Who knew the U.S. Congress was so exciting? This is my initial reaction after following news coverage of health care reform’s laborious march from the Senate and House to President Obama’s desk, back to the Capitol Hill and then back again to the White House for another presidential signature. The run-up to the March 20 vote in the House contained nearly as many cliffhangers as a decent novel. Will the Democratic House members get the magic 216 votes needed to pass the bill? Who is twisting whose arm and what, if anything is being promised behind closed doors? Will Republican amendments sidetrack the legislation or create a inescapable deadlock? What does “deem and pass” mean anyway? And did you know the U.S. Senate has a parliamentarian?
Another fascinating example I just learned about: the “two hour” rule (number 26 in the Standing Rules of the Senate), which can cause Senate committee activity to effectively shut down after two hours based upon the objection of just one member. In their anger at the passage of health care reform, Republican members employed rule 26 in order to force the cancellation of scheduled committee hearings for two days.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin appeared to be pleading as he tried to convene the Senate Arms Services Committee to discuss North Korea on March 24. “We have three commanders scheduled to testify this afternoon. They’ve been scheduled for a long time. They’ve come a long, long distance,” Levin said, from posts as far away as Korea and Hawaii. “I would, therefore, ask unanimous consent that the previously scheduled and currently scheduled hearing … be allowed to proceed.” Fellow committee member and Republican Senator Richard Burr replied that while he had “no personal objection” to continuing the planned hearing, “there is objection on our side of the aisle. Therefore, I would have to object.”
And with that, afternoon work ground to a halt. Also canceled: an oversight hearing on police training contracts in Afghanistan, a hearing on the cause of western U.S. forest fires, two judicial nominations, and a hearing on medical prescriptions for nursing home patients.
As I discover new intricacies to the American legislative process, I am coming to the conclusion that the key to being a good Member of Congress must be an encyclopedic knowledge of the rule books so one is as well armed as they can be with strategies and tactics to move legislation forward or block it, depending upon the ultimate goal.
Do these little known rules make our legislative process too complex or subject to pettiness? Or do they provide individual Senators and Representatives with necessary tools to make more of a personal impact in the process, rather than just being counted in a “yea” or “nay” vote tally?
As 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck reportedly said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”