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Topic for Debate: Time to End Congressional Debates?

Real deliberation and persuasion are so rare, the move might improve Hill functionality

In the GOP’s successful push for its tax overhaul, floor debates appeared to have no influence on changing members’ positions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
In the GOP’s successful push for its tax overhaul, floor debates appeared to have no influence on changing members’ positions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Here’s a modest proposal to jumpstart the new year: Do away with what passes for “debate” on the floors of the House and Senate.

Doing so would mean Congress is facing up to its current rank among the world’s least deliberative bodies. It may be a place suffused with rhetoric, some of it pretty convincing at times, but next to no genuine cogitation happens in open legislative sessions and precious few ears are ever opened to opposing points of view.

In today’s polarized climate, all the hours of speechmaking have essentially no persuasive power or predictive value.

On top of that, empirical evidence reveals how in 2017 the Republicans running the Capitol curtailed to a bare minimum the minority party’s powers to have a say in deliberations. So getting rid of all the time for talking could be construed as simply the next logical step in making the legislative branch autocratically majoritarian.

Put another way, eliminating debates would make Congress operate more efficiently without changing its work product. Voters might actually appreciate their lawmakers acting with such candid self-awareness. And the universe of people to populate the Hill would appreciate the reduced time spent in the once-hallowed halls — not only the lawmakers themselves, but also their aides, the support staff and the legion of lobbyists who have all just come off a holiday season characterized by another balky end to an annual session of Congress.

Watch: How Congressional Debate Is Supposed to Work (And How It Really Works)

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This radical notion springs from three decades’ worth of observation about the evolving rhythms of the modern legislative process, in which the steady dissolution of the way things used to be is the driving narrative arc.

From the late 1980s into the early days of this millennium, there were memorable if rare occasions when a House member or senator would take to a podium in the well to confess — and sometimes even to boast — about being persuaded by a colleague’s presentations on the floor.

It’s been years since such a change of heart has been attributable to an erstwhile opponent’s cogent or eloquent public pleadings.

Given the deeply engrained, almost hypothalamic reliance on partisan identity in Congress today, a member’s willingness to deviate from the party line is what gets noted — and such ideological malleability is almost always shaped behind closed doors in encounters with parochial special interest advocates, loyal donors, venerable staffers or trusted colleagues.

Minimal effect

Consider the final chapter of the tax overhaul, the climactic and most consequential legislative achievement of 2017. In the five weeks between when the House passed the first version and when the Senate embraced the final compromise, a grand total of two minds in Congress were changed. One Republican in the House, Tom McClintock of California, and one in the Senate, Bob Corker of Tennessee, switched to “yes” after voting “no” the first time around — but in neither case were their altered positions attributable to anything said during the debates.

By the time the conference report was printed, the whip counts on both sides of the Capitol were totally locked down. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, nominally with just two Senate Republican “aye” votes to spare, was so confident in the outcome that he encouraged one of them (the ailing John McCain) to be absent.

The four hours of debate in the House, and nine more in the Senate, had no quantifiable effect beyond delaying the inevitable headlines until well past bedtime on the East Coast. (In fact, the most memorable turn of phrase in either chamber came not from a lawmaker but from a protester in the House gallery, who interrupted Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s closing arguments about the economic benefits of the bill to shout: “You’d better go back to school to learn math.”)

So then why do they want to spend so much time nattering? The simplest answer is that members of the political class seem genetically predisposed to loving the sound of their own voice.

This phenomenon was captured perhaps most succinctly by the late Morris K. Udall, a liberal House power player from Arizona often heralded as the wittiest member of Congress during a three decade-career that ended in 1991. He liked to sum up the going-through-the-motions nature of congressional debate this way: “Everything that needs to be said has been said, but not everyone has had the chance to say it yet.”

Floor speeches, of course, generate an official record of a member’s particular way of professing a point of view. Even if no colleagues are listening, the texts (which lawmakers may edit) get memorialized forever in the printed and online versions of the Congressional Record — and forwarding those transcripts is an easy way to answer constituents looking for members’ rationales for voting the way they do.

The footage, as captured by cameras controlled by the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms (but not, as is often assumed, by C-SPAN) may not be used by the lawmakers themselves in campaign spots or in fundraising appeals. But if the rhetoric is clever and punchy enough to merit a sound bite in news coverage, fair use of that TV tape for political purposes is within bounds.

Limited options

Finally, and way more often than not these days, going to the floor to make a speech is the only option available to an opponent of a bill who wants to contribute something to the process.

On both sides of the Capitol, GOP leaders moved assertively in 2017 to close off venues that might have afforded Democrats opportunity to do more than vent disagreement with President Donald Trump’s agenda.

Changes in the Senate that have limited the minority’s clout in recent years are widely understood, but the breadth of their application last year was particularly profound.

Trump’s top legislative goals, his successful bid to cut taxes and his failed drive to replace the 2010 health care law, were both debated under budget reconciliation rules that dramatically limit debate time, conscribe the scope of amendments and decree most decisions get made by simple majorities. And Trump’s other top-tier objective, pushing the federal appeals courts to the right, succeeded on a series of 50-something mostly party-line votes because filibustering nominations is now a thing of the past.

That left just four bills and one small treaty — an astonishingly small roster compared with recent years — to move through the Senate in what might be called the old fashioned way: After critics from the minority vowed to stall the measures through rhetorical procrastination, the majority forged enough bipartisan consensus so that 60 or more senators voted to invoke cloture, limit debate and move toward passage.

In the new year, some Republicans plan to push for making the Senate even more efficient — by changing the rules so opponents of a nominee may no longer protest by running out the clock on the 30 hours currently allowed for debate. Oklahoma’s James Lankford is leading an effort to limit that dilatory tactic to two hours on a potential federal judge and 12 hours for a Cabinet pick.

The House has cut down on dissenting behavior at least as forcefully. When Ryan became speaker, he made bold promises about a return to regular order, including allowing consideration of many more amendments. But the opposite has turned out to be true. Of the 494 measures passed by the House last year, 89 percent (all but 54 of them) moved without debate on a single amendment being made in order. And not once did the majority allow a truly “open rule” on a bill, the process under which members may get an up-or-down vote on any germane proposal.

Given that newly intensified procedural chokehold, the next logical step for the majority seems to be eliminating the rhetorical grease that has unnecessarily lubricated their guaranteed victories.

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