Thursday, January 09, 2003

Parliamentary procedure doesn't, in general, baffle me; and three months interning on the Hill 'way back when, plus my permanent news obsession, have left me with a moderately clear understanding of Congressional procedures. (My Ph.D. in political science added nothing to that knowledge; I must've been sick the day we covered Congress in class.)

But I have no understanding of the rules governing the Senate organizing resolution. How can it possibly be that committee chairs can't turn over without Democratic approval? Could an outgoing-majority party just hold onto committee chairmanships (and budgets, and majorities) forever? Is this a norm of civility-- "because we like to think of the Senate as a gentlemanly club we like to agree on the rules of the game in advance"? Or is it, as reports seem to suggest, an actual procedural rule that both parties must agree to the organizing resolution?

I remember that in 2000 Lott agreed to an organizing resolution that Republicans were none too happy with, and that it governed the change in party control a few months later. If he'd negotiated harder, could he have gotten a resolution that would have preserved Republican control of committees after Jeffords' switch?

In short: at what point could a floor majority ram through an organizing resolution? Is there any such point? What's the longest it's ever taken to get the resolution approved?

Congress trivia junkies and Congress scholars (overlapping but non-identical groups), whaddayknow?

UPDATE 1: Decided to look around for the answer. What seems to me the relevant section of the Senate standing rules doesn't mention anything about supermajorities or consensus rules. But the words "organizing resolution" don't appear, so I'll keep looking. Elsewhere, I see the following:

ch. 25 section. 4 par. (c) By agreement entered into by the majority leader and the minority leader, the membership of one or more standing committees may be increased temporarily from time to time by such number or numbers as may be required to accord to the majority party a majority of the membership of all standing committees. When any such temporary increase is necessary to accord to the majority party a majority of the membership of all standing committees, members of the majority party in such number as may be required for that purpose may serve as members of three standing committees listed in paragraph 2. No such temporary increase in the membership of any standing committee under this subparagraph shall be continued in effect after the need therefor has ended. No standing committee may be increased in membership under this subparagraph by more than two members in excess of the number prescribed for that committee by paragraph 2 or 3(a).

But that only seems to apply when the sizes of committees are being increased.

UPDATE: Chris Lawrence says that there's nothing especially obscure or exotic going on.

I think the issue is that the organizing resolution, like almost everything else
in the Senate (except, I believe, conference reports), is subject to filibuster.

Since the organizing resolution is your basic party-loyalty activity (like voting for your party's leader for Speaker of the House), the options are: a) one party has 60 votes and can pass the resolution unanimously; b) unanimity, as dictated by agreement between the party leaders, or c) paralysis.

Reader David Isaacson independently suggested the same thing.

Makes sense to me-- except in that it-doesn't-really-make-any-sense-at-all way...

UPDATE AGAIN: This makes rather more sense to me. A Congress scholar who wishes to remain anonymous writes:

Regarding your query, the answer likely lies in the fact that the Senate
is considered to be a "continuing body" unlike the House, which must
pass (or re-pass) its standing rules in each Congress. Only a third of
the membership is new each Congress, so the rules carry over from
Congress to Congress. If you parse the rules closely, you will see that
there is generally little reference to parties (majority & minority).
In particular, there are no rules against having minority party members
chair committees, a condition we witnessed as late as the early 20th C...

Binder and Smith have a good discussion of the continuing body issue in
Politics or Principle (Brookings, 1997). They discuss the issue in the
context of the difficulty of enacting cloture reform (reform of Rule
XXII). As a pragmatic matter, the Democrats won't be able to hold on
the committees indefinitely, but they are trying to extract as much as
they can.

The filibuster seemed insufficient as an explanation; it couldn't account for the continuing validity of the old organizing resolution since, in general, one Congress cannot bind its successor. But the Senate isn't ever binding its successor; it's binding "itself." Very interesting...

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