Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=137347
Story Retrieval Date: 5/20/2013 4:28:07 AM CST
For Capitol Hill regulars, Tuesday’s Senate session was nothing out of the ordinary – senators milled about, pages fetched whatever needed fetching-- glasses of water and the requisite coasters, a portable dais. The young people in blazers opened the doors that line the back of the chamber with cinematic precision, enabling senators to sweep onto the floor without touching a handle.
For all of its ordinariness, the Senate is quirky: just because a senator is speaking doesn’t mean that anyone is paying attention or even, that is, anyone other than support staff is around to listen.
For example, while Ohio’s Democratic senator Sherrod Brown tried to be heard from his seat in the back row, business nearby carried on unabated. Senators conferred in ever-changing cliques, grouping and regrouping, while Brown read tales of health insurance struggles his constituents had sent him.
Tourists peering down from the visitor’s gallery may very well wonder where exactly their senators are if not here, in the Senate, where they’re supposed to be working. And they might wonder why the lawmakers who have shown up in the chamber aren’t embroiled in heated debates.
At the very least, visitors may question why speeches seem jumbled.
Rather than speaking in flowing, honed statements designed to captivate, the speeches feel almost like laundry lists, shifting from, say, the plight of family dairy farmers to the naming of U.S. post offices (Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.). In normal conversation people agreeing or disagreeing on a topic would discuss it back and forth before moving onto a different subject.
But this is the Senate and there are rules: Senators say their piece and typically only after they have finished can the next person speak. That’s why it was only after Sen. Sanders closed his speech with information about naming post offices, that Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill could throw her support behind his initial agricultural concerns.
It is here, in person, that the drama of the perfect C-Span moment or 15-second news clip collides with reality.
On a regular day, it is not the Senate of dramatic camera angles or warring sound bytes. On a regular day, it’s not even the Senate of the somber-suited campaign trail.
Rather, it is a cross between a social hour and business meeting, in which senators come to vote, state a position, and grab a quick side conversation with a colleague or a half a dozen colleagues. As was observed during Tuesday’s vote, it can also look a lot like catching up on how they spent the weekend.
The apparent calm is deceiving. It’s because the hashing out of critical details and resolving of arguments is often done elsewhere. Committee and subcommittee meetings are where senators do the work that visitors come to the gallery expecting to see. And it’s these same off-the-floor meetings that keep their chairs in the Senate empty and seemingly unused.
The Senate, with its rich blue carpet and golden doors is where lawmakers meet to air their positions and vote on what’s been decided. It is not where they come to construct legislation.
As for voting . . . Tuesday’s vote on a John McCain amendment was a rolling, angst-free event. Senators moseyed toward the front of the chamber, and threw their support for or against it with a mix of “ayes,” “nos,” thumbs-up and thumbs down, as well as the graceful negative of an index finger drawing a downward arc, that worked like a basketball swish in reverse, taking points, rather than adding them.