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Health Care Debate Illustrates Deep Divide Between House, Senate

I am often asked by foreign visitors to explain the differences between the House and Senate. My first reaction is to offer up a “night and day— comparison, but that would put them in the same galaxy and time zone. A more accurate analogy would be that the House and the Senate are as different as light and molasses, for they truly do operate at different speeds and in different universes. They’re not even parallel universes because quite often they’re working at cross purposes (is there such a thing as perpendicular universes?).

[IMGCAP(1)]What brought this to mind most recently was the contrasting ways in which the health care reform bills were being developed and managed. Try to explain to visitors from parliamentary democracies how it is that we have a president, House and Senate, all under the same party banner, yet churning out what are now seven different versions of the same bill (counting the latest House and Senate leadership “compromises—). And the president hasn’t even weighed in yet with his preferences.

Is it any wonder that visiting dignitaries look perplexed when you explain that’s exactly what the framers of our Constitution intended? As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 51, in justifying his intricate design of government: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. … We see it particularly displayed in all the distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.—

I recently took a group of American and international scholars into the House gallery to observe a debate. They were puzzled by the large portraits of George Washington and Lafayette flanking the Speaker’s rostrum (portraits of former Speakers are hidden from public view in the Speaker’s Lobby). One of the American scholars even swore afterward that he spotted a profile of Napoleon in one of the corners of the chamber. “We could sure use a good dictator about now,— he half-joked. It turns out he was correct: Napoleon is one of 23 bas relief marble portraits of “lawgivers— that adorn the chamber.

However, as much as our system of laws owes to those great lawgivers of the past, the framers purposely designed things so that no single person or power could impose their laws on the citizenry. Rather than speed and efficiency, they opted for messiness, deliberation and shared responsibilities in making laws. At the same time, they recognized that the House of Representatives, being closest to the people, could act with dangerous haste in responding to a frenzied populace. Hence, the metaphor, attributed to Washington, of the Senate being the saucer in which to cool the hot coffee from the House.

No one can accuse the House of moving too fast on the health care bill. It has been massaged in various venues (public and private) since July 14 (Bastille Day), when first introduced. While the bill has been the subject of a great deal of public attention (and even emotional demonstrations), it is still not something on which the people are of a single mind. Different groups focus on different pieces of the whole and make their views known. That same pattern is reflected in the House, where Democrats (and their caucuses) pushed and pulled their leaders in all directions and still ended up with 39 defections on final passage.

Meanwhile, the Senate, which prides itself on being “the world’s greatest deliberative body,— seems especially intent on proving that with the health care bill. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee quickly reported its version of the health bill in mid-July. However, it was of little HELP in expediting approval of the Senate Finance Committee version, which was not reported until mid-October after three months of negotiations among the bipartisan gang of six came to naught.

Democrats in both chambers entrusted their leadership with responsibility for melding the disparate bills, and those efforts proceeded along separate tracks given the differing constituencies, procedures and cultures of the two bodies. Whatever the two chambers have in common doesn’t extend much beyond the idea of delegating power to party leaders because the term carries different weight in each body: House-heavy; Senate-light.

That becomes especially apparent when legislation reaches the House and Senate floors. The House, which has used its Rules Committee for more than a century in regulating the consideration of major legislation, can dispose of an important bill in one day. It does so by a special rule (a House resolution) that limits debate time and the amendment process. The health bill was given four hours of general debate and just two amendments: a Republican substitute and a Democratic anti-abortion amendment (out of more than 150 amendments submitted). Other provisions critical to securing Democratic votes were neatly folded into the bill by way of a double self-executing rule (automatically adopting those fixes upon adoption of the rule).

The Senate, on the other hand, operates by just two rules, as the saying goes: unanimous consent and exhaustion. Individual Senators and the minority party have much more leverage and latitude when it comes to debate and amendments. Consequently, the Senate can spend two, three weeks or more in considering the same bill the House approved in a day. That is why Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is already warning that the Senate health care debate could spill over into next year.

House Members look at the Senate as the place where good bills go to die. The Senate sees the House as a lean, mean sausage machine. It’s a wonder the two chambers ever make accommodations. Yet, somehow this dysfunctional duplex still manages to legislate when times demand it.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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