Fifteen minutes into a recent shift as the Senate’s presiding officer, Sen. Al Franken put down a newspaper and pulled out his BlackBerry. Head ducked, the Minnesota Democrat kept the phone under the desk to check his email, until Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) cleared his throat.
With a quick glance around him, Franken stowed his BlackBerry in time to recognize Vitter’s request to speak.
Franken’s brief moment of inattention was a minor breach of etiquette in a chamber that frowns on cellphones. But it was also a sign of the diminished stature of the role of presiding officer in the Senate.
These days, it’s not unusual to find freshman Senators catching up on their reading or getting a little work done while presiding. When he wasn’t on his BlackBerry, Franken was reading editorials in the Washington Post. That same day, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) was editing a speech. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) often reads news clips or browses the Congressional Record, while Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) updates her to-do list. When he was a Senator, President Barack Obama even spent time behind the dais reading the Bible.
“My staff will give me a great, big, thick folder of reading to do” while presiding, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said.
Old-timers say that presiding used to be a more serious occupation, a rite of passage that helped them learn the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure. President Pro Tem Daniel Inouye, who joined the Senate in 1963, said it was a different job back then.
“When I did my chore of presiding, I can tell you that I never did side reading or BlackBerry work or what have you. I listened,” the Hawaii Democrat said.
He credits the rise of side work at the chair to the increased workload Senators face today, noting that his mail has gone from five letters a day to more than 300.
“The workload today as compared to 50 years ago is beyond comparison,” Inouye said. “They find that 24 hours a day is not enough. Most Americans expect us to know a few things about what we’re dealing with, and so that requires much reading, newspapers and media and books.”
The reduced stature might also be related to the absence of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a stickler for Senate rules who was known for handing out “golden gavels” to Senators who presided for 100 hours.
Two of Byrd’s long-serving colleagues, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said that since Byrd left, no one in the Senate has taken up his cause of promoting parliamentary skills among incoming Senators.
Rockefeller said he didn’t think that presiding officers are less important now, but he admitted that reading on duty “has probably increased a little bit since [Byrd’s] death.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.