Senate

one-house bill

A one-house bill is introduced by a legislator for the purpose of grandstanding or to demonstrate their effort to fulfill political promises without the ability to actually pass the bill into law.

One-house bills are often introduced to congress by members of the minority party, even when they do not have the support to pass these bills in the other legislative chamber.

nuclear option

The “nuclear option” is when the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate disregards a rule or precedent.

This most commonly refers to an effort by the Senate to end a filibuster by a simple majority, even though rules specify that ending a filibuster requires the consent of at least 60 senators.

An opinion written by Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957 concluded that the U.S. Constitution grants the presiding officer the authority to override Senate rules in this way. If a majority vote to uphold the presiding officer, his interpretation of the rules becomes a precedent.

Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) first called the option “nuclear” in March 2003, using the metaphor of a nuclear strike to suggest it might provoke retaliation by the minority party.

smell of jet fuel

smell of jet fuel

“Smell of jet fuel” is a reference to the impatience that sets in when Members of Congress are ready to leave Washington, D.C. to return to their districts for the weekend or a legislative recess.

ping pong

“Ping pong” refers to reconciling the differences between a House-passed bill and a Senate-passed bill by amendments between the chambers, rather than forming a conference committee.

The New Republic: “With ping-ponging, the chambers send legislation back and forth to one another until they finally have an agreed-upon version of the bill. But even ping-ponging can take different forms and some people use the term generically to refer to any informal negotiations.”

Mae West hold

A Mae West hold type of Senate hold nicknamed because of the senator’s implied desire to make a deal, rather than block a legislative action entirely.

The reference to movie star Mae West alludes to her frequently misquoted line from the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”  The senator implies that those who wish to clear the hold are welcome to visit his office and negotiate.

tag-team hold

A tag-team hold is when two or more senators agree to circumvent a 2011 resolution limiting secret senate holds to two days.

One senator will inform his party leader of his intent to place a hold.  Before two days pass, the senator will withdraw his hold, at which time his tag-team partner submits a new hold request.  The senators rotate in this manner, and the identity of neither is revealed.

Senate hold

A Senate hold is how a senator informally signals his objection to a bill or nomination.

Most congressional actions clear parliamentary hurdles by “unanimous consent” of the Senate, so a senator who intends to object to such procedures can, effectively, hold up the action.  He may announce his intentions publicly or, more frequently, inform his party leader and place a “secret hold” on an action.  Holds have become more common since the 1970s, when the Senate began using many more unanimous consent agreements to advance a greater volume of legislation, and opponents have suggested many changes to reform or abolish the practice.

The most recent challenges to this custom include a 2010 letter in which 69 senators pledged not to place holds and a 2011 resolution declaring that, in the case of secret holds, either a senator’s identity is revealed after two days or the hold is assigned to the party leader.  The latter of these reforms has been easily circumvented by the tag-team hold.

candy desk

The “candy desk” is where a supply of candy is kept in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. George Murphy (R-CA) originated the practice of keeping a supply of candy in his desk for the enjoyment of his colleagues in 1965. In every Congress since that time a candy desk has been located in the back row of the Republican side, on the aisle and adjacent to the Chamber’s most heavily used entrance.

Cherokee Strip

A “Cherokee Strip” is the seating area in the U.S. Senate chamber when some members of the majority party mist sit on the side of the minority party.

From the Senate historian: “Occasionally one party maintains such an overwhelming majority that it has become necessary for majority party members to sit on the minority party side in the Senate Chamber. During the 60th Congress (1907-1909), 10 Republicans sat on the Democratic side, while during the 75th Congress (1937-1939), 13 Democrats sat on the Republican side. Such seating became known as the ‘Cherokee Strip,’ a reference to the region in Oklahoma, which was land belonging neither to the Indian Territory nor to the United States. By the 1930s, it had become the practice for senior senators to take front row, center aisle seats; junior majority party members who filled the “Cherokee Strip” were assigned either rear row or end seats on the minority party side.”

The last time a “Cherokee Strip” existed in the Senate was during the 76th Congress from 1939 to 1941. Six of the 69 Democratic senators sat with the 23 Republican and 4 Independent senators.

blue-slipping

If the Senate initiates appropriations legislation, the House practice is to return it to the Senate with a blue piece of paper attached citing a constitutional infringement since all measures are supposed to originate in the House. The practice of returning such bills and amendments to the Senate without action is known as “blue-slipping.”

C-SPAN: “Without House action, Senate-initiated spending legislation cannot make it into law. So in practice, the Senate rarely attempts to initiate such bills anymore, and if it does, the House is diligent about returning them. Regardless of one’s opinion of the correct interpretation of the Constitutional provision, the House refusal to consider such Senate legislation settles the matter in practice.”

filling the tree

“Filling the tree” is a procedure used by the Senate Majority Leader to offer a sufficient number of amendments on legislation to “fill the tree” so that no other senator can offer an amendment.

Congressional Institute: “By tradition, the Majority Leader is recognized first at the start of a debate. This enables the Leader, from time to time, to block the minority from offering any changes to a bill. To accomplish this, the Majority Leader fills the amendment tree with extraneous or meaningless amendments thereby blocking the introduction of any legitimate amendments by any other Senator (including those in his own party). It is a form of parliamentary obstruction used by the majority.”

Committee of the Whole

The Committee of the Whole is a procedural device used to expedite debates in the U.S. House of Representatives.

To use it, the House adjourns and enters into a committee, with all representatives being members – this procedure allows congressmen to debate legislation subject to the simpler committee rules, and is often used to dispense with funding bills quickly. Non-voting delegates can vote in the Committee of the Whole, although their votes cannot be the deciding ones.

The U.S. Senate used the Committee of the Whole as a parliamentary device until May 16, 1930, when the practice was abolished with respect to bills and joint resolutions. The Senate continued to utilize the Committee of the Whole for consideration of treaties until February 27, 1986.

maiden speech

The “maiden speech” is the first speech a legislator gives.

A maiden speech is often a non-controversial tribute to the politician’s state or district, and often pays tribute to his or her predecessor. Especially in the Senate, which prides itself on being the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” senators are expected to wait to deliver their maiden speech until they are familiar with the rules of the body.

While most maiden speeches are relatively uncontroversial, that’s not always the case. One of the most famous was Richard Nixon’s first speech to the House of Representatives, where he praised the communist-hunting efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

sergeant-at-arms

The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate each have a sergeant-at-arms, whose job it is to maintain order in the legislative chamber.

In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms can also be instructed to request the presence of senators if not enough senators are present to meet a quorum.  If the motion to instruct the sergeant-at-arms does not bring in enough senators, the sergeant-at-arms can be instructed to write arrest warrants for all absent senators and is then required to hunt them down and bring them to the floor.

vote-a-rama

U.S. Senate rules include a special section for consideration of the annual Budget resolution. The Budget is not subject to filibuster, but all amendments must be germane and are voted on consecutively without real debate.

During a vote-a-rama, each amendment is considered and voted on for about 10 minutes until they are finished with all amendments. It’s an exhausting process that many senators have said makes it impossible to know what is actually being considered.

Keith Hennessey: “The vote-a-rama is an unusual cultural institution within the Senate. All 100 Senators are on the floor, in the cloakrooms, or right outside the Senate Chamber for hours and hours upon end. Another 100-ish staff are packed onto tiny staff benches in the rear of the Chamber, one for Republican staff and another for Democratic staff. Everyone is usually exhausted during the vote-a-rama, which comes near the end of an arduous and usually conflict-ridden legislative battle.”

unanimous consent

unanimoua consent

Unanimous consent is a legislative procedure whereby a legislator requests approval by all legislators to approve rule changes and bills.

Unanimous consent rules have been used in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate since their first meetings in 1789. A representative or senator requests unanimous consent from the presiding legislator to bypass quorum calls, approve routine bills, and activate unanimous consent agreements. Any legislator can object to this request in order to trigger debate prior to further consideration. The presiding officer waits for objections and approves passage if there is consent by all members.

Behind the scenes, legislators of both parties can create unanimous consent agreements that dictate proceedings. This agreement typically requires legislators to provide consent on time limits, rules, and other structural concerns so that substantive business can take place.

The U.S. House of Representatives has standing rules that allow unanimous consent to speed debate of floor measures. The chamber’s size makes it necessary to achieve consent from all present members to avoid legislative logjams. Members can ask for unanimous consent to suspend the rules, which means that floor debate is limited to 40 minutes prior to a vote.

The first unanimous consent agreement in the U.S. Senate is attributed to William Allen of Ohio. In 1846, Allen and other senators approved an agreement to allow debate on the addition of the Territory of Oregon. This one-off agreement turned into a regular practice of the U.S. Senate despite concerns by senators of stifling debate.

Informal unanimous consent agreements evolved into a standard procedure in 1914 that can only be altered by new agreements addressing immediate concerns. The practice of invoking cloture to end Senate debate was created in 1917 as the body created more formal mechanisms for managing floor proceedings.

Politifact found that 206 of 254 substantive measures considered by the U.S. Senate during the 110th Congress were approved by unanimous consent. The party that holds the majority in the U.S. Senate often blocks high-profile bills from receiving unanimous consent. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R) blocked three bills offered by Senate Democrats to deal with 2020 election security. Sen. James Inhofe (R) prevented unanimous consent on a 2020 resolution using the “war crimes” label for military strikes on culturally significant locations.

Examples

Q13 Fox (February 24, 2020): “Last year, the Senate passed via unanimous consent the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, which made lynching a federal crime by establishing it as a civil rights violation.”

CNN (July 18, 2019): “Paul was not the only senator who objected to the attempt to pass the bill by unanimous consent on Wednesday. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah ‘alerted the cloakroom that he objected to the bill passing without a vote,’ Lee’s communications director Conn Carroll told CNN.”

The Hill (June 27, 2019): “More than two dozen GOP lawmakers on Thursday lined up on the House floor to call for a unanimous consent vote on the bipartisan Senate-passed bill to provide emergency humanitarian border aid.”

morning business

Morning business is routine business that is supposed to occur during the first two hours of a new legislative day in the U.S. Senate.

This business includes receiving messages from the President and from the other legislative chamber, reports from executive branch officials, petitions from citizens, committee reports and the introduction of bills and submission of resolutions.

In practice, this sometime occurs at other convenient points in the day.

hopper

Legislators introduce bills by placing them in the bill hopper attached to the side of the clerk’s desk.

The term derives from a funnel-shaped storage bin filled from the top and emptied from the bottom, which is often used to house grain or coal. Bills are retrieved from the hopper and referred to committees with the appropriate jurisdiction.

hideaways

Hideaways are personal, unmarked offices in the Capitol originally assigned to senior senators. They are conveniently located near the Senate floor.

The hideaway location of an individual Senator is a closely held secret, most with no names on the doors. They are hidden from view with some even tucked away behind large statues. Due to recent renovations, all 100 Senators have for the first time been assigned their own hideaway. There is no public information on the cost of renovating and furnishing these offices.

The secrecy surrounding hideaways has generated considerable media interest, with provocative article titles, such as: “Senate’s Biggest Secret: Lush Hideaways for Lawmakers“, and “Congressional Perks: How the Trappings of Office Trap Taxpayers“.

germane

germane

In politics, if you want to follow legislation that’s introduced both on the local and national levels, it’s important to understand the meaning of the term “germane.”

“Germane” is typically defined as “in close relationship, appropriate, relative or pertinent to.” In the case of legislation, it commonly refers to whether or not an amendment or rider to a bill needs to be relevant to the original bill or not, and there are a wide range of rules that govern this in federal and state jurisdictions.

The importance of understanding the term is described in Congressional Quarterly: “Why Understanding the Term ‘Germane’ Can Save You From Heartaches and Headaches.”

The article points out that “only 40 state constitutions require a bill to be ‘germane’ – that is, require a bill to address or contain only a single subject.” The lack of uniform rules about “germaneness” in state government means that life can get difficult for people in various industries who spend their time tracking legislation.

The article goes on: “if you’re tracking state legislation about real estate licensing, you can ignore bills about traffic safety, right?” Then, providing its own answer, “You could if lawmakers were always rationale and lawmaking were a rationale process. But that’s not our reality.”

In the U.S. Senate, the rules about germaneness can be described as follows, as taken from the Senate’s own PDF on the subject: “The Senate requires only that amendments be germane when they are offered (1) to general appropriations bills and budget measures, (2) under cloture, or (3) under certain unanimous consent agreements and certain statutes. Otherwise, Senators can offer amendments on any subject to any bill.”

Broadly speaking, the purpose of the germane rule is to prevent legislators from putting irrelevant or immaterial legislation into unrelated bills as an underhanded way of getting legislation passed.The rules in the U.S. House, as described here, are a bit different: “Clause 7 of rule XVI, called the “germaneness rule,” stands for the simple proposition that an amendment must address the same subject as the matter being amended. The germaneness rule was adopted by the House in 1789 and has remained the same since it was last changed in 1822. The purpose of the rule is to provide for the orderly consideration of amendments to bills and resolutions by requiring a relationship between the amendment and the matter being amended. The existence of this rule is one of the key procedural differences between the House and Senate.”

The word “germane” is also applicable not only to legislation, but to debate as well, with something called the “Pastore Rule,” which requires Senate floor debate to be germane during specific periods of a Senate workday.

In 2003, Roll Call described a violation of this rule: “As Byrd continued Friday to pound away at Bush on many fronts during consideration of the omnibus spending bill, McCain interrupted. McCain asserted that Byrd’s attack on the administration’s policy on North Korea was violating the ‘Pastore Rule,’ which stipulates that debate has to be germane to the matter at hand during the first three hours of debate on a bill.”

franking privileges

Franking privileges allow lawmakers to send mail to constituents without having to pay postage. A copy of the member’s signature replaces the stamp on the envelope. Authentic signatures of famous individuals are valuable collectors’ items.

Franking privileges in Congress date from the First Continental Congress of 1775. Opportunity for abuse exists and has prompted calls for reform. According to “CRS Report: Franking Privilege: Historical Development and Options for Change”:

“… [S]trong criticism of the franking privilege developed regarding the use of the frank as an influence in congressional elections and the perceived advantage it gives incumbent Members running for reelection. Contemporary opponents of the franking privilege continue to express concerns about both its cost and its effect on congressional elections.”

Limits on and oversight of franking exist today. The House has appointed a Franking Commission t0:

“(1)  issue regulations governing the proper use of the franking privilege; (2) provide guidance in connection with mailings; (3) act as a quasi-judicial body for the disposition of formal complaints against Members of Congress who have allegedly violated franking laws or regulations.”

ex officio

The term “ex officio” comes from the Latin phrase “from the office,” and in politics it refers to someone who is part of a political body just by virtue of holding a different elected office.

The most common example of an “ex officio” member of a body is the Vice President of the United States, who is considered the President of the Senate and can cast tie-breaking votes, despite never actually being elected to the Senate.

Further examples of “ex officio” members in the United States government are the chairmen and ranking minority members of U.S. Senate committees. These members are able to participate in any of the subcommittees, though they can’t vote.

In 2017, the New York Times noted the presence of Senators McCain and Reed during the highly charged testimony of James Comey in 2017: “Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, also questioned Mr. Comey on Thursday. As the leaders of the Armed Services Committee, they are “ex officio” members of the Intelligence Committee, as are the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer.

The use of the term “ex officio” dates back to the Roman empire, when various councils existed to debate issues and legislative matters, often with a large number of people who held other offices but were involved in the political processes of Roman leadership.  Examples of ex-officio members are common in the structure and set up of many different organizations. In the case of non-profits, most CEOs are also “ex officio” members of the board, and in local politics, elected officials can be ex officio sheriffs, ex officio tax collectors, and ex officio members of committees. In New York City, the speaker of the council and the leaders from each party, are all ex officio members of all the city’s various committees.

In certain cases, the term “ex officio” is used interchangeably with “acting,” as when Baltimore mayor was forced to resign in 2019, and city council president Jack Young became acting, or ex-officio, mayor of the city.

In other countries around the world, many ex officio members play a large role in government. In the U.K., for example, the most senior bishops of the Church of England are ex officio members of the House of Lords, and have equal vote, prompting one website to query: “Why are there Bishops in the House of Lords?”

earmarks

Funds that are allocated to a specific program, project or for a designated purpose. Revenues are earmarked by law. Expenditures are earmarked by appropriations bills or reports.

According to the Office of Management & Budget definition, earmarks include:

  1. Add-ons. If the Administration asks for $100 million for formula grants, for example, and Congress provides $110 million and places restrictions … on the additional $10 million, the additional $10 million is counted as an earmark. However, if the additional funding is to speed up the completion of a project with no restrictions this is NOT an earmark.
  2. Carve-outs. If the Administration asks for $100 million and Congress provides $100 million but places restrictions on some portion of the funding, the restricted portion is counted as an earmark.
  3. Funding provisions that do not name a recipient, but are so specific that only one recipient can qualify for funding is counted as an earmark.

Slate’s “What’s an Earmark” article provides a distinction between earmarks and general budget expenditures:

“For example, if Congress passed a budget that gave a certain amount of money to the National Park Service as a whole, no one would consider it an earmark. But if Congress added a line to the budget specifying that some of that money must go toward the preservation of a single building—definitely an earmark.”

Earmarks can be used for political, pork-barrel spending and considerable debate in Congress has centered on earmark reform. President Obama’s speech on Earmark Reform, March 11, 2009, called for legislation that would create greater transparency and public awareness of proposed earmarks. Acknowledging that earmarks can be useful, the president stated they “must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose.”

mark-up

The mark-up is the committee meeting held to review the text of a bill before reporting it to the floor.

Committee members do not make changes to the text but can vote on proposed amendments.  In conclusion, members vote on a motion to send the bill with accompanying amendments, to the House.

There is room for political maneuvering during the mark-up meeting, as quoted by one lobbyist familiar with the process: “Committee’s often abruptly cancel congressional mark ups, such as in this case and instead schedule hearings in an attempt to regain support for a bill.”

Dear Colleague letter

A “Dear Colleague letter” is an official communication distributed in bulk by a lawmaker to all members of Congress.

Dear Colleague letters typically include issues related to co-sponsoring or opposing a bill, new procedures or upcoming congressional events.

Although Dear Colleague letters have been used by members for over a century, technological advances in recent years have facilitated their distribution. In 2008, the House introduced a web based e-“Dear Colleague” system, streamlining topic headings and distribution lists.

codel

A “codel” is short for “Congressional Delegation”, and defined as a trip abroad by a member or members of Congress.

leader time

Leader time is the ten minute time allotted to majority and minority leaders at the start of the daily session.

Leaders use the time to discuss any important issues or the day’s legislative agenda. All or part of the leader time may be reserved for use later in the day.

lay on the table

To “lay on the table” is to make motion for the permanent disposal of a bill, resolution, amendment, appeal, or motion.

One of the most widely used parliamentary procedures, tabling can be effected through unanimous consent — where the Chair states: “without objection, the matter is laid upon the table” — or put to a vote. However, tabling a resolution can be controversial because it permanently ends debate on an issue.

“Lay on the table” should not be confused with the same term used in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries where “tabling” refers to beginning consideration of a resolution or issue.

junket

A junket is a pleasure trip taken by a politicians with expenses paid for with public funds.

President Obama was accused of wasteful spending on a junket to New York in May, 2009 for dinner and a show with his wife.

aisle

The aisle refers to the space which divides the majority side from the minority on the House and Senate floor. When debating, members frequently refer to their party affiliation as “my side of the aisle.”

When facing the front of the chamber, Democrats sit on the left side of the aisle; Republicans on the right.

cats and dogs

Cats and dogs are are leftover “stray” bills on minor subjects saved for days when the House or Senate have light floor schedules.

impeachment

An impeachment is a formal charge of criminality raised against an elected official in the first step to remove them from office. In the federal government, only the House of Representatives may bring an impeachment while only the Senate may try and convict the accused. A conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate and results in removal of the accused from office.

Impeachment can also occur at the state level, according to their respective state constitutions.

The impeachment process should not be confused with a recall election which is usually initiated by voters.

yeas and nays

The yeas and nays is a recorded roll call vote of members of the House or Senate.

The U.S. Constitution directs that “the yeas and nays of the members of either house, on any question, shall, at the desire of one-fifth of those present, be entered on the journal.”

The action does not necessarily bring debate to an end. It does mean that whenever debate ends, a roll call vote will occur.

bill

A bill is a proposed law introduced in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.

A bill originating in the House is designated by the letters “H.R.” followed by a number and bills introduced in the Senate as “S.” followed by a number. The sequential numbering of bills for each session of Congress began in the House in 1817 and in the Senate in 1847.

In 1975, Schoolhouse Rock aired an educational segment, “I’m Just a Bill,” introducing children to the concept of how a bill becomes a law.

pro forma session

A brief meeting (sometimes only several seconds) in which no business is conducted. It is held usually to satisfy the constitutional obligation that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other.

Pro forma sessions can also be used to prevent the President from making recess appointments, pocket-vetoing  bills, or calling the Congress into special session. During a 2007 recess, for example, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, planned to keep the Senate in pro forma session in order to prevent further controversial appointments made by the Bush Administration. Said Reid: “I am keeping the Senate in pro forma [session] to prevent recess appointments until we get this process on track.”

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.

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.

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.”

 

cloakroom

House Democratic 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.