15-minute vote is anything but in the upper chamber

The members of the world’s greatest deliberative body are perhaps most deliberate not in debate but in making their way to the floor to vote, routinely stretching 15-minute roll calls to half an hour or more.

The members of the world’s greatest deliberative body are perhaps most deliberate not in debate but in making their way to the floor to vote, routinely stretching 15-minute roll calls to half an hour or more.

“When you let us drift, we’re drifters,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said.

To some, it is neither news nor bothersome that the slow-moving Senate is held hostage to slow-moving senators. But in an era of jam-packed schedules, the dilly-dallying has left the early birds frustrated.

“A large number of senators complain about it and rightfully so,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said. “It can be a little aggravating.”

Chambliss is one of several junior senators, many of them recent expatriates from the more structured House, who are irked by lumbering lawmakers.

“I’d like to see something done,” Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) said.

At 49, Talent is lean and spry. But some of his creaky-jointed colleagues need more time to navigate the hallways. Others in the upper chamber appear to be completely relaxed when it comes to tardiness.

“There are always people whose nature is to be a little more casual in their use of the clock,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said.

For a majority of senators, the lackadaisical attitude persists despite a complex system of bells, buzzers and lights that would surely send Pavlov’s dog into a frothy frenzy. The bells ring once to signal roll call votes, twice for a quorum call, three times for a call of absentees, four times to signal adjournment or an end-of-day recess, five times to indicate seven-and-a-half minutes remaining for a vote, and six times at the end of morning business or a recess during the day.

Without a single dissenting voice, the Senate agreed at the start of the 109th Congress to observe a 15-minute limit on roll call votes, with the warning bell to be sounded at the halfway point. But such agreements, which have been used for years, have had little effect on senators’ behavior.

“You know you don’t have to be there when the clock hits zero,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who favors cracking down on the lengthy votes.

Sessions said he can distinguish between new hires and savvier staffers because the greener aides will try to rush their bosses to votes as soon as they hear the bells.

“You know they haven’t been here long,” he said with a grin.

The open clock usually is not a problem for senators – they can dart into the chamber, vote and leave — unless votes are held one after another or they are waiting to debate the next issue. Every senator interviewed for this story declined to name colleagues whose dawdling routinely forces others to cool their heels.

“I wouldn’t tell you if I could,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who is untroubled by long votes. “It’s all in a day’s work.”

Even so, subtle peer pressure such as a passing reference or joke can be used to express disenchantment with a late-arriving colleague, particularly when several votes are held one after the other.

“Evidently, there’s not much pressure,” Talent observed.

The solution, he suggested, is for the majority and minority leaders to lean on senators to get to the floor faster.

Former Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) knew where senators were at all times and had tough methods for getting them to the floor, Sen. Hubert Humphrey told interviewer Michael Gillette in a 1977 oral history compiled by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.

Johnson held up a vote on an amendment to the 1955 housing bill while a plane carrying Humphrey (D-Minn.) was caught in a stack above Washington.

“He had called our office to find out what the flight number was and what time I had left Minneapolis, what plane I was on. And he did get the plane in; there was a car waiting for me when I got off the plane and it rushed me on into the Senate so I could cast my vote,” Humphrey said. “I only can imagine what it was like with Johnson reaching out on that telephone, really almost commanding the controllers at the tower to get the plane in.”

But there may be an advantage for senators who are forced to mill about while they wait for stragglers to arrive.

“The one time when people actually do talk to each other is when they are on the floor,” Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian, said.

Senior senators, grayer and presumably wiser, seem far less disturbed by the protracted votes than their junior counterparts.

“It’s been that way as long as I’ve been here,” said 64-year-old Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is in his 22nd year in the Senate.

“It’s better now than it used to be when I got here,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss), a member of the class of 1978. “Senators would be at their houses or apartments” when votes were called.

Party leaders typically know before votes are called whether senators are close at hand or out of pocket, but it can be difficult to round them up quickly even when they are in the Capitol complex.

Before the first bell system was installed in 1891 votes could take much longer.

“It was the pages who had to go out and try to find the senators, and sometimes the senators were really hard to find. They were all over the place,” Ritchie said. “The bells made it a little bit more orderly in getting people over there.”

But even in an age of instant wireless communication, senators are not always quick to get to the chamber.

The Senate has a long history of allowing each of its members to vote — when they want to. Sometimes senators may avoid a tough vote altogether or at least wait to see how colleagues are recorded before they show their cards.

On the House side, roll calls are typically gaveled to a close shortly after the 15-minute limit has elapsed – unless the majority party is losing and needs extra time to twist arms. But the will-bending floor theatrics that became a hallmark of former Texas Rep. Tom DeLay’s tenure as majority whip and majority leader are anathema in the clubby Senate. 

“In the House, sometimes they hold a vote open to reason with people,” Sessions said. “Nobody can be reasoned with in the Senate.”