The Senate is about to pull some all-nighters. Why?

Nobody knows how to ‘turn off the treadmill,’ one aide says

Why do senators do this to themselves?  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Why do senators do this to themselves? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 5, 2021 at 2:52pm

In most parts of Washington, it’s normal to duck out of work a little bit early the day before vacation — except on Capitol Hill, where all-nighters frequently cap a mad dash to finish must-pass legislation before a scheduled holiday. 

That’s especially true this August. Senators still have two massive tasks ahead of them before they can hit the beach (or the campaign trail): Passing the 2,700-page bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget resolution to kickstart work on an expected party-line $3.5 trillion spending package.

The former is an ongoing process that’s already produced many late nights and work-filled weekends, while the latter will mean 50 hours of debate and as many amendments as members can stomach to offer. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has sworn to keep the Senate in session until both are done, ensuring senators will board their flights home sleep deprived and cranky

Now, the Senate, at least in theory, could set a schedule that skipped the last-minute cram sessions. Schumer isn’t threatening to cancel summer vacation out of spite — it’s a crude motivational tool to spur his colleagues into finishing the work they could have done earlier and during normal office hours. But, just like with with every appropriations cycle, it always comes down to the wire. 

Marathon sessions have become more common in recent years — 16 of the 44 Senate’s all-nighters occurred this century. There have already been two this year, and there was one last year. In 2017, there were three.

Which raises the question: Why do members of Congress — especially senators — do this to themselves? 

Schumer’s main power over his peers comes from his control of the calendar, said Marty Paone, a former deputy assistant for legislative affairs for President Barack Obama with nearly three decades experience in the Senate. “If you’re a majority leader, there is nothing better scheduling-wise than plane tickets and recesses in terms of leverage to get something done,” Paone said.

Another former Democratic aide who spent more than a decade working in the Senate blamed cultural inertia.

“Congress is very behind the private sector in terms of valuing sleep, health and wellness. Culturally, it’s still a ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ kind of place,” he said, speaking anonymously to avoid offending his former colleagues.

“It’s been this way for so long that the easiest thing to do is just keep doing it. Most of them hate the all-nighters, but nobody knows how to turn off the running treadmill,” he added.

Paone agreed that senators tend to follow Parkinson’s law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, they procrastinate.

“As a legislative body, they are more akin to a bunch of college students — they do their best work cramming for exams at the end of the semester,” he said.

Those university habits extend all the way to their dietary decisions. Pizzas get delivered by the dozen. When he’s pulling all-nighters, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy has a habit of tweeting about Diet Mountain Dew — it has roughly 50 percent more caffeine than Coke or Pepsi, but still just a fraction of the caffeine in a regular cup of coffee — and Red Bull.

‘None of these votes are real’

No matter what your job or position, sometimes long hours are just unavoidable — you’ll have to stay late or come in over the weekend to get everything done. The truly surprising thing is that senators sometimes burn the midnight oil just for the hell of it.

The rules of reconciliation are needlessly complex — something else the Senate, should it ever muster the collective will, could fix — but a prominent feature is the vote-a-ramas that take place. The first round, following debate on the budget resolution, is completely non-binding, meaning the amendments adopted amid those many hours of debate do not actually impact the legislation. The second round of amendment votes, on the reconciliation bill itself, would actually change the legislation … but only if the majority party allowed it. Earlier this year, after hours and hours of vote-a-rama, Democrats simply voided one GOP-backed amendment with their own subsequent amendment and made a few more final tweaks with a “perfecting amendment” adopted just before the bill was voted on.

During the first vote-a-rama earlier this year — the one truly centered on the performance itself because not a single amendment would be binding — some former staffers tweeted their blinkered bewilderment.

“It’s so wild that literally all 100 Senators came into tonight knowing none of these votes are real, none will actually change anything,” wrote Charlie Anderson, a former aide to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. “And yet, here we are, in hour 12. To be clear, this is not a partisan comment. It’s true whenever vote-a-rama happens.”

Hacks like to write about the kabuki theater of politics, but real kabuki is infused with meaning. A more accurate analogy here would be some Oscar Wilde. “All art is quite useless,” Wilde wrote in his preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Instead of art for art’s sake, this is procedure for procedure’s sake, politics for politics’ sake.

Of course, these amendments do have some purpose beyond themselves: They are messaging votes that will be used later in campaign ads.

“Even symbolic amendments, and even ones that you think ultimately are just about messaging, can come up in future campaigns,” said Molly Reynolds, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

But political scientists disagree on how much purely symbolic votes like these sway voters compared to votes that actually matter. While taking the unpopular side of big bills that capture the public’s attention can obviously hurt one’s reelection chances, the vast majority of votes go unnoticed by the electorate. A recent paper suggests that while Democrats may judge their representatives based on policy positions, Republican voters focus on symbolic ideology more, which may explain why GOP legislators can vote against bills that poll well without suffering later at the ballot box.

Moreover, drawn-out media coverage of congressional lawmaking — which tends to play up the deal-making (and breaking drama) while giving the policy problems and potential solutions short shrift — tends to drive down public support for a bill, regardless of what’s in it. So it benefits the opposition party to slow down the backroom talks, negotiate through the press, and focus attention on procedure over substance to eventually either kill the bill or make it politically toxic. The GOP successfully did the latter over the Affordable Care Act, leading to Republicans picking up 63 seats in the House and seven in the Senate in the 2010 midterms. 

There’s some evidence this was beginning to happen with the bipartisan infrastructure framework. While individual investments proposed in the bill still poll well — each was supported by more than 60 percent of voters in a July survey — Support for the package as a whole dropped as the talks continued: In April, 57 percent of registered voters supported Biden’s infrastructure plan compared to just 24 percent opposed, per a Morning Consult/Politico poll. By early June, that support fell to 52 percent while opposition rose to 33.

Because the night belongs to us

The Senate’s love for late nights could be explained by electoral incentives or the universal human tendency to procrastinate. But here’s another theory: Senators (and their staff) just like it.

“I was there for the ACA reconciliation, and while we all complained about the length and lateness of vote-a-rama, we all thrived on it,” said one former committee staff assistant.

Anyone who made a habit of leaving the college library in the a.m. hours can tell you: On that quiet trip home in the dead of night, when the campus is hushed and all the windows you walk by dark, a warm sense of accomplishment will wash over you. It’s a tranquility born out of asceticism: While others were asleep or partying, you got things done. And when that suffering is shared with colleagues, it becomes a bonding experience.

“It’s a remarkable time of teamwork on the staff, an opportunity for more junior staff like I was to be back and forth to the Capitol liaising with floor staff, and in the example of the ACA package, a huge win and reason for big celebration,” the ex-staff assistant said. “We were able to talk about that for years afterward.”

For an institution full of workaholics, marathon sessions are as good as it gets. The midnight votes are the stuff of movies. This is as close to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as you can come these days.

In the final lines of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the French existentialist Albert Camus wrote: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So, perhaps, we too must imagine the sleepless senators and staffers: Filled with a sense of purpose, knowing — or at least hallucinating — they’re getting stuff done.