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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.”

The chamber sets precedents through rulings from the presiding officer and through floor votes on parliamentary questions. Precedents are changed in much the same manner, when rulings from the chairman defy past practice or when the Senate changes its mind about procedure.

Senators are loath to make wholesale changes to rules and precedents, often out of concern for unintended consequences, and the majority of Senators opposed making fundamental changes to the chamber’s rules when given the chance at the beginning of this year.

The most recent edition of Riddick’s was issued in 1992 and has long been out of print. Copies only occasionally become available from Amazon.com and other booksellers.

That edition included Senate practices and precedents through 1990 — the end of the 101st Congress — and a 2006 law directed the Senate parliamentarian’s office to undertake the monumental task of rewriting the volume.

To put the scale of the project in perspective, the namesake of the 1992 volume, Parliamentarian Emeritus Floyd M. Riddick, said in a 1978 interview that at that point, he had already researched more than a million precedents.

Several of them amount to legislative “magic tricks,” which skilled politicians can use to bend the rules. And others are just plain weird.

The following are some of the five strangest in the book.

Never-Ending Day (p. 714)

The Senate has two different kinds of days: calendar days and legislative days. Calendar days are what you would expect, but legislative days do not end until the Senate formally adjourns.

Senate leaders have several reasons to extend the legislative day. The primary motivation is to quickly bring new legislation to the floor.

Under Senate rules, it takes three legislative days for new bills to be eligible for floor consideration. By holding a legislative day open, lawmakers can get a jump-start on the waiting period by checking off two days in one — the holdover legislative day and the new legislative day.

Legislative days frequently extend for a few calendar days. The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was responsible for the longest legislative day: It ran for 162 calendar days, from January to June of 1980.

The Exploding Amendment (p. 1,503)

Senate rules restrict the number of amendments that may be offered at any one time. But there’s a trick to get around that. In a maneuver that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has used more than once, a Senator may propose a single amendment with lots of different parts and then ask to divide the question. Coburn has exploited this procedure to make Senators take lots of uneasy votes on targeted spending cuts for pet projects.

The effect is to split the amendment into its component pieces, setting up a long series of separate votes. Insiders have come to call this a “clay pigeon” amendment because the amendment shatters into pieces like a clay pigeon used in skeet shooting.

The Bait and Switch (p. 117)

Once an amendment is pending on the floor, a Senator may modify the text of his or her own amendment and replace it with something completely unrelated.

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