Skip to main content

Of sausage and policy

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

Part two

WASHINGTON - ''Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings ...'' With these words, the Constitution permits both the House of Representatives and the Senate to realize their separate characters under guidelines laid down elsewhere in the document. The ensuing differences between the two chambers have become complex enough that whole careers are devoted to one or another. It's not rare for Capitol Hill staff and lobbyists to be hired based on their knowledge of House or Senate rules and proceedings.

Indeed, the political parties often fill their leadership ranks on the strength of such knowledge. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., surprised many with his return to Senate leadership this year. Formerly the Senate Majority Leader, Lott fell from power after appearing to praise the white supremacist ''Dixiecrat'' political party of 1948. But Lott recovered his position on two counts. Following Hurricane Katrina, his activism on behalf of the victims convinced many that he's no racist, whatever his words may have suggested. Secondly, his prowess as a Senate parliamentarian convinced Republicans that he's indispensable to party discipline. Between his restored standing with the public and his familiarity with Senate proceedings, the GOP elected him its Minority Whip for the 110th Congress.

The rarity is someone who knows both House and Senate rules sufficiently enough to be an asset on both subjects.

In the House, the Rules Committee has evolved to become a powerful institution in its own right, putting its stamp on legislation by deciding terms of debate, such as time allotted and number of amendments allowed. In the Senate, the Rules and Administration Committee is primarily dedicated to administrative matters.

Two reasons stand out for this great difference between nominally similar committees. Both are in keeping with the House's constitutional character as ''the peoples' house,'' in close touch with local issues; and with the Senate's as the more deliberative chamber. First, the Speaker of the House, established by the Constitution, has been endowed by House members with powers unmatched among Senate officers; one of those powers is to chair the Rules Committee. Secondly, the House, with its 435 members, sorts out committee membership according to proportionality - whatever percentage of seats the parties hold in the House at large will be their percentage of seats on the separate committees. An exception is the Rules Committee, which is important enough that the speaker stacks it with a higher proportion of his or her own party members. The arrangement may strike cynics and the opposition party as opportunist, but it is in keeping with the House's constitutional characteristic of responsiveness.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Senate committees are filled by simple majority, with the majority party getting a one-seat edge over the minority. For that reason, Senate committees tend to be more deliberative, less reactive to public clamor, as befits the Senate's constitutional role as the gatekeeper of settled governance.

But by far the most important distinctions between House and Senate rules concern debate, amendment and holds. The Senate permits relatively unrestricted debate; under the filibuster rule, a single senator can stall a vote of the entire Senate by engaging in debate limited only by the senator's endurance. A supermajority of 60 votes is then needed to invoke ''cloture,'' aborting the filibuster and forcing a vote. Last year in the 109th Congress, the filibuster rule prevented the Akaka Bill, authorizing a process for the establishment of a Native Hawaiian governing entity, from coming to a vote.

The House, by contrast, can take a floor vote under so-called suspension of the rules, banishing amendments, limiting the time of debate to 40 minutes and requiring a two-thirds majority for passage of the bill in question. During the 109th Congress, House Bill 4893, designed to end off-reservation gaming, failed under suspension of the rules. In addition, the Rules Committee can issue rules on floor action that are approved by a simple majority vote.

The House rules against amendment are unknown in the Senate, where amendments to a bill are not required to be ''germane'' to the parent amendment, just acceptable to its sponsors. The arrangement gives rise to the infamous ''riders'' - undebated amendments, attached late in the legislative process with as little notice beforehand as possible - that tribes have long complained about and feared.

Holds, too, are a Senate institution. Any senator can place an anonymous hold on any bill for any reason, forcing negotiation between the bill's sponsor(s) and the objecting senator(s). The senator placing the hold must inform the party's floor leader. The Senate Majority Leader is not bound to respect the hold, but risks a filibuster by moving forward with a bill in defiance of it. So many bills and nominations have been torpedoed by holds that in recent years, serious consideration of reform has surfaced, at least to the extent of publicly identifying the senator placing the hold and the reason behind it.

The differing rules of the chambers on amendment, debates and holds are in keeping with the roles crafted for each chamber by the Constitution. In the House, they accelerate floor action; in the Senate, they slow it down.

(Continued in part three)