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Debate and Votes in Congress

Debates and Votes in Congress


Final Jeopardy category: Representative Democracy

 “This house of the US Congress allows more amendments and has a higher degree of bipartisan activity while acting on legislation.”

“What is the House of Representatives?”

When the Founders wrote the Constitution they created two bodies in the legislative branch of the government. The House of Representatives was to provide equal representation for all the people; that meant that states with a large population would have a greater number of votes in the House than states with fewer citizens. The small states demanded a second legislative body that would represent the small population states on an equal basis with the large population states. The constitution provided that each state would be represented by two Senators no matter what their population.

As the population of the United States grew, the number of members of the House grew with it. The rules of the House required that this larger institution allow for limited debate and final action by a simple majority vote on legislative issues before it. Madison saw the Senate as a counter to the “fickleness and passion” that might arise in the House. He said, “Use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." The rules of the Senate allowed for unlimited debate. The minority in the Senate is given the power to cool the passions of the simple majority. Senate rules evolved to provide for a super majority vote for cloture to terminate debate on legislation and, until last November, to vote on nominations.

For most of our history the Senate has allowed for extended debate. It has been the place where senators could offer their amendments, both relevant and on any topic they desired, and get votes. It referred to itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body. That is no longer the case.

Most people would say that the House of Representatives -- with its limited debate, Rules Committee and strict majority control -- is the more highly partisan of the two institutions. For much of the history of the United States that has been true whether under Republican or Democrat control. However, from July through December last year, the Republican minority members of the Senate were allowed to offer only four amendments. In the House of Representatives, with its restrictive Rules Committee controlled by the majority Republicans, the Democrats offered more than 70 amendments.

Further, if you look at the amount of legislation acted on by the House, a significant amount of that legislation is passed on the floor of the House under suspension of the rules. That requires a two-thirds majority of votes to pass a bill. Thus by definition, the legislation must have substantial bipartisan support to pass the House. Add to that the business that is completed in the House by unanimous consent, and you have a significant amount of the work completed by the House of Representatives with bipartisan cooperation.

Compare that to today’s Senate; it is exceedingly rare for legislation to be developed by committees and reported to the floor of the Senate for consideration. The amendment process in committee that plays a role shaving off the rough edges of partisan policy and developing bipartisan support no longer takes place. When legislation is brought to the Senate floor for debate and votes, it is almost never open for debate and amendment by either Republicans or Democrats. More often than not in today’s Senate, the Majority Leader, Senator Reid, is the only one who gets to offer amendments. He does this by “filling the amendment tree.” This means that he offers enough amendments to stop any other amendments from being offered. Then he files cloture on the legislation so that one of two things happens: either he gets a vote on the legislation he wants with no alternative amendments offered or he fails to get cloture and blames the Republicans for a filibuster.  “Filling the amendment tree” is in fact a filibuster by the majority so that they don’t have to debate or vote on amendments. While some legislative work is still done by unanimous consent in the Senate, it is less and less in recent years. The imperious control of the Senate majority has left little bipartisanship in the operation of the Senate.

Today one would have to say that the House is the more bipartisan and democratic body of the two. The House allows more debate and more amendments by the majority and the minority. The House completes more legislation with more minority input than the Senate.

The Senate is a shell of the legislative body that the Founders created. It no longer performs its role of the “saucer” that cools the passions of legislation. Today it is an institution whose only purpose is to defend its majority members from the need to think, to debate, and to vote.

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