Friday, January 25, 2013

Even a Democrat Can Write a Decent Book

Tom Daschle and Charles Robbin. The U.S. Senate. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2013.

This book explains that Congress is designed to represent the public yet doing so in a manner that sustains democracy while allowing for the correction of errors (i.e. McCarthyism).. “Congress was created by geniuses so it could be run by idiots” is a Congressional saying. Partisanship and gridlock have long been part of its history yet thought its complex system, laws emerge.

As Pennsylvania was the first state to elect its Senators, that made its Senators Robert Morris and William Maclay the first and second Senators. As of 2013, there have been 1,941 Senators. Daschle was the 1,776th Senator.

The philosophical differences between the two political parties are not by famous statements of Presidents from both parties. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt noted his fellow Democrats believe “as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of government to find new remedies with which to meet them.” Republican Ronald Reagan evoked his the Republican Party’s philosophy that “government is the problem, not the solution.”

In the 1970s and prior, Senators in both parties worked and compromised on legislation.  Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirkson stated “I live by my principles, and one of my principles is flexibility.” Today, the Senate is more partisan. Partisanship can be good when strong principles are defended. It can stifle legislative progress.

George Washington explained explained the creation of a second Congressional chamber as a means to cool legislation that may have been hotly and improperly passed by one chamber. Washington remarked that “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

The House Rules Committee establishes debate and amendment rules. The Senate mostly allows open debate unlike the House that places time limits. At times the Senate appears to be a place where somebody stands up to speak, nobody listens, and then everybody disagrees.”

The Vice President, from John Adams under Washington to Richard Nixon under Eisenhower, primarily presided over the Senate, rarely spoke on the Senate floor, and seldom attended Cabinet and Executive meetings. Vice President Lyndon Johnson moved the Vice President’s office from the Capitol to the White House. Every subsequent Vice President has taken a White House office.

80% of current Senate correspondence is by email.

The Senate has 20 committees, 68 subcommittees, and 4 joint committees with each Senator having 12 or less committee assignments. The author advise making committees “small and manageable.”

The Senate had only several Select committees until 1816 when its 11 Select committees were made permanent. The Senate Appropriations Committee began in 1867 by separating out its duties from the Finance Committee.

Senate debate is kept formal to try to keep discussions rational and orderly. Majority Leader Alben Barkley once advised “if you think a colleague is stupid, refer to him as ‘the able, learned, and distinguished Senator’, but if you now he is stupid, refer to him as ‘the very able, learned, and distinguished Senator.”

A “routine quorum call” is usually a procedure to buy time without adjourning or recessing and can be rescinded by unanimous consent. A “live quorum call” is to hve Senators report to the Senate floor. Attendance can be compelled. The Sergeant at Arms once had Senator Robert Packwood carried to the floor.

A Senator placing a hold on a bill is threatening to filibuster it.Holds do not exist under formal Senate rules yet are informally provided to Leaders. Daschle believes the Senator placing a hold should be publicly named, unlike current practice.

A cloture motion seeks to limit debate. The number of cloture motions has vastly increased in the last five years compared to the past. This reflects the large increase in the number of holds.

The authors observe “government is always better when its leaders hear as many points of view as possible, and gather ideas from the widest possible range of people who will be affected by their decisions.”

Legislation is often passed by building bipartisan coalitions, compromises, defending principles, and having a strong message. Senators may agree to support a bill in return for support for another bill, called “logrolling”. Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson often used  non-legislative favors, such as appointments to boost a Senator’s home state popularity,

A Majority Leader may bypass the committee system and place a bill directly before the Senate on the Calendar of General Orders. This risks attracting amendments that could have been considered in committee and having opponents claim the bill is being shoved through without due consideration. Legislative can be dual-tracked.

A Majority Leader can preclude amendments from other Senators by using the right of first recognition to file all amendments under agreed to rules, an action known as to “fill the amendment tree”. This could be met with a filibuster.

A Conference Report is a committee appointed from both chambers to resolves differences on legislation between the two chambers, The bill offered by the Conference Committee cannot be amended and can only be voted upon as is. In recent years, Conference Reports have deleted sections to which both chambers had previously agreed and attached new language. This is a “violate scope” procedure which has become more common. Such actions are reducing the use of Conference Committees.

Debate on reconciliation bills is limited to 24 hours. They often have non-spending items attached to them.

There is less socialization amongst Senators since airplanes allowed Senators to commute from their home states. Campaigns have become more costly, causing Senators to spend ore time fund raising and less time on Senate work, including socialization with other Senators. House seats have tended to be draw to protect incumbents causing members of Congress to be ore inclined to support their base of supporters then seeking legislative compromises. News reporting has become more slanted, from Fox News slanting right to MSNBC slanting left.

Daschle observes that personal relationships between Senators used to overcome partisan barriers It is feared that more Senators today are more fueled by ambition and less by a desire for legislative accomplishment. The authors observe “keeping our republic always requires two things: fighting for ti and working at it. With the right enlightened approach, our best days truly do lie ahead of us.”


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