It started at 10 a.m. More than 18 hours later, at 4:39 a.m., it ended.
Few things in Congress are more tedious, or arduous, or taxing, or redundant than the marathon markup. It’s easy to fall into the legislative lullaby of amendment debate, to close your eyes just for a minute and wake up a few amendments — and many snarky tweets — later. At around 3:20 a.m. on April 30, as Congress’ latest all-night session lumbered to the finish line, Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks seemed to fall victim to just that situation. “I don’t do nicotine. I don’t do alcohol. I don’t even do caffeine. So, I’m in serious trouble,” Franks told CQ Roll Call earlier in the day.
There’s no single secret to getting through the annual defense authorization debate — a one-day test of endurance that is always the longest single-shot markup of the year. But there are strategies — little cheats for the House Armed Services members — that can make the day less of a living hell.
For one, caffeine. Of the more than a dozen Armed Services members CQ Roll Call talked to, most mentioned coffee as a key component to getting through the markup.
Another obvious tip? Food.
“We’ll all gain two or three pounds through the evening,” John Fleming, R-La., told CQ Roll Call.
That seems likely enough, given the snack offerings. There’s a constant supply of candy — three types of M&M’s! — and potato chips, popcorn, cookies and soda in the Armed Services offices. “The tell-tale signs of a Costco run,” one committee staffer told CQ Roll Call. And some members throw in little treats from their state, such as Georgia peanuts. Plus, the committee also supplied two meals for staff and members.
For lunch, members had their fill of wrapped sandwiches from Costco. Easy and convenient, but maybe lacking in other important areas. For dinner, the committee went in the other direction. They had barbecue from Rocklands — some of the best barbecue in D.C., but also one of the worst drives (up to Glover Park) to inflict on a young Hill staffer.
Paying for all the treats is an interesting situation. Members and staff kick-in a set amount every year for the smorgasbord. And other members are happy to hand out their own snacks. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., noted that members were passing around a bag of baby carrots. “It didn’t look to be too popular,” he said.
Johnson, who had a string of amendments at the very end of the markup, took a little break around 1:30 a.m. to freshen up.
“I think I might chill out with some M&M’s right now,” he said.
Pressed on what kind he’d be going for — peanut or original — Johnson said both. Sure enough, when he re-emerged from a committee office, Johnson carried peanut M&M’s in his left hand, original M&M’s in his right. (Tom Wolfe might call Hank Johnson a Master of the Universe.)
A big secret to getting through the markup seems to be the little breaks.
John Garamendi, D-Calif., said his trick is to “meet in the hallways, break the pace of the hearings, conduct meetings, run in and out, get exercise — and a cup of coffee along the way.”
Ranking Democrat Adam Smith frequently took laps in the hall. Smith has had two hip surgeries in the past six months, and even a special armchair couldn’t eliminate his pain. (His lounger sat so far back from his microphone that every time Smith wanted to speak — which was frequently — he had to lean forward.)
During one of his hallway tours, the Washington Democrat said long-winded members should take a page from Abraham Lincoln. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Smith said. “Gettysburg Address: three-and-a-half minutes, absolutely brilliant, but anyway — and that was summing up the Civil War for crying out loud! — so yeah, it’s arduous, just in that it takes longer than it should.”
The markup went so long, and Smith’s pain got so bad, that by the time of final votes around 4:30 a.m., Smith was lying on the committee room floor stretching — yelling his vote from the floor multiple times.
Of course, with the exception of those members experiencing physical pain, sitting through a markup — reality check! — isn’t exactly the toughest job on earth. California Republican Duncan Hunter, who did two tours in Iraq, didn’t have a special strategy for getting through the markup.
“We’re in nice chairs and air conditioning,” he said. “It’s actually kind of fun.”
But plenty of members still feel as though the debate would be better served by breaking up the markup into multiple days. “It’s embarrassing for national security,” Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., told CQ Roll Call as he took a little 1 a.m. break.
The day after the markup, Alabama Republican Mo Brooks, one of two Armed Services members to vote against the defense authorization, said a one-day marathon is a bad idea.
“It is really a poor way of doing the people’s business, when you’re asking 60-some-odd congressmen, when they’re half asleep, to make decisions that have dramatic impacts on America’s national security,” Brooks said. “We should have quit at a reasonable hour and resumed today.”
Freshman Democrat Brad Ashford noted it was a rule in the Nebraska Legislature to recess any markup at midnight. “I’d rather break it up into 10-hour intervals,” he said.
But plenty of other members think it’s better to just stick with the tradition of doing it all in one fell swoop.
Smith said it’s the best way, because all the issues are tied together. “You want to keep it fresh in your mind, you want to keep members on point and on task of what they’re doing,” he said.
Ever the lawyer, Smith also said it didn’t make sense to have more substantive debates in the subcommittees, “because then you’d just re-litigate every issue in the full committee.”
The Armed Services Committee did apparently break the markup into two days once, during Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton’s reign as chairman. But that was one change that didn’t stick.
“I think the reason for doing it all in one day is to try to limit as many amendments as possible,” Johnson told CQ Roll Call as he munched M&M’s in a Rayburn hallway. “It starts to get punitive around this time of the night.”
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