The real business in Congress all revolves around voting. While this is quite obvious, since it is a legislative body of members who vote the interests of their constituents, voting however sometimes gets lost in the glamour of hearings and legislative minutiae.
Except of course, when the vote is close.
The party that has the majority of the votes organizes both Houses of Congress. I have noted previously that in the House this means much more than in the Senate. The majority party in the House holds near absolute sway over everything. The majority of the Senate is not so lucky, unless of course they hold a 60 vote majority, which rarely is the case. The current majority in the House is 33 votes in favor of the Democrats, while in the Senate, it is one vote. The Democrats in the House have a reasonable but by no means rock solid majority and in the Senate, it is extremely precarious. In such an environment every single vote becomes very, very important.
First however, some procedural comments. Voting takes place in a finely orchestrated legislative process that is full of arcane and ancient precedents and many mechanisms to get around the rules. The House and the Senate operate somewhat in the same manner though the House rules are much more defined and structured. The House, of course, has 435 members and if it operated under the same rules as the Senate, most would agree, absolutely nothing could get done. The role of the Senate is distinctly different, since it is designed to be more collegial and deliberative, much like it’s ancient ancestor the House of Lords in England. (Note: Regular voters did not elect Senators until 1913 and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution). The House of Representatives was designed to be the much more representative of smaller groups of voters, not states, and is commonly known as “The Peoples Chamber.”
One critical distinction between the two chambers is time. The Senate does not have a limitation on the amount of time a member can speak. The House has a one-hour limit and this limit is frequently avoided at all costs as 435 times one hour would be more than 50 days of debate on a measure. The Senate accommodates members who want to talk; the House rigidly cuts people off.
The House gets around the one-hour entitlement in a number of ways, but the main way is to dissolve themselves into a giant committee called the Committee of the Whole. Most work on amendments takes place in this committee, which is subject to committee rules versus normal full house rules. Once they are done with amending a bill, the House “rises” out of the Committee of the Whole and then resumes its regular business as the full House of Representatives.
The Senate has no need for such theater; they plow through legislation with countless speeches and amendments for days and days.
Another factor that significantly affects business in the House vs. the Senate are the procedures to proposed amendments. The House keeps a very close reign on amendments to legislation on the floor. They not only deal with them in the Committee of the Whole, but they also severely limit the number of them in most cases. Before most measures come to the floor of the House, the House Rules Committee will determine the procedures that will apply to the bill, particularly any amendments that can be debated and voted. The committee will create a “rule” (normally designated as a House Resolution or HRES). Then when it comes to the floor, the rule is voted on, and then the regular bill is brought up. Debate then takes place according to the special rule for the bill. Minority amendments usually are greatly restricted if any are allowed at all. Most, but not all, measures proceed in this manner which is called a “closed rule”. Some bills, particularly the 13 appropriations bills, are not as restricted (though they could be) and are often afforded an “open rule” where anyone can propose an amendment when the bill is in the Committee of the Whole. The Senate does not have such mechanisms although there can be times even in the Senate when amendments are restricted.
There is an intermediate vote in both Chambers that can be important. In the House, before the bill comes up for a final vote, usually the minority requests a motion to recommit the bill back to the committee, usually with instructions, which is the last attempt to either kill the bill or amend the bill further. A vote to recommit almost always fails as it merely requires a simple majority. The Senate has a more profound preliminary measure called cloture, which is a vote to end debate on the bill and to vote on final passage. This famous procedure requires a majority to pass, meaning that even if a bill has a majority of support in the Senate, it really needs 60 votes to get a vote on the floor.
Of course, I am have been referring to the cases where legislation is considered to be somewhat controversial. Many bills go to the floor of both the House and the Senate under the Suspension of the Rules, and the measure is passed, often with by voice vote (no recorded, roll call vote).
There are many different permutations of the rules in both chambers and over the past 200 years, they have been challenged and adopted into every conceivable scenario. There are ways for the minority party in the House to slow things down and embarrass the all-powerful majority party.
Voting is a high art in Congress. With so many votes on a specific measure, including the rule (in the House), motions, amendments and final passage, things can get confusing. If a member doesn’t really want to go on record, opposing or supporting a measure, he or she may vote for a procedural measure, perhaps to recommit, or a substitute amendment. Of course that means the bill probably is dead, but that may be a satisfactory outcome for the member. They may also vote for an amendment that significantly changes the nature of the bill and perhaps was a better alternative, but against the bill itself. There are many different permutations of this; all of it is based on political considerations of the member or Senator. So you can get members saying “I voted for the bill, before I voted against it,” and the statement would be accurate.
There is a position in both parties in both chambers that lives in this world of legislative procedure and its most important element – voting. This position is the Whip. This position is by far the most interesting for me. The party Whip’s job is to mobilize the party members to vote…appropriately. They have to know where everyone is; they have to know how to get people to the floor to vote and to vote the right way to vote on hundreds of different votes. The Whip is the one always counting the votes before they are cast and twisting arms, and cajoling recalcitrant members to vote or to change their vote. The Whip knows were everyone is and probably a lot more. It is not a position for a feint hearted or a person with poor detail skills. The Whip is the person to go to for an accurate gauge of rank-and file opinion within the party.
The Whip position, interestingly, is a really a 20th Century creation in the U.S. Congress and it started only at the turn of the last century. The idea of the position is much older and of course comes from the British House of Commons. The name comes from fox hunting and the person who is responsible for keeping the fox hounds in the pack and hunting for the fox.
Of course the title “Whip” is purely metaphorical. No one is whipping anyone, no bones are crushed. The position is responsible for shepherding the members voting. It has been compared to “herding cats.” In fact, Sen. Trent Lott, the Senate Republican Whip, even wrote a book with that title.
The vote counting in Congress, or any Parliamentary assembly, is where all the drama resides. Otherwise, proceedings are really quite dull. Occasionally, Hollywood will present a Congress or Parliament in a movie, and it is the vote counting that provides the tension and suspense. For those interested in such movies – you may want to check out the recent movie “Amazing Grace” which records William Wilberforce’s vote whipping to get the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade in the 19th Century. Or there is a favorite Simpson’s episode where the Simpson family does the vote whipping on a measure in Congress. Finally there is a darker BBC series about the Chief Tory Whip in Parliament called The House of Cards, though this is purely fictional (Whips are not normally as ruthless). British Whips have much more ammunition to use when whipping than American ones.
Whips normally get the job (the vote) done for the party, or if they are in the minority, they do a valiant delaying effort. There will be members, however, that do not heed them. It can happen, particularly in the Senate. You can see this today. The Democrats control both chambers but passage of the “Democratic program” (particularly on the war in Iraq) has been extremely difficult.
Voting is sacred to many members of Congress. It really is the only reason why they are there. It is not uncommon to see and hear of members and august Senators running through the halls to cast their vote in time. This to me is appropriate, and illustrates the significance and importance they accord to our fair democracy.