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.
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.
The first version of the amendment is usually an innocuous decoy so that no other Senator blocks calling up the proposal. Then, before anyone asks for a roll-call vote, the Senator moves to modify the amendment, inserting new language that opponents would rather avoid putting to a vote.
Republican Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) pulled out this trick this year to force a debate on allowing more long-haul flights to and from Reagan National Airport, over the objections of Senators from Virginia and Maryland who would prefer to maintain restrictions.
Proceed Without Debate (p. 760)
In the modern Senate, 60 votes are often required to proceed to legislative business because the motion to proceed itself can be subject to a filibuster — and often has in recent years. Reid does have a trick to get around this obstacle, should he ever choose to do so.
During morning-hour debate, a motion to proceed is not debatable and thus cannot be filibustered. Deeming the actual morning hour expired each day blocks these simple-majority votes.
It would seem that Reid could avoid filibusters on motions to proceed simply by holding the votes in the morning hour. But the process is used infrequently because there are a number of retaliatory delaying tactics.
Drinking Milk (p. 758)
This particular precedent isn’t exactly magic, but it is perhaps the most unusual of the lot.
Senators are generally provided with water during their speeches, but under a precedent set in 1966, sipping milk is permitted. No similar precedent exists for other drinks, though.