Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- On the evening of Dec. 22, Sen. John Warner, the Senate's Acting President Pro Tempore, declared: "In my capacity as the senior senator from Virginia, I ask unanimous consent that the chair now lay before the Senate the House message to accompany S.2167." The Virginia senator and the chair happened to be the same person, John Warner. All his colleagues had left to celebrate Christmas. Warner granted his own request, and the Senate adjourned after two minutes.

 Warner, a dignified 78, looked like a young boy playing imaginary football by throwing passes to himself. In 49 years of watching the Senate, I never before observed legislation passed with one senator present. S.2167 was nothing routine but would renew the Patriot Act to combat terrorism. The House had kicked the bill back to the Senate, take it or leave it, after senators thought they had finished the year's business.

 This bizarre Senate session reflects a general decline on Capitol Hill. If there ever was a golden age of Congress, it preceded my time in Washington. More likely, Bismarck's admonition that "laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made" always applied to Congress. Nevertheless, with bipartisan responsibility, Congress functions more poorly today and looks worse doing it.

 Typical of what ails Congress was consideration of the Patriot Act last week as Congress finished for the year. A strong consensus wanted to extend the act that broadened anti-terrorist police powers. An outsider watching the Dec. 21 debate on the Senate-House conference would have heard mostly sloganeering without exposition of the issues, a congressional failing that is worse than ever.

 When Democrats were joined by four conservative Republican senators to reject ending debate on the conference report, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist immediately suggested the absence of a quorum -- a device increasingly used to avoid debate. Nothing happened on the Senate floor during a quorum call lasting nearly seven hours. Typically, the real debate took place outside of public view as senators agreed on a six-month extension of the act pending final negotiations.

 The Senate's extension required acquiescence by the House, which had shut down for the year except for pro forma sessions to conduct routine business. Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner was incensed. He flew back to Washington from Wisconsin determined to block the six-month extension.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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