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Roll Call

Presiding Loses Its Prestige in Senate

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Fifteen minutes into a recent shift as the Senates 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 Vitters request to speak.

Frankens 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, its not unusual to find freshman Senators catching up on their reading or getting a little work done while presiding. When he wasnt 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 were 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 Byrds 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 didnt think that presiding officers are less important now, but he admitted that reading on duty has probably increased a little bit since [Byrds] death.

Some argue that it doesnt matter what Senators do when theyre behind the dais because theyre not really in charge. Formally, the Senates presiding officers are charged with maintaining order and decorum, but in practice they are usually mere mouthpieces for the Senates parliamentarian, who whispers what they should do.

Whenever youre making any ruling, youre 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. Theres no independent judgment up there. ... Its not a powerful position in any sense of the word. They are totally reliant on whoever is sitting in the parliamentarians chair.

The weak role of the Senates presiding officer differs greatly in the House, where they have significant influence over debate. Thats in part because the Constitution tasks the vice president with the Senate job, even though he might be of a different party than that chambers 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 hes not elected by the Senate, hes 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 (Whos 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.

Its considered under the Senate rules a very prestigious position, and then its 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 parliamentarians name was Mike. 

When things are happening very fast, you definitely have to be cognizant of everything thats going on in the chamber whos standing up, whos next in line, if theres 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.

Its been a wonderful opportunity to get to know the Senators and what they care about, to hear about bills that I wasnt 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 wasnt supposed to see.

Theres a lot of stories, and I probably cant tell you that one, he said, laughing. Let me just say you see a lot of hand movements and gestures at times.

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