Fake quorum calls are an excuse for the Senate's inaction

Fake quorum calls are an excuse for the Senate's inaction
© Greg Nash

In the latest edition of the Lazy Senate files, it’s time to dispel the myth that the 30-hour rule is the reason Democrats have been able to obstruct President Trump’s nominees. 

The first reason this is true is a simple one. Democrats can no longer filibuster. The 60-vote threshold no longer applies to nominations. Democrats can delay a vote by demanding that the full 30 hours be run, but they can no longer obstruct. Thus, any rhetoric about Democrats “blocking” Trump nominees is simply inaccurate.

The second reason is trickier to explain, but important to understand. It has to do with Senate quorum calls.


As any observer of C-SPAN knows, the Senate usually looks like it’s doing nothing. There are usually no senators on the floor, no speeches being made and rarely any votes. When the Senate looks like this, it’s in a quorum call. What’s that? It’s kind of like calling the roll in school – when a teacher reads every student’s name, and they respond, “here.”


Recall the classic scene in the Frank Capra Classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. At one point, Jimmy Stewart’s character, Sen. Jefferson Smith, becomes frustrated that nobody is in the chamber to hear his speech — so he asks for a quorum call to force all the senators to return to the chamber.

That’s how a quorum call is supposed to work. It’s supposed to force members to floor in order to address pending business of the day.

In today’s Senate, however, quorum calls are being used by the Republican majority as a way to waste time.

This is how it works. 

When a senator finishes speaking, you’ll hear them say, “I suggest the absence of a quorum,” before they leave the empty chamber. Then the clerk will read the names of each senator, to check their attendance. However, they’ll do so at an absurdly slow pace, with long gaps in between each name. In many cases, it will take hours for the clerk to get from Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Two weeks out, Trump attempts to rally the base McConnell aims for unity amid growing divisions with Trump Overnight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas MORE (R-Tenn.) to Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellDemocrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Hillicon Valley: Senate panel votes to subpoena Big Tech executives | Amazon says over 19,000 workers tested positive for COVID-19 | Democrats demand DHS release report warning of election interference Senate panel votes to subpoena Big Tech executives MORE (D-Wash.). 

They are doing this to prevent the Senate from immediately turning to a vote on whatever issue is pending, be it a bill, a nomination, at treaty, or something else.

The obvious question is, why?

Sometimes, there is a good reason. Senate leadership is still securing votes, making little adjustments, and working out an amendment strategy.

But when it comes to nominations, there is no good reason for it.

Yes, after cloture is invoked, the Senate rules allow for 30 hours of debate before a final vote. However, this is not required unless the minority party — the Democrats, in this case — occupy the floor and demand it.

For the Senate to sit there in a quorum call, running the 30-hour clock that no one is using for debate, is just wasting time when the Senate could otherwise be voting.

It’s as simple as a senator going to the floor to speak, and then, instead of “suggesting the absence of a quorum,” calling for a vote. If no Democrat rises to speak, the vote will happen automatically. 

Thirty hours can easily be 15. Or 10. Or two!

In this way, quorum calls are the biggest inside joke of the lazy Senate. So much so that there is a system of bells, clocks and lights in all of the Senate buildings to let senators know whether a quorum call is real, or if it’s just another fake time waster. (Hint: Two bells and two lights means it’s a fake quorum call. Three bells and three lights mean it’s real.)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (R-Ky.) is in charge of deciding whether quorum calls are real or fake. Since January, he has only initiated two real quorum calls, and since February he’s initiated none. 

Interestingly, it is McConnell who has frequently complained about Democrats using the 30-hour rule to “obstruct.”

But surely, McConnell knows the rules better than that. If Democrats aren’t on the floor using the 30-hour rule for debate, he can easily shorten the time.

Indeed, after working no more than 2.5 days each week, McConnell has responded to conservative pressure and now claims he will keep the Senate in through Saturday to confirm four of Trump’s circuit court nominees — proving that he could have done this all year.

How long will it take him to stop hiding behind the 30-hour rule, and turn those fake quorum calls into real opportunities for action?

Rachel Bovard (@RachelBovard) is the senior director of policy for The Conservative Partnership, a nonprofit group headed by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint aimed at promoting limited government.