As a movie reality TV program, the Senate can span a multitude of genres. Although comedy can crop up at the most unexpected times and some might view it as a horror/slasher show, this upcoming week promises to be a combination of high drama and fast-paced action.
As of last Monday, the tentative schedule had been to deal with the Continuing Resolution (CR) last week and the budget in this coming week. The CR must be resolved before recess starts on March 25th since it is required to keep the government from shutting down on March 27th. Not only does the Senate need to pass a bill, but there must also be time for the Senate and the House to reconcile their different versions and vote on the mutually approved version and get it to the President all before the deadline. The CR didn’t get finished last week, so the Senate will be dealing with both bills all in the same week. Usually, the Senators leave on Thursday night to go back to their states to see family and constituents over the weekend, but the staff have already been told not to make plans for Friday or Friday night.
Because the CR and the budget are bills that have strong momentum for getting passed, they are an ideal “vehicle” to attach other actions to that can get swept along and passed at the same time. Those other actions come in the form of amendments. In the House they are required to be “germane,” so they must directly relate to the base bill and they must not increase its scope. In the Senate, there is no such requirement, so the Farm Bill might have transportation or cybersecurity provisions tacked on. It can probably be argued that just about everything is germane to a large funding bill, however. When the sequester hit, cuts were required across the board, giving administrators no ability to be strategic about where reduced funding might be less damaging. Many of the amendments we are seeing are attempts from Senators to shift those cuts around to reduce the cuts on their own program priorities.
The CR bill arrived on the floor last week having been “reported out” of the Appropriations Committee. Senators immediately started filing amendments to the bill, which is done by submitting your amendment language to the Bill Clerk. Just filing an amendment doesn’t guarantee that it will be voted on. Generally, a Senator will arrive on the floor, be recognized by the Presiding Officer, and “call up” an amendment that has been filed. If there has already been discussion of one amendment, the Senator will ask for unanimous consent to set aside the previous amendment and call up the new one. (For fans of Roberts’ Rules, yes, you can have multiple amendments flying around semi-simultaneously. It takes mental juggling to an entirely new level.) Amendments can be killed through drafting errors, points of order, motions to table, or by being withdrawn. They can be approved via unanimous consent, through voice vote, and through roll call vote. Which amendments will receive votes is the subject of extensive negotiations and agreements that occur off the floor.
Meanwhile, back in the office, staffers monitor the floor action at all times through C-Span. If the Legislative Director (LD) has to step out, he makes sure that someone is specifically assigned to watch the floor in case any votes are called, although we all try to keep an eye out for developments. The staff also try to anticipate which amendments might receive votes because every vote requires a vote recommendation, or vote rec.
A vote rec is a one page summary (in 16 point font so it can be read without glasses!) prepared by the staff for the Senator that suggests how he or she should vote and why. A vote rec includes
A summary of the issue
The arguments in favor
The arguments against
The impact of the amendment on state constituents
A history of the Senator’s votes on the issue (if relevant)
The way that relevant people such as the Majority Leader, Chairwoman of the committee, and the other senator from the state will vote.
I just started writing vote recs last week- the latest in a long series of tasks I’ve faced with a sense of, “I have no idea how to do this, so here goes nothing!” I started on a pair of amendments that had been filed but hadn’t been called up, so there was a bit less pressure. The staff of the office who offered the amendment will always be happy to send out a summary of the case in favor of the amendment, and often committee or majority staff will also send out fact sheets and recommendations for how senators should vote. Since the entire vote rec must fit onto a single page, it is essential to summarize concisely and to select only the most important details for inclusion.
I’ve had a couple of people express surprise that the senators are not experts on all of the issues, but considering that both the CR and budget amendments may include anything from energy and environment to healthcare to gun control to transportation to funding for the space program to farm subsidies to White House tours, there’s no way that any one person can be an expert on all of those topics. That’s why having a smart and hardworking staff is absolutely critical. The staff know the issues in depth and can compress onto a single page the very most important information required to make an informed decision on how to vote.
I got my first taste of the adrenaline rush of urgent vote recs last week when a senator came to the floor and called up an amendment we hadn’t anticipated. The LD sent an email to my LA and I and asked that one of us start working on a vote rec for the amendment. My LA was out at a meeting, so I dove in. With no idea if a vote might be an hour away, a day away, or never happen, I attacked the project with all of the focus and speed I could muster. I had no background information either in favor of or opposed to the amendment, but the LD pointed out that the senator currently on the floor was speaking about the amendment, so I could pick up my key points by listening to him. Inevitably, the amendment, while within the general scope of my portfolio, was not something I had worked on previously, so a little rapid research on the actual issue had to be squeezed in as well.
One of the most important things I’ve had to learn is not to study an issue to death before I send the vote rec on to the LD for editing. I need to get as close as I can in the time I’ve got, and then I know that my LA and the LD will add in the details that are currently outside my experience. I was still pleased that in the final version of the vote rec, all of my original writing survived, and the differences were all in additional inserted information.
My training from last week will be invaluable for the upcoming action on the floor. We anticipate an enormous number of amendments being filed and budgets notoriously conclude with a rapid-fire vote-a-rama towards the end, much like the end of a big fireworks show. The staff in my office is magnificent about pitching in to help, with each staffer taking amendments relating to the different policy portfolios. I’m excited about being able to help carry the load this week, and although I expect it will be some grueling late nights, I’m sure it will be fun and satisfying in the way that intense teamwork can be.