Is the U.S. Senate the world's greatest deliberative body . . . or merely a hundred Lily Tomlins waiting for the phone to ring?

Posted: Sep 30, 2007 12:00 AM
Is the U.S. Senate the world's greatest deliberative body . . . or merely a hundred Lily Tomlins waiting for the phone to ring?

Congress passes many bills without reading them. Some are prepared so close to the vote that not even their sponsors really know what they say.

That's nothing new. We all know this. But here's a surprise: Now the Senate can push through the legislation no one reads even faster, lickety-split. It's called hotlining, and it was designed to get nitpicky business-y kinds of things done quickly.

But recently the business has turned serious.

Here's what happens: The Senate Majority and Minority Leaders agree to pass a bill without a vote. They call all senators on special hotlines installed in each office, giving a specified amount of time to object — sometimes as little as 15 minutes. If no objection is registered, the bill passes.

Welcome to Washington, D.C., folks, where quantity of legislation is more important than quality. Yes, our nation's capitol is filled with people so motivated to do their job that they can do it with their voting hands tied behind their backs. In the buildings that Madison once walked, where the Adamses deliberated, where Webster, Calhoun and Clay orated — and where Preston Brooks took his Gutta-percha cane and beat Senator Charles Sumner into unconsciousness — today time is of such essence that the Senate must pass bills while the august solons frolic with staff, pages, and the habitués of airport bathrooms.

In a four-day period this summer, of the 153 hotline calls made 75 were legislative measures, 61 were nominations, and 17 were post-office-naming bills.

Naming post offices? Well, I can see hotlining such tasks. Heck, the U.S. government shouldn't even be in the postal service biz any longer, so why bother the Senate with such trivialities as naming each post office? So maybe the expediting of that kind of legislation makes a certain kind of sense.

But real laws? Real money? You'd think the senators could bother to gather in chamber and push a button for the crucial stuff.

And maybe even prick up their ears and limber up their tongues to discuss, debate, perchance to deliberate.

But no, hotlining is apparently all the rage. A few of these bills authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending.

Thankfully, some rage against the political machine has been building. In a floor speech last year, Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama noted that these bills can be as long as 500 pages. Many staffs simply ignore the calls, he said, and "the Senator is deemed to have consented to the passage of some bill" without ever been told diddley or squat.

This issue made a ripple in the news last month. An article appeared in Roll Call. The heroic Mark Tapscott explained hotlining to his audience at The Examiner, and opined that "Democracy itself will soon become a joke, or worse, if drastic reforms are not soon forced upon this Congress and all that follow."

If anything, Tapscott understates the case. Congress is already a joke. It has been for some time. It's a bipartisan joke, and I get the feeling that the Old Guard in office — the long-term incumbents resting in secrecy behind their oak bookshelves of leather-bound editions and stashes of half-drunken bourbon bottles — shout out a whoop every night, jeering at the taxpayers who keep them in office.

And the situation is only getting worse. Nearly 400 bills and resolutions went through the senatorial mill this year. Only 29 were approved by a roll-call vote.

This is not representative government. How can anyone be represented when the stand-ins are, well, out? Out to lunch.

And, as Sessions suggested, that's just how many in the Senate like it. The leadership likes to "get things done" without all the constitutional bother of debate and voting. Rank-and-file senators themselves like things done without them bothering to . . . bother at all. Besides, if someone complains, he (or she) can just say, "Well, I was out that day." Can't stand by the phone every minute!

You might be thinking, along with Tapscott, something to this effect: "But doesn't the Constitution require that federal spending bills be approved only after a public debate?"

Well, yes. But that and a nickel will get you five pennies. Sure, senators took an oath to uphold the Constitution. But actually stick to their word? Play by the rules?

How retro.

What could you be thinking?