arendt observed, a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself. …

          A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner. A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. …

          http://www.truth-out.org/goodbye-all-reflections-gop-operative-who-left-cult/1314907779

          Fallows points out that articles like this one from Steve Bell deceive readers as to the cause of gridlock. Lofgren’s additional point is that Bell’s inability or reluctance to accurately describe what’s happening in Congress actually helps GOP efforts to gum up the works.

          Now, there’s a perhaps-interesting psychological sidelight here as to whether Bell is engaging in self-deception, or whether he’s in on the story and is intentionally deceiving his readers.

          But at the end of the day, what matters is, by calling out “Washington gridlock” without explaining that the gridlock is the work of the Republican Party, Steve Bell functions as a right-wing propagandist.

      • LFC

        Perfect. The problem is blatantly obvious to anybody who can read a graph. That probably leaves out the entire field GOP Presidential hopefuls.

      • Steve D

        There is not, and never has been, a legitimate reason for unlimited Senate debate. It has always, without exception, been used to obstruct constructive legislation.

    • Fart Carbuncle

      How did I know that a vast majority of the posts on this thread would be anti-GOP?

      • Elvis Elvisberg

        You make no effort to address my point, because there is no substantive rebuttal.

        All you have is, “Ma!!! He’s bein’ mean!!”

        • Fart Carbuncle

          It can all be summed up like this: Democrats believe in poverty programs. The more programs, the more poverty. And poor people vote for Democrats.

          Next.

      • Bobby McGee

        Reality has a liberal bias.

        • Steve D

          Physical reality (evolution, climate change) has a liberal bias.

          Lifestyle reality (stay in school, don’t have kids out of wedlock, stay off drugs) has a conservative bias.

        • Elvis Elvisberg

          It doesn’t seem to me that the number of politicians who fail to, say, stay off drugs tilts more Republican than Democratic. And I believe there have been more Republicans with children out of wedlock than Democrats– eg, Dan Burton, though of course John Edwards is a counterexample.

          I’m not sure I see why those lifestyle ideas are “conservative”, rather than just being “common sense”. I don’t think that either party pursues policies that are intended to make more people get on drugs.

        • medinnus

          And so many shining stars of the GOP are exemplars of that Conservative Bias – Palin’s daughter, Newt’s serial adultery, et cetera ad nauseaum.

          I guess they’re all closet liberals.

          Moral: Stones. Glass houses.

      • Rules of engagement

        You are either psychic or a Republican yourself, torn between party loyalty and party reality.

    • jdd_stl1

      As I go through James Fallows article and Mike Lofgren’s article
      I continue to be struck by the question, “WHY”.
      Why are they doing this? What would the Senate Republican’s really
      hope to achieve by disrupting the Senate business?
      Do they think that this will get them to a majority in both Houses
      and a Republican in the White House? If they get that would they
      then be immune to Democratic Senate filibusters? Wouldn’t one
      logically conclude that the tables are going to be turned and
      there will still be partisan gridlock in the Senate?

      And it goes back to well before Obama so it can’t be just their
      goal of him being a one-term president.

      • Elvis Elvisberg

        Because Republicans don’t have policy beliefs. They have a side, just like fans of the Philadelphia Eagles.

        That’s why folks like Paul Ryan, who supported the Bush administration’s fiscal policies, NCLB, Medicare Part D, invading & occupying arbitrarily selected foreign countries for little reason with no benefit to the US, the USA PATRIOT Act, the executive’s right to wiretap citizens without warrants, TARP, etc., now claim to be super hopped up about… the deficit and excessive executive & federal power. We know they don’t actually care about that stuff, though, because we’re old enough to remember the Bush administration. (This goes for the Tea Party as well, of course).

        They don’t have policy views, they just want to have power.

        Right now, the president is a Democrat, so they will resist whatever he wants to do with maximal rhetoric and legislative effort– even if it’s an idea like the individual health insurance mandate, which had been Republican boilerplate for almost two decades, or like Keyensian stimulus, which Ryan aggressively pushed in 2001.

        When you’re driven by tribalism, rather than policy preferences, you can fight to the death every time. You can’t be mollified by concessions if you don’t have substantive beliefs that can be addressed. Regardless of which policies Democrats pursue, about 98% of Republicans will go all-out to oppose them merely because they are being pursued by Democrats.

        (Ryan, btw, voted with George W. Bush 94% of the time. Fiscal conservatism! http://wi.rlc.org/2010/08/paul-ryans-record/ ).

  • hisgirlfriday

    [blockquote]Once upon a time, legend has it, the United States Senate could work.
    [/blockquote]

    And once upon a time, legend has it, that a man who harshly criticized slavery on the floor of the Senate could find himself beaten within an inch of his life by another member of Congress.

    So we haven’t reached rock bottom yet.

    • LocalGroup

      It must be pointed out that Senator Sumner, who was beaten on the Senate floor, was a Republican and Representative Brooks, who beat him, was a Democrat.

      Just sayin’.

      • Nanotek

        Brooks was a violent southern conservative and Sumner a northern liberal.

        Brooks also was a ‘no show’ who tucked tail after Rep. Burlingame accepted his’ challenge to a duel for denouncing Brook’s cowardly armed attack on unarmed Sumner.

        just saying

        • LocalGroup

          I forgot to mention that Representative Brooks of South Carolina, progenitor of future Carolina politicians like Jesse Helms and Jim Demint, was animated by mindless, self, righteous behavior and acted more like a 18th century French aristocrat than a 19th century American Congressman.

          Some historians say that Brooks’ infamous act of cowardice polarized the forces of good in evil in the Senate and hastened the advent of the War.

          My bad.

  • ggore

    The author of the article left out the most important impediment to the Senate’s actually being able to do ANYTHING, which is the necessity to have a 60-vote majority to actually have a vote to end debate, start debate, whatever action the Senate wants to take. The 60-vote rule is not in the US Constitution, it is merely a procedural thing the Senate came up with on its own and put into its rules, and seems to be utterly unable to do away with.

    And I might add the other tactic that any Senator can use, which is dictator-like power to put a “Hold” on anything, legislation, nominations, you name it, and thereby keep the Senate from taking action on anything that comes before it. One of our fine Oklahoma Senators, Tom Coburn, has become the King of Holds, using this tactic more than any other Senator in the history of the body.

    • indy

      Article 1, section 5, paragraph 3: Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.

      It’s the Constitution that allows all the Senate abuses even if it doesn’t require them. I often wonder if the founding fathers aren’t sitting around thinking: ‘man, we screwed the pooch royally on that one’.

      • PracticalGirl

        It’s the Constitution that allows all the Senate abuses even if it doesn’t require them.

        Yes, but there used to be a time when true patriots walked the Senate floor, men who were determined to govern an entire country in spite of strong differences, not to spite those across the aisle. And we still had the same Constitution, holes and all.

        It’s the people we choose who either honor that document for the good of all or employ it to solve their own petty grievances.

        • indy

          While I agree in principal, one of the most amazing qualities of the Constitution is the numerous safeguards against what might generally be described as weaknesses of human nature. I do think they didn’t think deeply enough about it here though. Any group of 100 people allowed to make their own rules will eventually make the rules benefit themselves, regardless of how noble many of them are because they employ rationales about why changes are good rather than thinking about the abuses. As the group becomes larger, e.g., the lower chamber, it becomes more difficult (but not impossible).

        • dennis

          Even so, indy, it’s quite a stretch to expect the founders to have thought of what may happen 100, 200, 300 years down the line. As you say, human nature being what it is, people operate in ways that benefit themselves, regardless of the noble sentiment. I don’t think they imagined the mode in which Congress is currently working.

        • indy

          Even so, indy, it’s quite a stretch to expect the founders to have thought of what may happen 100, 200, 300 years down the line.

          Oh, I agree. Don’t think I’m blaming them for not being omniscient. I do, however, also think they would recognize it for the error it was.

          Besides, the electorate has the ability to fix such such problems. They just can’t seem to remember how or even why they should. I’m not going to blame the founders for ill-informed voters today. That is our failure, not theirs.

        • JohnMcC

          It’s late (the World Series is on) and I won’t look up references and make links, but anyone familiar with the Constitutional Convention and Federalist Papers and such knows that the fears of the Founders centered on the dangers of what they called “faction”. They actually did understand the possibility of gridlock and hyperpartisanship. They just assumed that the ‘will of the people’ and the need to actually do stuff as a government would prevail against it. Shows what can happen when you “ass u me”.

      • willard landreth

        You must remember that the founding fathers were reasonable people. They lived in the era of *reason* and believed in debate. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

        • Steve D

          The first six presidents were all New England and Virginia aristocrats. The first President from the ranks of “the people” was Andrew Jackson, who sent the Cherokee to Oklahoma so white settlers could take their land.

          I seriously doubt the majority of Americans even then supported separation of church and state or universal suffrage.

  • PracticalGirl

    In Joe Biden’s farewell speech to the Senate, he, too, remembered a better, more perfect government, one that functioned in spite of strong differences across the aisle. Far too much here to clip, but if you read nothing else, read his interactions with Senator Stennis.

    Love Biden, hate him or somewhere in between, it’s hard to ignore the words of somebody with such an historical viewpoint.

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/01/sen_joe_bidens_farewell_speech.html

  • Rules of engagement

    The first rule of engagement for today’s Republican Party and the 1% that own them, is that there are no rules.

    Everybody else always has to remember that.

    • LFC

      You are 50% incorrect. There are no rules for Republicans. I think it was Krugman who coined IOKYAR (It’s OK if You Are Republican). If the Dems attempt 10% of what the Republicans do, the howls and accusations can suddenly be heard across the country.

      In today’s political climate, nobody plays the victim like a Republican.

      • Rules of engagement

        “If the Dems attempt 10% of what the Republicans do, the howls and accusations can suddenly be heard across the country.”

        And most of the howls and accusations are from the Dems. The Republicans are too busy developing new outrages and furtive routes through tradition and the Consitution itself.

  • Oldskool

    It’s enough to make you miss people like Wilbur Mills.

    [b]Mills was involved in a traffic incident in Washington, DC at 2 a.m. on October 9, 1974. His car was stopped by U.S. Park Police late at night because the driver had not turned on the lights. Mills was intoxicated, and his face was injured from a scuffle with Annabelle Battistella, better known as Fanne Foxe, a stripper from Argentina. When police approached the car, Foxe leapt from the car and jumped into the nearby Tidal Basin in an attempt to escape. She was taken to St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital for treatment.

    Despite the scandal, Mills was re-elected to Congress in November 1974 in a heavily Democratic year with nearly 60% of the vote, defeating Republican Judy Petty. On November 30, 1974, Mills, seemingly drunk, was accompanied by Fanne Foxe’s husband onstage at The Pilgrim Theatre in Boston, a burlesque house where Foxe was performing. He held a press conference from Foxe’s dressing room.[/b]

  • Oldskool

    So anyhow Quaddafi is dead. Conservatives like Fran Townsend and Johnny McCain are naturally unhappy because it didn’t happen sooner. Some of those people must grind their teeth at night whenever another enemy is taken out on the illegitimate Kenyan’s watch.

  • Michigan Outsider

    The Senate procedures are supposed to slow things down and provide the chance to consider issues carefully. Both the filibuster and blue slips can serve a useful purpose. If blue slips were used to provide a reasonable amount of time to investigate a nominee before voting on confirmation, then this would be a good use of a blue slips. Similarly, if the filibuster rules were used to actually have a debate on issues before a vote, then this would be a good thing as well. Maybe cutting the size of bills down a great deal so that everyone knew what was in them before voting would be a really good idea as well. Or limiting the ability of Congress to delegate almost all the rulemaking to unelected bureaucrats at administrative agencies would be as well, but that’s another subject.

    Are the filibuster and blue slips being abused? Yes, and by both parties. A really simple way to clean up the abuse of filibusters would be to back to the old rules. If a Senator wants to filibuster, the Senator should have to go to the Senate and keep speaking. If more than 40 Senators want to prevent a vote on the bill itself by not voting to end debate, then they will have to stay in the Senate and be ready to vote against cloture 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as they wish to prevent the vote on the bill. But, as long as we can have these virtual filibusters instead of real filibusters, both parties will abuse the process.

  • sdspringy

    There is a price to pay for the abuse of the Dems of their majority until Scot Brown. ObamaCare, DoddWS Reform, legislation that was slammed through to satisfy the Dems Liberal Loons.

    These two signature pieces are both under fire now as unsubstainable and budget busters though the Democrat herd trampled anyone who stood up and yelled WHOAA.

    If the Dems are unable to craft legislation, Dems control the committees where this occurrs, that includes bipartisan input the end result will be gridlock.

    Which suits me and every conservative in the country, better no legislation than legislation based on the ObamaCare template.

    • Rules of engagement

      Gridlock and no legislation.

      The quietus of the American Democracy.

      Desirable to some. Calamitous to most.

    • indy

      I usually don’t try to correct anybody as abjectly poorly informed as you have shown yourself to be, but Scott Brown voted FOR the Dodd-Frank bill (as did two other Republicans), assuming that is what ‘DoddWS Reform’ is intended to reference.

      • sdspringy

        This is a perfect example of the Democrat controled process:

        http://hotair.com/archives/2011/10/20/rand-paul-on-nclb-reauthorization-this-process-is-rotten-from-top-to-bottom/

        868 pages of legislation, 868 pages of amendments, 48 hours to study.

        If it weren’t for the fillibuster this trash makes it into law. Pelosi Passing Standards, pass it so we can know whats in it. Harkin sat on close to 2000 pages of legislation and wants the Senate to swallow.

        Harkin provides no input on who wrote the legislation, who writes 1700 pages of legislation in secret and expects a vote in 48 hours, Democrats.

        • indy

          Deflection doesn’t make you any less of a liar, something you have repeatedly proven you are.

        • sdspringy

          Hard to overcome the complete and utter failure of the Democrats in the Senate or for that matter Obama. Yet when faced with examples of a legislative reason for gridlock the Liberal Loon responds with insults.

          No finer example than Indy for gridlock.

        • indy

          When you lie in absurdly ridiculous ways it makes me a liberal loon? When you steal am I a Marxist or a socialist?

  • Rules of engagement

    No one touched on the 17th amendment —  the one that changed the indirect election to the U.S. Senate to a direct election. To me the importance of the 17th amendment is not how it changes the way senators are elected.  

    It’s real value is in what it says about the Founding Guys.  They could be wrong.  They did not poop Hagan Daz chocolate ice cream.

    If they were wrong about the indirect election of senators, they could be wrong about the 2nd amendment, the 1st or the electoral college. If they were anything like today’s citizens, they could be wrong about 50% of the Constitution. 

    They were only human.

    Not the “the very ‘course of Human Events’ themselves.” 

    Infalability obviously is not one of the inherited characteristics of a Founding Father.  If it were, the Nation wouldn’t be in the straits in which we find ourselves now.