The National Defense Authorization Act, or Senate Reality Television

It has been an action-packed week in the Senate.  Yes, I did use “action-packed” and “Senate” in the same sentence.  There is a considerable amount of legislation that has been held up in some way in both chambers that urgently requires action during this lame duck session.  There was a considerable amount of sniping from both parties in the Senate earlier in the week about changes to the filibuster rule, but for the moment, those issues have been set aside in favor of trying to get work done.

This past week, the Senate’s attention has been focused on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  As a quick vocabulary point, one of the ways in which our Founders separated and balanced powers in Congress was by dividing the authority to create programs, authorization, from the authority to fund programs, appropriation.  So authorization can suggest where money should be spent, and therefore is subject to the limits of the Budget Control Act, but appropriations will be required to actually provide the money.

Senate offices have one thing in common with sports bars; there are a considerable number of televisions around.  Every Legislative Assistant has both a computer monitor and a small TV on his or her desk, and even in the reception room, there is a large TV that is on all the time.  Unlike sports bars, those televisions are all used as a real-time method for tracking what is happening on the Hill.  If the Senate is in session, then ALL of the TVs will be tuned into the C-Span feed from the Senate floor.  I am rapidly developing the skill of working while listening to C-Span in the background.

Since NDAA is not in my policy portfolio, I have been following its progress exclusively by keeping track of developments on C-Span.  In case I have any purists in the readership, I’ll explain that I have missed some pieces while I’ve been out at meetings, but I thought I’d share my best understanding of the action.

NDAA is a mammoth bill that came through the Armed Forces Committee, and as is traditional, the leaders of the relevant committee serve as Floor Managers of the bill, since they, rather than the Majority and Minority Leaders know all the ins and outs of the issue.  Thus I have seen quite a bit of Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic Chair of the Committee on Armed Forces and Sen. John McCain, the Republican Ranking Member of the same committee.

Hundreds of amendments were filed relating to NDAA, and they all need to be worked through in some way before the final vote.  Some of the most contentious amendments requiring significant debate were addressed at the start, working gradually toward amendments that were less controversial.

As an example, one of the big amendments involved the question of whether or not the military should explore the use of biofuels to meet some of their energy needs. Advocates for the use of biofuels feel that reducing the reliance on petroleum improves energy security. Opponents feel that the Defense department should not be used to favor one particular industry artificially.  After several hours of debate, the question ended up in a roll call vote, known as the “yays and nays,” so each Senator was required to show up in person on the Senate floor to cast his or her vote.  There’s usually a 10-15 minute window allowed for the Senators to appear, so they pretty much vote when they show up.  Because Senators’ schedules are always so full and don’t spend lots of time socializing with each other, roll call votes rapidly become social events where the Senators take a little time to catch up with colleagues.  Thus on C-Span, I can see the Senators milling around in the front of the chamber during these votes, and I desperately want a Harry Potter-style Marauder’s Map that would attach a name to each person so I can learn who is who.

The job of presiding over the Senate belongs to the Vice President, but he generally has other things on his schedule.  If he’s not available, then the President pro tempore, the longest serving member of the majority party presides.  He, too, often has other things to do, so the job of presiding over the Senate then falls to the freshman Senators of the majority party, who rotate the job among themselves.  I think it makes a lot of sense for the new Senators to get that intense exposure to Senate procedure, but they obviously also find it challenging to rein in their chatting colleagues when a roll call vote is completed and business needs to proceed.

Back to the NDAA.  Once the first handful of amendments was dispatched, the Floor Leaders demonstrated the true power of a motivated Senate and Unanimous Consent.  By Unanimous Consent on Thursday, the Senate considered four amendments in rapid succession, allowing two minutes of debate for each, evenly divided among the majority and minority, and each followed by a roll call vote.  That schedule was set up in advance (agreed to by UC), so it went very smoothly.  On Friday, they started dealing with amendments in large groups or packages.  The Floor Leaders announced a batch of about 75 amendments that would be considered as a group and that they hoped to pass by Unanimous Consent without debate.  The set of amendments was announced on the Floor, and then the Floor action went into a Quorum Call (holding pattern while the two Floor Leaders got feedback from staffs and the major negotiations took place outside the chamber.  Behind the scenes, staff  were working at an insane speed processing the batch of amendments, making initial decisions on which their bosses would favor and oppose, and doing extra research where they needed more information.  The vote on this big amendment package didn’t take place on Friday, but it is expected on Monday night.  Cloture to limit debate was not filed on the main bill until Friday afternoon, so all that action occurred with bipartisan good will and heroic efforts by the Floor Leaders and their staffs.  More amendments will be addressed on Monday, and the leaders hope that they will finish with this bill that night.

I look upon C-Span these days as “Senate Reality TV,” but I can’t decide if this past week has been reality or unreality.  There were certainly a host of rock stars and top models in the discussions, but all of the Senators who spoke on the floor were consistent about complimenting their colleagues across the aisle for hard work and bipartisanship.  No one even got voted off the island!  That’s next month’s episode.

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2 Comments

Filed under Work

2 responses to “The National Defense Authorization Act, or Senate Reality Television

  1. Heather Pence

    Nice tutorial on the workings of the Senate. And extra props for the reference to Harry Potter’s Marauder’s map!

  2. Thanks, Heather! I learned recently that in one office, the interns have a bingo game set up with the pictures of Senators they can’t recognize on sight. I want one!

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