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Riddick’s Tome Unlocks Quirky Senate Powers

Courtesy Library of Congress
Assistant Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett would push back the hands of the Senate chamber’s clock at the request of the vice president to forestall adjournment, a procedural trick that he wrote saved “a number of the most important appropriations bills.”

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In the 19th century, whenever the Senate ran dangerously short on time to pass critical legislation, Isaac Bassett would extend a pole to the official chamber clock and perform a feat most mortals only dream of.

As the assistant doorkeeper from 1861 until his death in 1895, he would push back the hands of the clock at the request of the vice president to forestall adjournment.

The task stirred a mixture of awe and consternation in him. “I wish it distinctly understood that I never did so until I received the order from the vice president or president pro tem of the Senate,” Bassett wrote in personal notes, now recorded on a Senate Historical Office website.

“A number of the most important appropriations bills have been saved and an extra session avoided,” Bassett wrote. “I have nothing to say whether it was constitutional or not, but never in my life while in the service of the Senate (have I) disobeyed an order from the vice president.”

Both chambers of Congress have procedural tricks that allow the majority to circumvent dead ends and strengthen its position. But while the Speaker can pluck his out of thin air, the Senate is beholden to its own restrictive rules and precedents, all of which have been recorded in the 1,608-page tome Riddick’s Senate Procedure.

Within those confines, however, Senators are limited only by their own creativity. Senate rules have been a hot topic in recent days since Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) modified a precedent that allowed members of the minority party to offer amendments to legislation after debate has been closed.

The leaders of both parties employ experts on Riddick’s, whose responsibility is to know the rule book intimately and to manipulate its contents in dramatic moments.

Reporters asked Reid in late July whether there would be enough time to raise the federal debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline, even with all the delaying tactics available to obstinate opponents.

Reid replied, “Magic things can happen here in Congress.”

The Method in the Madness

More than 10,000 precedents are spelled out in Riddick’s Senate Procedure, the bible of the chamber’s parliamentarians. Or, as former Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) reportedly put it, “the nearest thing to the Bible that the Senate has.”

Precedents, or interpretations of past applications of the Senate’s rules, are key to maintaining legislative order. The chamber has a limited number of formal rules, and some of them are ill-defined, so the precedents act to confine the legislative sorcery of individual Senators.

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