At 9:36 a.m. on Thursday, a clerk with a practiced monotone read aloud the name of Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). The chamber was nearly deserted. The senator wasn’t there. Not that she was really looking for him.
Instead, the clerk was beginning one of the Capitol’s most arcane rituals: the slow-motion roll calls that the Senate uses to bide time.
These procedures, called “quorum calls,” usually serve no other purpose than to fill up empty minutes on the Senate floor. They are so boring, so quiet that C-SPAN adds in classical music: otherwise, viewers might think their TV was broken.
This year — even as Washington lurches closer to a debt crisis — the Senate has spent a historic amount of time performing this time-killing ritual. Quorum calls have taken up about a third of its time since January, according to C-SPAN statistics: more than 17 eight-hour days’ worth of dead air.
When it comes to legislative action, 2009 and 2010 were an unusually busy period, with the Senate taking up some of the most consequential legislation in the generation. Maybe, the thinking goes, such an intense period of policymaking activity will inevitably be followed by a more relaxed schedule.
But the institution has gone from frantically busy to catatonic. One is tempted to hold a mirror to the Senate’s nose, just to make sure it’s still breathing.
David Fahrenthold’s explanation of quorum calls is helpful, albeit mildly soul-crushing.
A clerk reads out senators’ names slowly, sometimes waiting 10 minutes or more between them. But it’s usually a sham. The senators aren’t coming. Nobody expects them to. The ritual is a reaction to what the chamber has become: a very fancy place that senators, often, are too busy to visit.
This is what happened: Decades ago, senators didn’t have offices. They spent their days at their desks on the Senate floor. So clerks really needed to call the roll to see if a majority was ready for business.
Now, senators spend much of their time in committee rooms, offices and elsewhere. If no big vote is on the horizon, often nothing at all is happening on the Senate floor.
But Senate rules don’t allow for nothing to happen. That would require a formal adjournment, which would mean lots of time-consuming parliamentary rigmarole. Instead, the last senator to speak asks clerks to fill the time by calling the roll.
We’re not, by the way, talking about pro-forma sessions, intended to prevent presidential recess appointments. This is just the norm of the Senate most of the time, even during the course of its usual schedule.
Of course, senators could be doing something, at least in theory. The Democratic majority doesn’t bring bills to the floor, because they know Republicans will filibuster them (and even if they passed, the GOP-led House would never consider them). Dems could bring nominees to the floor, but Republicans won’t allow that, either. Dems could work on a budget, but they not only know the House won’t cooperate, but also know even trying would become fodder for attack ads.
“Why are we here?” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asked. “The Senate is not operating the way it was designed, because politicians don’t want to be on record.”
Well, that’s partially true, but the Senate is also not operating the way it was designed because guys like Coburn filibuster everything that moves.
Regardless, let’s go ahead and retire “the world’s greatest deliberative body” description. No one appreciates the humor.