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Fact-Checking ‘House of Cards’ and Its ‘Senate of Cards’ Sequence

By now, most binge-watchers have at least gotten through the first portion of the new season of the Netflix series “House of Cards.”  

While we’ll steer clear of too many spoilers here, one particular sequence in the third episode caught the attention of parliamentary experts everywhere.  

“We have to get medieval,” said the fictional Democratic Vice President Frank Underwood before a stint presiding over the Senate, twisting arms to get a deal with enough of the Senate’s GOP majority to keep the government from a shutdown while raising the retirement age.  

Could the Senate really direct the sergeant-at-arms to arrest absent senators? Yes, of course.  

Roll Call was there in 1988, when, acting on the direction of Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and an order of the Senate, Sergeant-at-Arms Henry Giugni set off from the chamber to arrest missing senators:

A Russell Building cleaning lady told Giugni that Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) was in his personal office. Using a pass key, Giugni opened the door just as Packwood tried to block it with his arm. Packwood ended up reinjuring a broken finger.

After Giugni, a former Honolulu police officer, arrested Packwood and escorted him to the Capitol, Packwood told Giugni that he refused to enter the chamber under his own power.

Giugni responded by ordering the officers to lift Packwood and carry him through the chamber doors, which he entered feet first at 1:19 a.m.

“I do not relish doing that type of thing,” Giugni said later. “I take no personal glee in it. … Senator Packwood is a friend of mine and one of the finest Senators on the Hill. But when I’m ordered, I follow instructions.”

A report from TPM has already covered the basics, but for our money the biggest difference between the very real Packwood incident and the fictional “House of Cards” ordeal is that in the 1988 case, Byrd was very much in command of his beloved institution.  

That’s not so in the fictional episode, where Underwood very clearly undercuts Republican Majority Leader Hector Mendoza. When a call of the roll fails to demonstrate that a quorum is present, Underwood grants first recognition to the minority side. That’s a great breach of senatorial courtesy. By tradition, the majority leader gets recognized first.  

Underwood’s maneuver would be akin to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. showing up next year to recognize Harry Reid for scheduling purposes if Republicans take back the Senate’s majority. Of course, breaching parliamentary protocol is far from the worst action Underwood ever takes.  

There are any number of other procedural oddities in this fictionalized world, not the least of which is why exactly no one was able to filibuster the retirement age amendment itself. This could have all been built into the unanimous consent agreement that tea-party-aligned Sen. Curtis Haas did not sufficiently review through the “hotline” process (whether he was told or not seems an open question).  

In addition, it’s possible to demand a roll call vote on the motion to instruct the sergeant-at-arms to go out into the countryside (or the Capitol’s corridors) to make the arrests, but the “House of Cards” universe assumes that Underwood is simply better at the procedural game than his many foes.  

The “House of Cards” writers had one thing on their side. Politico reported Thursday that no less a Senate guru than Martin Paone consulted on the show. The executive vice president at Prime Policy Group spent better than a decade as the Democrats’ top floor operator.  

But there is one seriously unanswered question: Why exactly was there a deadline before adjournment? Certainly, both parties in the fictional world had an incentive to avoid a government shutdown, but it’s weird that the show portrays a scenario, referred to by U.S. News , when there’s only 49 hours before a recess. In reality, this almost never happens.

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