CongressLine by On the Floor, In Congress

Paul Jenks is with


Congressional floor debate and speeches lie at the heart of the process of legislating. It is a hallmark of a democracy to have the elected representatives give voice to the opinions of the voters, at least the voters who voted for him or her. Despite the very important and symbolic nature of things, floor debate occupies a sort of netherworld of legislative monitors like me. No one would deny that it is not important, but it frequently gets put off to the back burner as more important things are sizzling on the stove that require more attention. In my last article I noted how some people get worked up over the language of a single bill, but the oratorical and persuasive capability of their elected representative is ignored. The origins of Congressional debate can be traced back to ancient Athens and citizen debate in the Areopagus, although our Congressional orators are a long way from Socrates.

Prior to 1980 the most widely recognized impression of what happens the Floor of Congress was the representation of James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even that movie, as I recall, did not hold much hope in Senator Smith’s attempts to change Senate minds based upon his impassioned pleas. In 1980, the quaint Mr. Smith view was destroyed by C-SPAN. Every standup comic in Hollywood has in his or her repertoire a remark about C-SPAN; it always is synonymous with boring. Everyone has heard the jokes about your TV being stuck on C-SPAN while the remote is lost in the couch cushions – what horror! But really it is not true. Sure some members need a good class on public speaking, but the only really boring times are the very long periods of voting and tiresome quorum calls. From my experience, Senators and Representatives make every effort to appear like James Stewart, sticking up for the orphans.

For nearly the entire 20th century, the only way to keep an eye on Congress was it’s official record, the Congressional Record. Every “official” word uttered was recorded, every action and vote tallied in a black and white soft cover book every day. C-SPAN and online sources eliminated that book. Floor debate historically rested on the seemingly forlorn hope that someone in Congress would listen to a member’s side of the argument, and possibly change their mind. Now the debate is not an attempt to change a mind in the Chamber, but for the wider audience in TV Land.

Floor debate for legislative monitors can be helpful, mostly to explain the background of amendments and for the instantaneous reporting of results. You can watch the game live or read the box score in the morning. If your job (or funding) rests on what happens, live is better than the box score. What did the Senator mean when he offered a second-degree amendment to another amendment? What does the amendment say? Some people do not care, but other like newspaper reporters or lobbyists, getting timely information on floor debate is important.

In my little company, we have two sharp guys in the back room; Dan Peake watches C-SPAN, the House of Representatives, all day long, every single word. Will Hall watches C-SPAN 2, the Senate, in the same manner. I periodically walk back there, primarily to provide encouragement because such a job must be quite tedious. Sometimes I go to fan the fires of institutional discord – House vs. Senate. Often I stay and listen. They seem to like the job; they also seem to identify with the Senators and Representatives. They know who is mad or grumpy, who are the grenade throwers, and who likes to bring in huge charts and graphs. They know the mood and temper perhaps as well as someone on the floor themselves. It also occurred to me that these two guys have to be the only people on the entire planet, outside of the Clerk’s desk in either Chamber, who actually listen to it all. Of course they don’t get paid to listen to it all for fun since they need to record the actions on bills in real time for online subscribers. To me this is interesting; the only people in the world who listen to the most powerful and important legislative assembly in the world, every word uttered on the floor, are two guys sitting in a small office above a Post Office and dry cleaners in Southeast DC.

I have been using a new tool by FedNet that provides the real-time video and caption text of remarks on the floor. It is very interesting. The text is akin to the text you see on TV in a bar or restaurant, where it is too noisy to hear and is provided for the hearing impaired. Without the massive spelling problems typical of tavern TVs, it reads like a William Faulkner novel, no punctuation and haphazard capitalization. It is one of the last bastions to fall in monitoring everything relating to Congress. This will not replace the guys in the back room, but could be useful for those who want to read the text of real remarks as they happened that day. Note I said “real” remarks. Members and Senators usually preface their floor statements with the phrase: “I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks.” This enables Congressional staff to adjust some inopportune words or phrases before the official publication and add additional materials that were never actually said on the floor.

Dan and Will can give you a long litany of zaniness and ludicrous remarks. There have been fisticuffs on the floor, though nothing recently like Senator Sumner of Massachusetts being clubbed over the head during the Civil War. This year’s new trend has been some curse words that one would not normally expect, though it is more embarrassing to search online for these words than hearing them (with cable TV everyone has become very accustomed to vulgarity). The nightly news reports only the ugly remarks; most of the debate is respectful, sincere, and even humorous.

Will and Dan write a weekly report on what has happened. They highlight some of the critical debates. Here are a couple of passages from Will and Dan’s weekly report of floor events:

The Senate on November 2nd on S. 1932, the Deficit Reduction Act, courtesy of Will Hall:

The most vociferous defenders of keeping ANWR (Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) exploration in (S. 1932, the Deficit Reduction Act) were Sens. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Murkowski said domestic energy production is vital because the U.S. currently imports more than 58 percent of its oil and is expected to reach 67 percent within two decades. Stevens made similar arguments, but also went out of his way to respond to Sen. Richard J. Durbin’s (D-IL) statement in favor of (Sen. Maria) Cantwell’s amendment (to strike the pro-drilling language from the bill).

Durbin recounted a camping trip he took to ANWR, describing the refuge as “pristine.” Stevens displayed a large picture of the refuge, stating, “That is the area in wintertime. I defy anyone to say that is a beautiful place that has to be preserved for the future. It is a barren wasteland, a frozen wasteland.”

The recent House debate on the Tax Reconciliation bill, courtesy of Dan Peake:

While these tax bills passed the House easily, this week’s House showdown occurred on the tax portion of the two reconciliation bills, HR 4297. The spending reconciliation bill, HR 4241, passed November 17, without a single Democratic vote. While still a lively debate, the House was more subdued when it debated the bill on Thursday. The bill would provide a two-year extension of the 2003 tax cuts on capital gains dividends. These tax cuts are seen by Democrats as favoring the rich.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) used the same prop used on the spending reconciliation bill: two stockings labeled “rich” and “poor”, in which McDermott moved money from the poor stocking into the rich stocking claiming that is what Republicans were doing with their reconciliation bills. McDermott said, “You take childcare away from children and you put that in the . . . stocking of the rich. Then security, you have social security, SSI benefits for the disabled and the elderly and you take $700 million away from them and put it into the rich folks’ stocking . . . They say let’s save $21 billion, we’ll take it away from the children in divorces and put it in the rich people’s stocking.” After all the money was moved from the poor stocking to the rich stocking, McDermott noted that the only thing left for them was a lump of coal.

Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS), whose district was severely affected by Hurricane Katrina, made an emotional plea for Republicans to rethink their priorities. Taylor said, “you want to know where this house’s priorities are, it’s not with the average Joes. It’s with the political contributing class. You can call them what you want. You can call them rich . . . The guy on Coleman Avenue whose house washed away, he doesn’t write big checks so maybe that’s why you don’t listen to him.”

Republicans accused the Democrats of class warfare and of not supporting the members of all economic classes who are now part of the investor class.
Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) said, “As I listened to the pathetic, that’s the only way you can describe it, the pathetic old class warfare, us versus them
argument . . . The facts are 56.9 million American families, 56.9 million American families, nearly 60% of American families, are members of the
investor class. The investor class. People who have some kind of investment. Mr. Speaker, 30%, 30% of the members of the investor class earn
less than $50,000 a year.” The bill passed on a largely party line vote 234-197.

We will hear more from Will and Dan about their impressions and method of maintaining their sanity. There are differences between the styles of debate between the two chambers, which they will explore those differences more next month.

I can assure you that the Tax Reconciliation Bill is much more tedious to read than the Floor debate on the measure. Sure debate can be stilted, polemic and dry, but it can be at times impassioned as Mr. Smith, with stentorian style plus all kinds of curses, hollers and tantrums thrown in.

There is a drawback to US Congressional debate. In some respects it is a very cheap show; no vote will be changed based upon some wonderful speech. The actors are not very seasoned performers; despite being elected, most are terrible public speakers. In London, at the House of Commons, many Wednesdays are reserved for the Prime Minister’s Question Time. Now, that is real theater. The opposition grills the head of government! If the Prime Minister can’t respond in kind either with wisdom, humor or equal bluster his (or her) days as the Queen’s Prime Minister may be numbered. Congress seems much more artificial; the action or give and take takes place elsewhere on talk shows, in back corridors, newspapers and blogs. No one to my knowledge has been defeated upon reelection because they were terrible floor speakers. While in London the questions and debate can unhinge a government, debate on the floor in Congress rarely makes a difference. Debate outside of the floor, in the cloakroom, in committee or elsewhere outside of the public view is more important in Washington, DC.

While floor debate is a sort of netherworld, if you have no interest in the topic it can be boring, but everything Congress debates is important, it should not be ignored or belittled. Don’t listen to the comics. You can learn from floor debate more than you think. It can be good and bad theater and it is the very heart of our democracy, which itself can be good and bad theater.

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