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Of sausage and policy

A look at leadership roles, rules and committee structures on Capitol Hill

Part one

WASHINGTON - The drive-by version of Capitol Hill institutions always emphasizes the differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House is ''the peoples' House'' in American democracy. Its 435 members are elected every two years, mostly from small districts within their states, for the constitutional purpose of keeping them in close touch with grass-roots issues. The 100 members of the Senate, by comparison, are elected every six years, two representing each entire state, for the constitutional purpose of tempering the responsiveness of the House. The House acts more as a change agent; the Senate, a gatekeeper of settled governance. In a revolutionary age, many framers of the Constitution felt that by requiring the identical version of any bill to pass in both chambers before it could become law upon the president's signature, they were striking a balance between mob rule and hidebound out-of-touch governance.

Be that as it may, all this is why so many bills pass the House - never to be heard from again in the Senate.

But as the new 110th Congress gets into stride following party finalization of their committees, it's worth noting that the major institutional differences reviewed above filter down into the separate leadership roles, parliamentary rules and committee structures of each chamber. Their functioning in the legislative process is sometimes termed ''sausage-making,'' and an old saying on Capitol Hill is that you really, really don't want to know how two things are made - sausages and public policy. But contrary to the messy impressions that come of opening up a sausage, there's constitutional meaning in the policy-making process.

The difference in leadership roles on Capitol Hill is a good example of underlying institutional distinctions ordained by the Constitution. The House, with its 435 members and their deluge of constituent issues, appoints a presiding officer from the majority party - the Speaker of the House. Because the House confers genuine powers on the post, the Speaker (even the title denotes the voice of the people in America, though the term itself has a different historical meaning that dates back almost 1,000 years in the written historical record, to the English parliament) is always among the most powerful politicians in Washington. (Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is the current Speaker of the House.)

The Senate, by contrast, has never conferred power on its presiding officer, an outcome of the Senate's constitutional role. Like the Speaker of the House, the president of the Senate is a creation of the Constitution. But the Constitution appoints as president of the Senate the vice president of the United States. By design then, the president of the Senate is not a senator, not subject to removal by the Senate, often not a member of the majority party in the Senate and often not present to preside. The president pro tempore, a title devised by the Senate and given to the most senior lawmaker of the majority party, presides in the president's absence. (The current president pro tempore of the Senate is Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.) The powers of the post are far from nominal, but they end whenever the vice president of the United States chooses.

So, precisely in keeping with the institutional roles crafted by the Constitution, the presiding officer of the Senate has nothing like the powers of the Speaker of the House, elected from House members of the majority party and accountable to them. Otherwise, by organizing itself under a presiding officer, the majority party in the Senate would be able to enact laws with a more House-like dispatch. Majority-party senators might be happy enough with that outcome, but the Constitution resists it.

The Constitution does not insist that the House speakership must be among the most powerful posts in U.S. politics. But in the fullness of time, the evolution of the office in that direction seems inevitable. For in ''the peoples' House,'' designed for responsiveness to local issues, the majority party seems bound to adopt policies that favor its ability to pass bills for its constituencies. Without some such policies, the House would have a hard time reacting to the countless demands of 435 members.

The policies that empowered the Speaker of the House began to take shape at the end of the 19th century, when the House appointed the Speaker as chairman of its Rules Committee. More than a century later, it may be the Speaker's most potent subsidiary title. For in the House, the Rules Committee establishes the circumstances under which any bill will be considered. The Speaker during the 109th Congress (Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.) established the rule that a bill couldn't even be considered unless a preponderance of the majority Republicans agreed that it should be on the legislative agenda in the first place. The Senate Rules Committee, on the other hand, is more of an administrative body, administering rules that are already in place. (Republicans in the Senate tried to use the committee's rule-making authority more proactively during the 109th Congress, over heavy Democratic protests, but the initiative had little lasting impact.)

The Senate Rules Committee (technically the Rules and Administration Committee) still has the considerable powers of any congressional committee; Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, canceled an anti-Indian gaming measure from his post on the Rules Committee during the 109th Congress, but only with the concurrence of GOP committee colleagues from Mississippi, Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott. In the House, the Speaker could have overruled them, by pulling strings with the committee's disproportion of majority party members if nothing else. But in practice the House Rules Committee's importance is so pervasive, and the Speaker's influence so vast, that he never would have let it get that far.

(Continued in part two)