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.”
Some argue that it doesn’t matter what Senators do when they’re behind the dais because they’re not really in charge. Formally, the Senate’s presiding officers are charged with maintaining order and decorum, but in practice they are usually mere mouthpieces for the Senate’s parliamentarian, who whispers what they should do.
“Whenever you’re making any ruling, you’re simply making a ruling the parliamentarian has whispered to you,” said George Washington University professor Robert Dove, who served as a Senate parliamentarian for 36 years. “There’s no independent judgment up there. ... It’s not a powerful position in any sense of the word. They are totally reliant on whoever is sitting in the parliamentarian’s chair.”
The weak role of the Senate’s presiding officer differs greatly in the House, where they have significant influence over debate. That’s in part because the Constitution tasks the vice president with the Senate job, even though he might be of a different party than that chamber’s majority.
With the threat of a hostile vice president, the Senate over time devolved the powers of the presiding officer, said Steven Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Because he’s not elected by the Senate, he’s not subjected to control of the majority party, so that majority party is not going to put rules in place that might be used against their interest,” said Smith, who is co-authoring a book on Senate leadership. “So the presiding officer of the Senate is very weak in comparison with presiding officers in most American legislative bodies.”
Still, some argue that sitting in the chair can be a learning experience.
Udall, who has spent more than 235 hours in the chair (“Who’s counting, right?” he joked), remarked that he has learned a great deal about his colleagues and the history of the Senate while sitting on the dais.
“It’s considered under the Senate rules a very prestigious position, and then it’s delegated to the more junior members,” Udall said. “Part of the reason it is delegated is because they want us to learn the rules and get to know our colleagues.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) agreed, calling it a “front-row seat to the democratic process” in an email.
The job also forces new Senators to learn quickly who their colleagues are. When Hagan first chaired, she misheard Udall when he was trying to tell her where the “mic,” or microphone, was as he departed. Instead, she thought the parliamentarian’s name was Mike.
“When things are happening very fast, you definitely have to be cognizant of everything that’s going on in the chamber — who’s standing up, who’s next in line, if there’s parliamentary maneuvers going on — to make sure you understand the rules,” she said.
Coons, who said the job improved his punctuality, also sees time in the chair as an opportunity to learn. Following an emotional speech from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) about the first responders to ground zero on 9/11, he wrote her a letter and signed on as a co-sponsor for her bill.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to get to know the Senators and what they care about, to hear about bills that I wasn’t following and to get to join them,” he said.
Not every view from the dais is so inspiring, however. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) can recall more than one time that he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see.
“There’s a lot of stories, and I probably can’t tell you that one,” he said, laughing. “Let me just say you see a lot of hand movements and gestures at times.”