“Today’s Senate: Less debate, fewer votes and taking forever to do it”

Paul Kane for WaPo:

The world’s greatest deliberative body, as senators like to call their club, is not living up to that moniker: they’re voting less often and taking longer to hold those roll calls, while debating the issues far less often.

The topic of drawn-out votes often generates a shoulder shrug from leadership, as if it’s both a longtime tradition that just can’t be fixed and, besides, it’s really a petty concern. But the protracted pace is an entirely new phenomenon and, as every first-year senator learns, time is senators’ single biggest commodity.

Senators manage their daily schedule around votes: when to attend and leave committee hearings; when to schedule meetings with constituents and policy experts; when to reserve time for floor speeches on critical issues; and, of course, when to attend fundraisers to boost their reelection campaigns.

This chaotic vote schedule has upended that regular flow. Moreover, it’s symptomatic of a broader, longer-term transformation of the Senate away from being a body that debates the grand issues and instead empowers top leaders to make its decisions.

Robert X. Browning, a political-science professor at Purdue University who serves as the director of archives for C-SPAN, has catalogued congressional action in a meticulous, revealing way.

At this stage of the 114th Congress, in late June 2015, the Senate had devoted more than 255 hours to debate and speeches, more than 42 percent of the time the floor was open for business. By late June 2017, about 440 hours had been dedicated to debate, more than two-thirds of all Senate action.

This year, senators have engaged in less than 60 hours of debate during the 118th Congress — less than 14 percent of their time on the floor. Conversely, the time it takes to hold votes has soared in recent years, from just 85 hours as of late June 2017 to 148 hours through the middle of this week, according to Browning.

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