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rubber chicken circuit

In politics, a “rubber chicken circuit’ is the nickname given to the endless parade of dinners that political candidates must attend during a campaign for office in order to meet donors and raise money.

The term refers to the pre-cooked, stale and unappetizing meals often served at these fundraising dinners. As described in The Guardian, it describes “the abundance of cold drumsticks on the buffet tables.”

The first known use of this term dates back to the 1950s when improvements in transportation made it easier for candidates to travel the city, state or country in which they were running to meet with potential supporters. Perhaps the earliest use is from a 1953 New York Times article: “Pity the poor coach. This is his twenty-first engagement on the ‘rubber chicken circuit’ in the past month and he has to drive 200 miles to the next town after he has finished his pleas for John and the other departing seniors.”

Over the years, countless candidates have hit the “rubber chicken circuit” to pound the flesh, raise money and meet wealthy donors. In 2012, Politico described then Maryland governor, and future presidential candidate, Martin O’ Malley’s appearance at Iowa steak dinner as ‘ramping up his presence on the national rubber-chicken circuit.”

During the lead up to the 2016 presidential race, in describing what Hillary Clinton will have to do to win the Oval Office, the Washington Post noted: “She’s going to have to spend time on the rubber-chicken circuit, looking inquisitive in factories (donning safety goggles as well) and dealing with a whole lot of minutiae.”

The term “rubber chicken circuit” is not just limited to campaigning, but also refers to the spate of high-profile speeches given by former officeholders, as in the case of Newt Gingrich, whose “rubber chicken circuit” speeches are described here in Wired Magazine as earning the former Speaker of the House “$50,000 a pop.”

While the rubber chicken circuit has long been a staple of donor-based campaigning, in more recent years it has become more associated with elitism in the political arena: From a 2020 article from The Independent, quoting Donald Trump, Jr.: “I am not an elitist. Never have been, never wanted to be and certainly never tried to get on the BS rubber chicken dinner circuit,”

Of course, the food served at these countless political dinners is not limited to poultry: the “rubber chicken circuit” is also sometimes referred to as the “mashed potato circuit.”

pork barrel projects

Wasteful government expeditures that lawmakers secure for their local districts in an attempt to gain favor with voters.

The term first came into use as a political term just after the Civil War. It’s derived from the practice of plantations distributing rations of salt pork to slaves from large wooden barrels as a reward or for special occasions

muckraker

A journalist who investigates the scandalous activities of public officials and businesses.

The term “muckraker” was first used in a speech on April 14, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt: “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; Who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.”

The most famous muckrakers in American history are probably Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their work in exposing the corruption in the Nixon administration.

inside the Beltway

The area inside the Capital Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C.

An issue that is described as “inside the Beltway” is said to be only of concern to the people who work in the federal government and is of little interest to the nation at large.

fishing expedition

An open-ended investigation with no defined purpose, usually launched by one party seeking damaging information about another. These inquiries are compared to fishing because they pull up whatever they happen to catch.

Astroturfing

Astroturfing is an artificially-manufactured political movement designed to give the appearance of grassroots activism.

Campaigns & Elections magazine defined astroturf as a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.”

Unlike natural grassroots campaigns which are people-rich and money-poor, an astroturf campaign tends to be the opposite, well-funded but with little actual support from voters.

bully pulpit

bully pulpit

A bully pulpit is a public office or position of authority that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter.  In theory, the expression could refer to any position of authority. In practice, it is usually used to describe the presidency.

The phrase bully pulpit is attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt, who exclaimed the words in response to critics of his leadership style. Roosevelt said, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit” as he wrote an address to Congress.

Roosevelt often used the adjective “bully” to describe an event or action that was good or entertaining. The noun pulpit refers to a raised stand used for readings during religious ceremonies.

The bully pulpit in Roosevelt’s mind wasn’t about pummeling legislators with presidential authority; rather, he believed the president could encourage the public to push their legislators on behalf of his agenda. Roosevelt, an avid reader and a prolific writer, coined an enduring phrase that would act as a litmus test for future presidents.

The Republican president was a more activist president than fallen successor William McKinley. Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. He intervened in a Pennsylvania coal strike and used executive orders to protect natural resources. Roosevelt remained a popular American figure beyond the end of his time as president with his name invoked during the 1916 and 1920 Republican nominating conventions.

Of course, Theodore Roosevelt was not the first president to use his position as a means of lecturing the American people. Abraham Lincoln was using a bully pulpit when he addressed the nation after the Civil War, urging the American people to move forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Public evaluations of the presidency include how officeholders have used the bully pulpit to promote their values and policies. Dwight Eisenhower was noted for staying clear of the bully pulpit, which contributed to his broad popularity over two terms in office. Jimmy Carter has been celebrated for using the fame of a former president to help domestic and international humanitarian organizations. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter and rallies show modern applications of the bully pulpit concept.

As Robert Schlesinger has noted, the bully pulpit has magnified as communications methods reach deeper into American life. The first presidential radio address was given by Warren Harding but Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt showed how the radio could engage the public. Harry Truman gave the first presidential speech on television but Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy showed the medium’s potential. Trump’s frequent use of social media follows earlier efforts by George W. Bush and Barack Obama to harness the Internet for bully pulpit purposes.

Social media has made it easier than ever for presidents to directly address the American people. Analysts have pointed out that President Donald Trump often uses his Twitter account as a kind of digital bully pulpit. The president took to Twitter to air his views during the impeachment hearings, to the dismay of many pundits. He also uses Twitter to discuss foreign policy and defense spending, among other issues. The president has also used Twitter to announce new policy initiatives and to express his opinions of other public figures.

Examples

Washington Post (July 2, 2017): “With the Republican push to revamp the Affordable Care Act stalled again, even some allies of President Trump question whether he has effectively used the bully pulpit afforded by his office and are increasingly frustrated by distractions of his own making.”

Forbes (January 19, 2017): “Properly exercised, the bully pulpit should reflect the leader’s personality, strengthening a natural and genuine extension of the leader’s communications relationship with followers.”

The Atlantic (April 2013): “The people agreed with Obama that the rich should pay more in taxes, agreed with Reagan that everybody should get a tax cut, and agreed with Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security. These presidents didn’t need to move the needle on these issues; all they had to do was marshal support. But the same three presidents, using the same bully-pulpit tactics, failed to win over the people – and the lawmakers – on other fronts.”

caucus

An informal meeting of local party members to discuss candidates and choose delegates to their party’s convention.

The term can also refer to informal groups of Members of the House of Representatives or the Senate used to discuss common issues of concern and conduct policy planning for its members. There are also regional, ideological, and ethnic-based caucuses in Congress.

The term comes from the Algonquian language and means “to meet together.”

William Harris: “The term Caucus is first attested in the diary of John Adams in l763 as a meeting of a small group interested in political matters, but William Gordon’s History of the Independence of the United States of America, 1788 speaks of the establishment of caucus political clubs as going back fifty years earlier than his time of writing in 1774, so a first-occurrence date for the caucus can be estimated in retrospect as early as 1724.”

Congressional Record

The official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress. It is published daily when Congress is in session. At the back of each daily issue is the “Daily Digest,” which summarizes the day’s floor and committee activities.

The Congressional Record is available online from 1994.

dog whistle politics

“Dog whistle politics” refers to the practice of sending out coded political messages, which are designed to be understood only by a narrow target audience.

In their literal form, dog whistles are instruments that emit high-pitched frequencies which only dogs can hear; human beings don’t even register the sound. In their figurative form, dog whistle messages can be heard and understood by members of certain groups, but not by the population at large.

According to Merriam Webster, “dog whistle” was first used figuratively in 1947. That’s when a book called American Economic History described a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as being “designed to be like a modern dog-whistle, with a note so high that the sensitive farm ear would catch it perfectly while the unsympathetic East would hear nothing.” Merriam Webster notes that the expression didn’t become widespread until the mid 1990s.

Today, the term dog whistle is chiefly used to describe coded hateful messages. In society at large, it is not usually acceptable to make racist, sexist, or xenophobic statements. That means that politicians who want to make such statements need to use coded language, or, to put it another way, dog whistles.

In recent years, pundits have accused President Donald Trump of using dog whistles to convey xenophobic and racist messages to his supporters. The president came under heavy criticism when he tweeted that certain Congressional Democrats who “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” should leave the United States instead of criticizing his administration. Trump’s tweet was interpreted by some to be a thinly disguised attack on non-white members of Congress like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, both of whom were born in the United States.

As a presidential candidate, Trump was accused of using racist anti-Semitic dog whistles to subtly empower white nationalists. Analysts argue that Trump’s supporters often picked up on the candidate’s messaging and responded to it by making overtly racist or anti-Semitic statements on social media.

Democratic politicians have also been accused of using dog whistles to covertly shore up support from white voters. Former Sen. Claire McCaskill came under fire after she said that Sen. Bernie Sanders might be too far to the left to win with midwestern voters. Many felt that McCaskill was using “midwestern” as code for “white,” and that she was deliberately setting herself apart from non-white people and Jews. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, has similarly been accused of using “heartland” as a dog whistle to white voters.

Of course, the practice of using dog whistles dates back to well before the 1990s, when the term became widespread. Most analysts agree that Ronald Reagan was using a dog whistle when he spoke about “states’ rights” on a campaign stop in Mississippi, back in 1980. Reagan was, analysts say, appealing to southern segregationists, or, more broadly, to any white voter with racist beliefs. Since racism and xenophobia were already taboo, the only way to appeal directly to racist voters was through coded language, or dog whistles.

lame duck session

When the House or Senate reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November general elections to consider various items of business. Some lawmakers who return for this session will not be in the next Congress. Hence, they are informally called “lame duck” Members participating in a “lame duck” session.

advice and consent

Under Article II of the United States Constitution, presidential nominations for executive and judicial posts take effect only when confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In addition, international treaties become effective only when the U.S. Senate approves them by a two-thirds vote.

live pair

A “live pair” is an informal voluntary agreement between lawmakers which is not specifically recognized by House or Senate rules.

Live pairs are agreements which Members employ to nullify the effect of absences on the outcome of recorded votes. If a Member expects to be absent for a vote, he or he may “pair off” with another Member who will be present and who would vote on the other side of the question, but who agrees not to vote.

The Member in attendance states that he has a live pair, announces how he and the paired Member would have voted, and then votes “present.” In this way, the other Member can be absent without affecting the outcome of the vote. Because pairs are informal and unofficial arrangements, they are not counted in vote totals; however paired Members’ positions do appear in the Congressional Record.

sine die

Without any future date being designated for resumption from the Latin term meaning “without a day.” An adjournment sine die signifies the end of an annual or special legislative session.

quorum call

quorum call

A quorum call is a procedure used in both houses of Congress to bring to the floor the number of members who must be present for the legislative body to conduct its business.

The quorum call is established in Article I, Section V of the U.S. Constitution:

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

Each chamber needs a majority of its members present in order to conduct business. A majority of the U.S. House constitutes at least 218 members, while 51 senators form a quorum in the U.S. Senate. Quorum rules are often applied to local and state legislatures due to their presence in the Constitution and Robert’s Rules of Order.

Quorum calls may be used for their original purpose (“live quorum calls”) or as a delaying tactic (“routine quorum calls”). A representative can trigger a roll call vote in the House using a point of order. The presiding officer takes a headcount and calls a recess if there isn’t a quorum. From 1796 to 1890, the House used the number of votes on each measure to determine if a quorum was present. Speaker Thomas Reed (R) led a change in the chamber’s rules to compel a headcount to avoid votes that fail to reach a quorum.

Senators can raise questions about the chamber’s quorum at any point to force a roll call by the clerk. The chamber may be recessed until a quorum is reached or the sergeant of arms sent to request the presence of a quorum. This tactic can be used to allow time for behind-the-scenes negotiations between the parties. A call can also delay a vote until certain legislators back in the chamber.

Examples

Roll Call (January 31, 2020): “Before the vote, the Senate broke for a quorum call after arguments from each side for and against hearing from witnesses.”

Politico (January 21, 2020): “The chamber went into a brief quorum call to see what the next step is, and when the proceeding restarted it was clear no deal was reached as the Senate proceeded into a debate as long as two hours over subpoenaing Defense Department documents.”

Vox (July 3, 2018): “First, they’d initiate a quorum call or a roll-call vote. This, of course, would require a Democrat to be in the chamber, and perhaps several other Democrats to support a request for a vote or a quorum call.”

 

House Democratic cloakroom

cloakroom

In politics, cloakrooms are spaces adjacent to the chambers of the Senate and the House where politicians from both parties can gather to discuss Congressional business privately. There is a separate cloakroom for each political party. Put simply, a cloakroom is to politics what a breakroom is to a normal office.

Cloakrooms were first established in the late 1800s as actual places for members to store their coats, umbrellas, hats and other apparel, but that usage became obsolete as more office space was built over the years. With the creation of individual offices for members, cloakrooms were converted into places for members to gather to talk about legislation, meet privately to discuss issues facing Congress, make secret deals, or just vent to each other about Congressional matters.

These rooms are closed to everyone except for Senators, Representatives, Senate Pages, some select staffers, and they may even have their own private phone numbers.

An elaboration of life in the cloakroom from CNN: “Floor assistants and cloakroom attendants are among those who work in the rooms. Their duties include alerting lawmakers when votes are coming up, telling them whether the chamber will be open on a snow day and working with pages to deliver messages.”

C-SPAN explained up the cloakroom environment as “food, phones, frivolity, and fights.”

They are noisy, smelly, and cramped spaces. The House cloakrooms both have snack bars (basic diner food, e.g. hot dogs, sandwiches, and soups, and yes, they have to pay), but when they’re still voting late into the night, it’s better than nothing. Senators don’t have snack bars, but Senate catering sends left-over food platters from receptions to the cloakrooms, so there is usually something to nosh on.

All the cloakrooms have old-fashioned phone booths and the cloakroom staff tell Members which numbered booth they can use to take or make a call. There are stacks of flyers from the Whip offices about the floor schedule; from outside groups stating their position about that day’s votes, and copies of leadership Dear Colleague letters to their troops. The furnishings are modest, even a little shabby: large leather lounge chairs, sofas, and many ash-trays because that’s where all the serious smokers hang-out. Talk about a smoke-filled room, the cloakrooms are it! There are wall-mounted television sets and regular tiffs about the remote control. Sometimes sports events are favored over the floor proceedings occurring just on the other side of the door.

And the New York Times described them this way in 1986: “The Republican and Democratic cloakrooms are situated just off the floor of each chamber, and there a handful of men and women scramble to keep the members abreast of activity…”

“Although members of Congress themselves use the rooms a lot less frequently that their predecessors of earlier eras did, many still come around on the House side to take advantage of snack bars in the cloakrooms and occasionally to watch a crucial baseball game specially broadcast into the rooms.”

cloture

“Cloture” is legislative procedural term that refers to a motion or process by which debate is brought to a quick end.

From the French word meaning “the act of terminating something,” cloture is “basically a vote to go ahead on a vote, a procedural oddity of the Senate that allows a majority leader to ‘push past a recalcitrant minority,’” as described in a Pew Research article from 2017.

Simply put, cloture is a “is a blunt tool for managing the Senate,” wrote Brookings Institute’s Sarah Binder four years earlier in The Washington Post.

While it’s true that most legislators would prefer to come to a consensus rather than force an end to floor debate, cloture is a tool that began over 100 years ago under contentious circumstances. The Senate’s own website explains: “In 1841, when the Democratic minority hoped to block a bank bill promoted by Kentucky senator Henry Clay, he threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close debate. Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate’s right to unlimited debate.”

It goes on: “Three quarters of a century later, in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as ‘cloture.’”

The first time that cloture was actually used was two years later, in 1919, when the Senate invoked the rule to end a filibuster of the Versailles Treaty.

One of the most notable uses of cloture occurred was 45 years later, in order to put an end to a 57-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite some important uses of cloture, over the decades it became clear that the two-thirds majority needed to invoke it was prohibitive. Indeed, cloture was only successfully used 4 times from 1917 to 1960.

As described here, the rule was finally changed in 1975:

“The majority needed to invoke cloture in the Senate remained two-thirds, or 67 votes, of the 100-member body from the rule’s adoption in 1917 until 1975, when the number of votes needed was reduced to just 60.”

As result of the change to three-fifths, cloture became more common, and was used a record 187 times during the Democrat-controlled 113th Congress, which served during the Obama administration, a period of intense filibustering by Republicans.

While the three-fifth rule for cloture passed in 1975 eased the threshold for invoking the rule, there’s an additional option at the disposal of the Senate, the so-called “nuclear option.”

Famously used by Senate Republicans to speed up Trump administration judicial nominees, the nuclear option allows a cloture vote to pass with a mere majority of Senators. Here’s how it’s characterized by Politico: “The nuclear option — a change of the Senate rules by a simple majority — gained its name because it was seen as an explosive maneuver that would leave political fallout for some time to come.”

Cloture, and its use to end objections to certain legislation or approvals of nominees, remains a lightning rod to this day, a contentious and highly partisan tool of the U.S. Senate.

filibuster

An informal term for any attempt to block or delay U.S. Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.

From the Senate Historical Office: “Using the filibuster to delay or block legislative action has a long history. The term filibuster — from a Dutch word meaning ‘pirate’ — became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.

In the early years of Congress, representatives as well as senators could filibuster. As the House of Representatives grew in numbers, however, revisions to the House rules limited debate. In the smaller Senate, unlimited debate continued on the grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue.”

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) holds the record for the longest filibuster in his attempt to block the 1957 Civil Rights bill. Though he held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the bill passed just two hours after he stopped talking.

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