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The Seinfeld Vote

Congressmen arrive for a quorum call in the House Chamber last year. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Congressmen arrive for a quorum call in the House Chamber last year. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If only all votes were this light and easy.  

The House engaged in one of its quirkiest rituals on Tuesday, the Call of the House. It’s a roll call vote that establishes a quorum — a signal to the president, the Senate and the public that the chamber is open for legislative business at the start of each session. “Hey guys! How are you doing?” Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said, jaunting into the mostly empty chamber just before 6:30 p.m., and greeting a bipartisan group of early birds that included Reps. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and Dan Kildee, D-Mich., among others.  

Then Ryan handed an aide his personal device and rapped the gavel around the scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. “The House will be in order. The House is called to order to establish a quorum,” he said. And the voting began to begin the second session of the 114th Congress.  

It’s an exercise in protocol. Even though it’s a vote recorded in the record, members are only allowed to vote “present.” Their ability to vote “yes” or “no” is literally curtailed. They can register as being there, being present, or not.  

Pop culture mavens might liken it to a “Seinfeld” plot — it’s a vote about nothing. The more philosophical might describe it as an existential vote — they are either here or not. But it’s a necessary part of opening the legislative branch at the beginning of each session.  

And most House members were there. It did start sluggishly. With 13 minutes and 25 seconds left in the vote, only 39 members had voted “present” either by using their voting cards or heading to the well of the House to sign a yellowish-orangeish “present” voting card and handing it to the clerk’s staff. But then the House Voting Board begin to light up with “P”s.  

For veterans, it was mostly good times as they re-established contact with colleagues after the winter break. “And then, how many votes do we have after this?” joked Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., who — in the midst of his 12th term — certainly knows that once the quorum call is over, that’s typically it for the night.  

Well, almost. After the quorum is established, the House passes by voice vote a series of privileged resolutions that allow it to officially communicate to the White House and Senate that they’re back.  

But first the chamber had to establish that quorum. As the 15 minute time period lapsed, 292 members had registered their presence. Some of the delay could be chalked up to more than a few members grabbing green “yes” cards to sign and hand to the clerk. But only the “present” cards were accepted. So they had to put the green cards back and get the proper card.  

Ryan let the stragglers vote; members kept hanging out.  

“Whaaat! I like it, I like it,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., as she stroked Arkansas GOP Rep. Rick Crawford’s new beard.  

Crawford’s facial hair perhaps offsets Ryan’s freshly shorn face. Earlier in the day, the speaker showed off his freshly clipped mug via Instagram. That put to rest the dreams of those who dared contemplate a bearded speaker in the new session.  

The votes kept ticking in, and after a few minutes, Ryan went to wrap things up, with 395 present. “On this vote, 395 members,” he started, only to have Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who replaced Ryan at the helm of the Ways and Means Committee when Ryan became speaker, beg for more time. Brady hustled to the well and signed his card.  

That done, Ryan started his wind-up again. “Are there any other members who wish to record their presence?” he said.  

“One more!” Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said, bounding down the Democrats’ side of the chamber. “One more!” And he signed his card.  

And that was that. Ryan lowered the gavel. “On this vote, 397 have recorded their presence. A quorum is present,” he said.  

Woody Allen once said 80 percent of life is showing up. On Tuesday, 91 percent of the House showed up.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Dan Kildee .  


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