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.
"Last night," a bristling Sensenbrenner told the House, "the other body [the Senate] ignored the will of the House" as well as a majority of senators. He pushed through a mere five-week extension to pressure the Senate into finally accepting the conference report next year. Sensenbrenner privately had the full support of House Republican leaders, who were furious with Frist's performance in the Senate. Sensenbrenner and the House members then left town for good, and Warner had to conduct his one-man Senate session to keep the act from expiring Dec. 31.
Simultaneously, a conference report on the budget bill came over to the Senate from the House and provided another illustration of congressional decline. As has become their tendency, House Republicans excluded Democrats from final consideration of the measure and passed the bill at dawn on a party-line vote.
Sen. Kent Conrad, the Democratic budget specialist, pounced on the conference report with three technical points of order, which alleged violation of the Senate's arcane rules in the budget bill. Conrad congratulated himself on his forbearance: "I could be raising 12 or 15 points of order and ask for a vote on every single one of them. . . . Yes, some of these matters are technical, but they are because we have rules." Conrad actually was against trimming $50 billion in projected increases from a $2.5 trillion budget, but he stopped the budget on technicalities when Republicans could not muster the two-thirds majority to suspend the rules.
With John Warner playing passer and receiver on the Senate floor, Congress adjourned until Jan. 31 without taking final action on the budget and tax bills and the Patriot Act. With Social Security and tax reforms going nowhere, it is hard to justify congratulating a Congress that looks bad while it is doing little.