The Room Where it Sort of Happens

Since I last mused about the issue of remote voting, the House floated, and then dropped, this proposal to allow both remote voting by proxy and remote committee proceedings during a “pandemic emergency.” Among other things, the resolution would have authorized a member to submit to the Clerk a signed letter specifying another member to act as her proxy. This would allow the proxyholder to cast the member’s vote and to record her presence for purposes of a quorum call, provided that the proxyholder obtain the member’s “exact instruction” prior to casting the vote or recording her presence.

The proxy voting procedure raises a number of questions and concerns. Would a large group or majority of members be able to give their proxies to a single leader  or other member? How “exact” do exact instructions need to be? Could the instructions give the proxyholder discretion as to how to vote? Could they direct the proxyholder to vote in accordance with the directions of the speaker or the minority leader? Could they direct the proxyholder how to vote on a bill that had not yet been finalized?

That the drafters of the resolution had some of these same questions is suggested by section 6, which states that “[t]o the greatest extent practicable, sections 1, 2, and 3 of this resolution shall be carried out in accordance with regulations submitted for printing in the Congressional Record by the chair of the Committee on Rules.” However, giving the committee (or the chair alone?) the power to make decisions regarding the very essence of the legislative process is not reassuring and, to coin a phrase, could be a cure worse than the disease. And the qualification “to the greatest extent practicable,” which implies that under some undefined circumstances the hypothetical regulations could be disregarded, adds to the impression of a half baked concept.

Presumably the House resolution was premised on the idea that proxy voting is less of a constitutional/institutional innovation than “pure” remote voting. However, although proxy voting has been traditionally used in committee proceedings, proxy voting has never been permitted in floor proceedings, nor in particular for votes on final passage of legislation or other measures. See William McKay & Charles W. Johnson, Parliament & Congress 212 (2010) (“Proxy voting has never been permitted in either House, and becomes an ethics issue when a Member’s votes is cast in his absence.”).

Even in committees, the idea of proxy voting is not uncontroversial, which is why it has been banned in the House (though not the Senate) since 1995. See id. Jefferson’s Manual describes the rule of Parliament that “[a] committee meet when and where they please, if the House has not ordered time and place for them; but they can only act when together , and not by separate consultation and consent– nothing being the report of the committee but what has been agreed to in committee actually assembled.” House Rules and Manual § 407 (citation omitted). Thus, there is a difference between collective deliberation and agreement on a matter and mere “separate consultation and consent” reflected by proxy voting.

To be clear, the constitutional quorum requirement does not apply to the work of committees (or for that matter to other legislative work that is short of final action by the full legislative body). Nor is there any constitutional obligation that committees conduct their business at the seat of government or in any particular location. As far as I can see, the question whether committees should operate remotely, e.g., by conducting meetings or hearings by videoconference, is  a matter of institutional policy, not constitutional law.

Nonetheless, the idea that legislative action requires more than “separate consultation and consent” is arguably embedded in the constitutional provisions that apply to the full legislative body. These include not only the quorum clause, but the mandate that Congress “assemble” for its annual meeting, and the restriction on either house unilaterally adjourning to “any other place” during the session. For reasons noted by Tim LaPira and James Wallner, constitutional text, historical practice, and the nature of the legislative process itself argue in favor of the physical, not merely virtual, assembly of both houses for the congressional session. And as Wallner observed in this podcast, the framers were aware of the possibility of legislative action by physically remote actors (such as the use of circular letters by committees of correspondence), but did not provide for Congress to act in such a manner. (By contrast, the constitutional amendment process involves what Professor Paulsen has called “concurrent legislation” by geographically dispersed legislative bodies).

This does not necessarily mean, however, that a majority of either house must be physically present in the same room at the same time in order to satisfy constitutional quorum requirements. While physical presence has always been the touchstone of determining a quorum in both houses, it seems to have been flexibly applied to ensure that members are present in the general vicinity of the chamber at roughly contemporaneous times. Thus, members traditionally can be counted toward a quorum even while outside the chamber or if they depart after voting or being counted. See, e.g., 5 Deschler’s Precedents ch. 20 § 3 (“In practice, the Speaker counts all Members he can see, including those leaving the chamber and those behind the railing.”); see also id. § 3.19 (in Senate, chair may use the last roll call as the basis for finding a quorum).

In modern practice, House votes are generally conducted by electronic voting that is conducted over a minimum period of 15 minutes during which members drift in and out. The chair has the discretion to hold the vote open for far longer if need be to allow absent members to make it to the floor. See Hearing Before the House Select Comm. to Investigate the Voting Irregularities of Aug. 2, 2007 at 17 (Oct. 25, 2007) (testimony of former House parliamentarian Charles Johnson) (“Through the early nineties, votes were held open interminably because Members could signal through the cloakrooms that they were on their way and the Chair– a tradition grew that the Chair would honor Members who had asked that the vote be held open and the business of the House was to be impacted adversely.”). The process followed by the House in voting on April 23, 2020, in which there was staggered voting by different groups of members in order to maintain social distancing, further illustrates the absence of any requirement under House rules or practice that a quorum be physically present in the chamber at any one time.

Particularly in light of this historical practice, it seems difficult to contend that the Constitution requires a majority of members to vote in the same room at the same time, and therefore no reason they should be prohibited from voting from locations outside the legislative chamber itself. On the other hand, as I suggested in my prior post, this proposition does not mean that the constitutional requirements have no physical component at all. Absent some degree of proximity among its members, the legislative body arguably is not assembled in a constitutional sense, is not sitting at the same place as the other chamber, and lacks a sufficient number of members in attendance to constitute a quorum. Furthermore, if members are simply voting remotely without the opportunity for collective discussion, debate and negotiation, this is not a mere technical problem, but potentially undermines the deliberative nature of the institution.

A measure introduced in the Senate by Senators Portman and Durbin, S. Res. 548, would allow senators “to cast their votes from outside of the Senate Chamber” during “an extraordinary crisis of national extent.” Like the House resolution, this proposal is not a “pure” remote voting process in that the Senate would still conduct a proceeding in the Senate chamber (though presumably there could be as few as one senator physically present, as in a pro forma session). Unlike the House proposal, however, senators would cast their own remote votes, which avoids some of the practical and potential constitutional problems with proxy voting suggested earlier.

To the extent that a majority of senators are casting their votes from remote locations within the seat of government, it seems to me that S. Res. 548 would very likely pass constitutional muster. The Senate would be assembled for constitutional purposes, the senators would be present at the seat of government, and they would retain the same ability to conduct collaborative legislative activities as during ordinary congressional sessions. To the extent that the need for social distancing inhibits such activities, this would not be result of the remote voting procedure.

Even if there were not a majority of senators present at the seat of government, it is probably unlikely the process could be successfully challenged in court. As suggested by this CRS report, a court might decline to reach the merits of the case under the the enrolled bill rule or other justiciability principles and, even it did reach the merits, would likely in any event be inclined to defer to congressional judgment regarding the propriety of remote voting, particularly under the extraordinary circumstances presented.

Nonetheless, Congress should be concerned not only with the possibility of judicial review, but whether a remote voting procedure complies with the letter and spirit of the Constitution and its potential ramifications from an institutional perspective. With this perspective in mind, I would suggest a tweak to S. Res. 548. When a vote in which senators may participate remotely is scheduled, there should be an opportunity for any senator to ask for an ascertainment of a quorum in connection with the vote. If no such request is made within a set period of time, any objection to the absence of a quorum would be untimely, and the result of the vote would in effect be accepted by unanimous consent. If, on the other hand, a request for a quorum call is made, the determination should be whether a majority of the senators are present within the seat of government at the time they cast their votes. This would have the effect of encouraging senators to be present in Washington D.C. if at all possible, and avoid any institutional slippage toward remote participation as a normal practice. Finally, whether in conjunction with a remote voting procedure or otherwise, the House and Senate should also use technology to maximize the ability of members to communicate and deliberate together during this period.

This may not be a perfect solution, but it seems to me the best that can be achieved under these difficult circumstances.

The Constitutionality of Remote Voting

As you may have heard, there is a virus going around and as a consequence Congress, and everything else, is shut down. Some (such as @danielschuman) have advocated Congress establish a process for remote voting in the event that members are unable to return to Washington in the near future. One idea is to allow members to deliberate and vote by online video conference.

In a staff report on the subject, the House Rules Committee briefly considered the constitutionality of a remote voting procedure, observing that it would be a “novel question for a court and there is no guarantee of a favorable ruling affirming its constitutionality.” Majority Staff Report Examining Voting Options During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Mar. 23, 2020). To my knowledge there has been no in depth analysis of this question so I am posting a few thoughts.

The relevant constitutional provisions begin with the requirement for Congress annually to assemble and remain assembled until both houses agree to end the session. The Constitution provides that “Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January.” U.S. Const., amend. XX, § 2; see also id., art. I, § 4, cl. 2. The term “assemble” (according to Johnson’s Dictionary) means “to bring together in one place” or “to meet together.”

Further, Article I provides that “[n]either House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn . . . to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.” U.S. const., art. I, § 5, cl. 4. Thus each house must normally sit in the same “place” as the other while Congress is in “session.”

Although the Constitution does not expressly define the “place” at which both houses normally sit, longstanding interpretation and practice establishes it to be the seat of government. See 1 Deschler’s Precedents, ch. 1, § 4. Since November 17, 1800, Congress has assembled and sat in the District of Columbia, which it had designated as the permanent seat of government. Id.; see also U.S. const., art. I, § 8, cl. 17 (authorizing Congress to acquire a District to “become the Seat of the Government of the United States”). As long as each house continues to sit within the seat of government, it does not need the permission of the other body to meet in a different physical location. See 1 Deschler’s Precedents, ch. 1, § 4 (“a simple House resolution suffices to adjourn the House to meet in another structure at the seat of government”); see also id., ch. 1, § 4.1; House Rule I (12) (d) (“The Speaker may convene the House in a place at the seat of government other than the Hall of the House if, in the opinion of the Speaker, the public interest shall warrant it.”).

The Constitution does not have any express requirements for where or how members must vote, but it provides that “a Majority of each [house] shall constitute a Quorum to do Business” and “a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members.”  U.S. const., art. I, § 5, cl. 1. This empowers each house to require the attendance of absent members at a specific location for purposes of “doing business” (e.g., voting). See House Rule III (1) (“Every Member shall be present within the Hall of the House during its sittings, unless excused or necessarily prevented, and shall vote on each question put, unless having a direct personal or pecuniary interest in the event of such question.”).

As a general rule, the question of a quorum is an internal matter for each house and does not concern the other. However, at the commencement of a congressional session “Congress is not ‘assembled’ until a quorum is present in both Houses, and each House has been notified of the quorum in the other.” 1 Deschler’s Precedents, ch. 1, § 2. Furthermore, while each house can adjourn from day to day, for the duration of the congressional session neither may adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other. U.S. const., art. I, § 5, cl. 4. This has given rise to the practice of each house conducting “pro forma sessions” (performed by a single member who conducts a brief ceremonial session in the House/Senate chamber) every three days when Congress is effectively in recess.

One final provision of note is the president’s authority on “extraordinary Occasions” to “convene both Houses or either of them.” U.S. const., art. II, § 3. The authority to “convene” (defined by Johnson as “to call together; to assemble”) empowers the president to require the assembly of either or both houses at the seat of government as at the commencement of an ordinary congressional session.

What do these various provisions mean for remote voting? My tentative thinking is that nothing in the Constitution prevents either house from determining that a quorum exists when, for example, a majority of members are gathered on the Capitol grounds, rather than in the House or Senate chamber. Similarly, if either house wanted to allow members to vote from their offices, rather than on the floor, it is hard to see what provision would be violated. So long as the house is assembled at the seat of government and there is a reasonable method for determining the existence of a quorum if its absence is suggested, such a procedure appears to violate no constitutional prohibition.

True, the longstanding tradition is for members to deliberate and vote in a single room (with some exceptions, such as proxy voting), but it is hard to see why the quorum clause would be read to prohibit a majority from doing business while they are acting in concert (say while connected by videoconference) at the seat of government, rather than independently voting in the same room at different times. Thus, for example, if during the pandemic either house wanted to keep its members physically separated in one or more structures in the District of Columbia, they should be able to debate and vote electronically. Members would retain the ability to physically congregate if they chose, to access the chamber, and, with the agreement of a sufficient number, to commence an in-person session.

It gets dicier if members (or at least a majority of members) are not physically located in the District of Columbia. One problem is that the house has arguably adjourned to “another place,” though this concern could be resolved by obtaining the consent of the other body. A more difficult issue is that the house may not be  “assembled” or “convened” at all because it has not come together in any particular place. This may seem like a technicality in the context of virtual meetings, but I am not (entirely) sure that it is. Not having at least a majority of the body present at the seat of government, with the option of congregating personally, arguably changes the nature of legislative deliberations in a way that violates the spirit, as well as the letter, of Article I.

There is a possible workaround, however. If members vote to approve a particular measure by videoconference, this could be treated not as final passage , but as an interim step in the legislative process (sort of like the House Committee of the Whole). Final passage would occur at the pro forma session, when the measure would be deemed to be passed without objection. The downside of this procedure is that any member could show up and object, but that is also what ensures the process does not become a permanent virtual Congress.

I have not considered here the likelihood that courts would intervene if these procedures were challenged (presumably by someone injured as a consequence of legislation passed pursuant to the new process). Even assuming a constitutionally defective process, it is likely that the courts would show their customary deference to Congress in these sorts of procedural matters. I assume, however, that members of Congress wish to adhere as closely as possible to the letter and spirit of the Constitution regardless of judicial intervention.

 

 

Who is a “Constituent”?: Lessons from the Menendez Case

A significant portion of a congressional office’s resources are devoted to performing “casework,” which the Congressional Research Service defines as “the response or services that Members of Congress provide to constituents who request assistance.” While this seems like a noncontroversial definition, it raises two more difficult questions: (1) who are the “constituents” for whom a Member of Congress may perform casework; and (2) when, if ever, is it appropriate for Members to perform casework for non-constituents. The House and Senate answer these questions somewhat differently. See CRS Report for Congress, Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources 3-4 n.13 (Jan. 3, 2017).

The House Ethics Manual notes that “[a]s a general matter . . .  a Member should not devote official resources to casework for individuals who live outside the district.” This admonition is based partly on the statute authorizing funding of the Members’ Representational Allowance, which provides that the MRA “’is to support the conduct of the official and representational duties of a Member of the House of Representatives with respect to the district from which the Member is elected.’” House Ethics Manual at 310 (quoting 2 U.S.C. §57b, now codified at 2 U.S.C. §5341(a)) (emphasis added by House Manual). The House Manual thus provides both a definition of “constituent” (one residing in the Member’s district) and an admonition against performing casework for non-constituents. See also Dennis F. Thompson, Ethics in Congress 91-92 (1995) (noting that the House Manual’s “sensible discussion” of casework is not explicitly endorsed in House or committee rules).

To be sure, the House guidance does not categorically prohibit providing assistance to non-constituents. The House Manual notes that there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate to do so, such as where “working for non-constituents on matters that are similar to those facing constituents may enable the Member better to serve his or her district.” House Ethics Manual at 310. Members may also vary on how they interpret this guidance. For example, the website of Representative Sean Duffy states flatly that “Members of Congress are prevented from assisting constituents residing outside their Congressional District.” Others may take a more nuanced view. Members are advised, however, that there is at least a strong presumption against performing casework for non-constituents.

In contrast, the Senate’s guidance on this issue is less clear. Senate Rule 43(2) provides that senators and staff may provide certain assistance with matters pending before government agencies “at the request of a petitioner.” The Senate Ethics Manual notes that “petitioners . . . may or may not be constituents,” but it does not elaborate on this observation or explain if or when it is appropriate for senators to provide assistance to non-constituents. See Senate Ethics Manual at 178. The Senate Manual discusses Rule 43 in the course of a chapter on “Constituent Service,” and its discussion largely assumes that senators will be providing assistance to constituents. Id. at 177-86. Nonetheless, CRS suggests the Senate guidance provides greater leeway to assist “nonconstituents who might seek congressional intervention in administrative proceedings [such as] foreign-born individuals seeking to emigrate to the United States, or a family or other interested party who live outside a Member’s constituency on behalf of a resident constituent.”

During the course of Senator Robert Menendez’s bribery trial, the prosecution argued that Menendez’s assistance to Dr. Melgen, a personal friend who resided in Florida, was improper or irregular because Melgen was not a constituent of the New Jersey senator. The court directed the parties to brief the meaning of “constituent” for purposes of instructing the jury.

Prosecutors filed a brief response stating that “Senator Menendez’s constituents are the New Jerseyans that he was elected to represent in the United States Senate.” Menendez’s lawyers, however, argued that there was not a single definition of “constituent.” They acknowledged “Dr. Melgen was a citizen of Florida, not New Jersey, and [therefore] was not Senator Melendez’s electoral constituent.” (emphasis in original). They contended, however, that Menendez’s “constituents” were not limited to electoral constituents.

According to Menendez’s legal team, “no law, custom, or congressional precedent supports the prosecution’s suggestion that a legislator cannot advocate on behalf of someone outside the legislator’s electoral constituency.” Moreover, “as advances in technology, travel, and communication (particularly the Internet) have created greater interconnectedness throughout the citizenry, political constituencies based on ideology, cultural ties, and other criteria—as well as these constituencies’ financial support—have outstripped the geographic boundaries of any given State or District.” Thus, it is increasingly common, they suggest, for legislators to represent “political constituencies” and not merely electoral ones.

In particular, “[r]acial and ethnic constituencies have . . . long played a key role in nationalized, non-electoral constituencies.” Thus, because Senator Menendez is “one of the only Senators of Latino heritage,” he regularly “advocates for Latinos across the country on a range of issues from immigration reform to discrimination.” He also “has felt a special obligation to help Hispanic-Americans—no matter where they live.” (This obligation apparently extended to helping Dr. Melgen, a Hispanic-American, with respect to his personal and business interests, such as intervening on his behalf when a federal agency found the doctor had overbilled Medicare by $8.9 million.)

Finally, Menendez’s lawyers contended that “Senate Rules do not support the view that a Senator’s duties are confined to electoral constituencies.” Pointing to Rule 43’s broad reference to “petitioners,” they note that nothing in the rule “defines ‘constituent’ or restricts a Senator’s duties to geographic constituents.”

For purposes of the criminal trial, the defense’s ultimate point was that the meaning of “constituent” only mattered to the extent it was relevant to the senator’s state of mind, and therefore it was a question of fact for the jury to decide whether Menendez believed he was assisting a constituent (as opposed to providing favors in exchange for the personal gifts and campaign contributions he had received from Melgen). Thus, it really did not matter whether Menendez’s understanding of Senate rules on constituent service was accurate so long as it was what he believed.

However, Menendez’s conduct was subsequently considered by the Senate Ethics Committee, which issued this letter of admonition to the senator on April 26, 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the committee did not criticize Menendez’s understanding of constituent service. Instead, it stated:

[T]he Committee understands that you are committed to assisting constituents. Indeed, the Committee has long recognized that “[r]esponding to inquiries of petitioners and assisting them before executive or independent government officials and agencies” is an “appropriate exercise of the representational function of each Member of Congress, as well as an important function of congressional oversight.” Your assistance to Dr. Melgen, however, went well beyond Senate norms. You took action, over the course of several years, on behalf of one specific individual who repeatedly gave you many valuable gifts and who was also among your closest friends, which included direct contact with officials at the highest levels of government.

Letter of Admonition at 3 (citation omitted). This passage does not make any reference to the fact that Melgen did not reside in New Jersey. Arguably, therefore, it implicitly suggests that the committee accepted Senator Menendez’s theory of “political constituencies,” including the idea that a senator may appropriately choose to provide assistance to out-of-state individuals based on race or ethnicity (even with respect to issues unrelated to either).  If this is an accurate interpretation of the Senate Ethics Committee’s position, it suggests that the gulf between House and Senate “norms” on this question has grown even wider.

 

Did Liz MacDonough Change the Process for Making Byrd Rule Determinations?

For those who don’t know, Ms. MacDonough is the Senate Parliamentarian, and in that capacity she is responsible for making preliminary rulings on what parts of the Senate health care reform bill comply with the “Byrd rule.” Without getting into the many intricacies of the Byrd rule, the basic point is that those provisions of the legislation which are compliant with that rule can pass the Senate with a simple majority vote under the reconciliation process, while those that are determined to be non-compliant must be stricken unless 60 senators (the same number needed to break a filibuster) vote to waive the Byrd rule point of order.

According to this June 20, 2017 post by Georgetown law professor David Super, MacDonough has changed the procedures for making preliminary Byrd rule determinations in a way that materially disadvantages Democrats who oppose the health care bill. Professor Super wrote:

Ms. MacDonough is by all accounts a smart and capable lawyer.  Nonetheless, she serves at the pleasure of the Majority Leader, Senator McConnell.  A prior Republican Senator Majority Leader fired one of her predecessors for making unwelcome rulings, and some current Republican senators have already called for Ms. MacDonough’s firing.  This year, she has departed from longstanding practice by meeting with Republican staff ex parte to discuss parliamentary objections rather than allowing Democratic and Republican staff to argue their points before her in a joint meeting.  Therefore, Republicans may know which items she will hold violate the Byrd Rule – and how to modify those items to achieve a favorable ruling – but Democrats do not and may not until the very last moment.

I found this charge surprising not only because it doesn’t sound like something MacDonough would do, but because I would think that there would be a much louder outcry if this were happening. (It seems a tad more important, for example, than the fact that there is a dress code for the Speaker’s Lobby).

So I emailed Professor Super for some more detail, and he graciously responded. He explained that the sources of his information were people “who were in frequent contact with Democratic staff.” These sources reported that the Parliamentarian was holding separate meetings with Democrats and Republicans and “keeping the contents of each meeting confidential from the other side.” Moreover, in the past “at the conclusion of or subsequent to the joint meetings, the parliamentarian has let both sides know what to expect.” By contrast, Democratic staff had not received any indication of MacDonough’s expected rulings on the health care bill. Super noted that “[a]lthough it may be theoretically possible that Republican staff are equally in the dark, the absence of complaints from that sector leads me to believe that they are not.”

I have no reason to doubt that Super is reporting in good faith what he has been told, but I just came across this article from June 30, which quotes several Democratic and Republican experts on the process MacDonough is following, with no indication of the irregularities Super alleges.

According to Bill Dauster, a longtime Democratic staff director for the Senate Budget Committee who just retired in May, the process is as follows: “The Democrats go in, the Republicans go in, then both of them go in together.” MacDonough has not been ruling immediately, but, according to Dauster, “she has, of late, gotten back to people by email” with her preliminary views or rulings. According to the article, this is an improvement over the process often used in the past, when staffers often did not know how the parliamentarian was leaning until the issue was raised on the floor.

There is nothing in this article to suggest that MacDonough is changing the process to make it less fair or transparent. Of course, it is possible that the author of the article did not talk to the right people. But it is also possible that Super’s (unnamed) sources were wrong, or had an agenda. Or perhaps they were upset that they had not yet received a ruling from the parliamentarian’s office, but later got one by email. (It seems that one major ruling has just come out in the last few days).

So I remain skeptical of this allegation. But if more emerges, I will update the post.

The Filibuster, the Nuclear Option and the Rule of Law

Erick Erickson argues here that Senate Republicans would be making a “foolish mistake” if they vote to scrap the filibuster “in its entirety.” He makes a distinction among three different filibusters: (1) the filibuster for executive appointments excluding Supreme Court justices; (2) the filibuster for Supreme Court justices; and (3) the filibuster for legislation. Erickson accepts, without necessarily approving, that the two nomination filibusters have been or will be eliminated through use of the so-called “nuclear option,” but he contends that the legislative filibuster should be preserved as an essential tool to fight for limited government.

We will not address here the policy question of whether the preservation of the filibuster, in whole or in part, is a good idea. Instead, I want to discuss the filibuster’s current status under the law of the Senate and the implications of the nuclear option for the Senate and the rule of law.

Senate Rule XXII provides in part:

Notwithstanding the provisions of rule II or rule IV or any other rule of the Senate, at any time a motion signed by sixteen Senators, to bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, is presented to the Senate, the Presiding Officer, or clerk at the direction of the Presiding Officer, shall at once state the motion to the Senate, and one hour after the Senate meets on the following calendar day but one, he shall lay the motion before the Senate and direct that the clerk call the roll, and upon the ascertainment that a quorum is present, the Presiding Officer shall, without debate, submit to the Senate by a yea-and-nay vote the question:

“Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?” And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn — except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting — then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of.

Note that this rule does not provide for three different filibusters. It applies to ending debate on “any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business,” and it makes no distinction between matters related to nominations and those related to legislation, much less among different kinds of nominations. The only distinction it makes is between a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules and all other matters, with the former requiring a larger supermajority (two-thirds of senators present and voting) to bring debate to a close.

The idea of three filibusters stems from the Senate’s November 21, 2013 exercise of the “nuclear option.” In that action the Senate purported to eliminate the filibuster with respect to all nominations save those to the Supreme Court. According a February 15, 2016 Washington Post opinion piece by Senator Harry Reid:

In response to unprecedented Republican obstruction, Democrats changed the Senate rules in 2013 to allow qualified nominees to be confirmed by a simple majority vote, instead of 60 votes. This change alleviated judicial emergencies across the country by allowing a flood of qualified nominees to be confirmed. (We stopped short of changing the threshold for Supreme Court nominees—maybe that was a mistake).

(emphasis added).

Similarly, in October 2016, Reid was quoted as saying: “I really do believe that I have set the Senate so when I leave, we’re going to be able to get judges done with a majority. It takes only a simple majority anymore. And, it’s clear to me that if the Republicans try to filibuster another circuit court judge, but especially a Supreme Court justice, I’ve told ’em how and I’ve done it, not just talking about it. I did it in changing the rules of the Senate. It’ll have to be done again.” (emphasis added).

Continue reading “The Filibuster, the Nuclear Option and the Rule of Law”

Should SCOTUSblog Get a Credential? (Or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Congressional Press Galleries But Were Afraid to Ask)

SCOTUSblog has filed this letter with the Standing Committee of Correspondents regarding the Standing Committee’s decision not to renew Lyle Denniston’s membership in the congressional Press Galleries. Although the Standing Committee only determines whether an applicant may be admitted to the House and Senate Press Galleries, such admission is apparently required before Denniston can obtain a Supreme Court credential, which is his main objective. For a thorough and interesting discussion of the background of this matter, see this article, which asks “Why Can’t SCOTUSblog Get a Credential?,” by Jonathan Peters in the Columbia Journalism Review.

To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at the rules governing the press galleries, such as they are. As Peters notes, there are actually four types of press galleries: (1) the Press Galleries (which we will refer to as the “Daily Press Galleries” for clarity’s sake); (2) the Periodical Press Galleries; (3) the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Galleries; and (4) the Press Photographers’ Gallery. The photographers’ gallery is different than the others because it is a single gallery, authorized only by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration (hereinafter “the Senate Rules Committee”), with no counterpart in the House.

Denniston is applying for admission to the Daily Press Galleries, which are set aside for newspapers and other news organizations that publish daily. The Daily Press Galleries consist of a House Gallery and a Senate Gallery. Each is separately authorized under House and Senate Rules and each has a separate staff. However, they are jointly administered by the Standing Committee, and there is a single set of rules and a single admissions process for both galleries. The Standing Committee’s authority comes from the House and Senate Rules, and it is ultimately subject to the direction and control of the Speaker, with regard to the House Gallery, and the Senate Rules Committee, with regard to the Senate Gallery.

The Periodical Press Galleries and the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Galleries also consist of separate House and Senate Galleries, but, like the Daily Press Galleries, each has a single administrative body, a single set of rules and a single admissions process. The Periodical Press Galleries, for example, admit journalists employed by “periodicals that regularly publish a substantial volume of news material of either general, economic, industrial, technical, cultural, or trade character.” They are governed by the Periodical Press Gallery Rules and overseen by the Executive Committee of the Periodical Correspondents’ Association.

Why is it necessary to have four different types of press galleries, including a separate administrative body and rules for daily versus periodical reporters? Maybe there is a good reason, but I suspect the answer is the same one that explains why there is still a National Information Technology Service.

In any event, that is the overview of the congressional press galleries: seven galleries, seven sets of staff, four administrative bodies, four sets of rules, and two political overseers. All to govern a population the size of a large public high school. Welcome to Washington.

Now let’s examine the rules that govern Denniston’s application.

Continue reading “Should SCOTUSblog Get a Credential? (Or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Congressional Press Galleries But Were Afraid to Ask)”

The D.C. Circuit on the Nuclear Option

One additional tidbit from the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Common Cause v. Biden is worth noting. In footnote 5, the court discusses the Senate’s exercise of the “nuclear option” last fall:

That opportunity to appeal [from the ruling of the presiding officer] constituted the so-called “nuclear option” the Senate invoked to modify the cloture rule as applied to executive branch and lower federal court nominees. On November 21, 2013, the Senate considered, and defeated, a cloture motion on a nomination to a judgeship on this court. Senator Reid, the majority leader, then raised a point of order to the Chair, positing that a cloture vote for such nominations required only a majority. The Chair rejected the point of order under Rule XXII. Senator Reid then appealed the ruling to the full Senate, and, by a 52-48 vote, the Chair’s ruling was overturned. Thus was set new Senate precedent interpreting Rule XXII in the context of executive and lower federal court nominations.

(citations omitted). This discussion is no doubt dicta, but it provides at least some explanation of what the Senate did, which is more than it appears we will be getting from the Senate itself. The explanation is somewhat self-contradictory, in it describes the Senate as having both “modif[ied]” Rule XXII and issued a new precedent “interpreting” the rule. Literally, of course, the Senate did not modify Rule XXII, which reads today exactly as it did prior to November 21. We therefore can assume that the D.C. Circuit meant that the Senate “modified” the rule by “interpreting” it to mean something other than what it had “interpreted” it to mean before.

The practice of abruptly changing the interpretation of a rule without explanation ought to be troubling enough. But in the case of Rule XXII, the imagination staggers as to what explanation could be given. Did the Senate “interpret” the phrase “three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn” in Rule XXII to mean a bare majority? Or did it “interpret” Rule XXII to be simply inapplicable to cloture motions for executive and lower court judicial nominations, although there is nothing in the text of the rule or any other source of legal meaning (such as legislative history) to support such an interpretation?

The only possible coherent explanation for the Senate’s action, other than lawlessness, would be that the Senate viewed Rule XXII as unconstitutional. But while the Senate conceivably could have viewed Rule XXII as unconstitutional in its entirety, or as to nominations alone, there is no plausible way it could have viewed the rule as unconstitutional as to executive and lower court nominations, but not as to Supreme Court nominations. Perhaps it was for this reason the D.C. Circuit did not suggest that the Senate’s action stemmed from a constitutional judgment.

 

 

Common Cause’s Impossible Dream: Act II

Not surprisingly, the D.C. Circuit has affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Common Cause’s challenge to the constitutionality of the filibuster. Like the court below, the appellate panel found the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue, but its rationale was somewhat different. The district court’s decision was rooted in the absence of a cognizable injury and the court’s lack of power to remedy the harm allegedly caused by the filibuster rules (namely Congress’s failure to enact two pieces of legislation, the Dream Act and the Disclose Act, that would have benefitted the plaintiffs). It also concluded that the suit was barred by the political question doctrine.

The D.C. Circuit, on the other hand, “focus[ed] on whom Common Cause chose to sue—or, more to the point, not to sue.” The Senate, of course, is responsible for enacting and enforcing its own rules, yet Common Cause did not name the Senate or any senator as a defendant. Instead, it sued the Vice President and three Senate officers.

This was a transparent ploy to circumvent the Speech or Debate Clause, which would certainly have required the dismissal of any suit against the Senate or particular senators. As the court points out, what defeated the Dream and Disclose Acts was “legislative action, activity typically considered at the heart of the Speech or Debate Clause.” There was, however, no need to decide whether the Clause barred suit against the Vice President and Senate officers because these were simply the wrong defendants.

The court was unimpressed by Common Cause’s reliance on Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969), in which a member of the House was able to challenge his expulsion by suing the Sergeant at Arms to recover back salary. As we have discussed before, the Sergeant at Arms was responsible for paying Powell’s salary and thus could be said to have caused this very specific injury to the plaintiff. But nothing in the Supreme Court’s decision suggests that congressional officers can be used generally as stand-ins whenever someone wants to challenge an allegedly illegal House or Senate action.

In contrast to the situation in Powell, the court notes “Common Cause does not identify anything the defendants did (or refrained from doing) to cause its alleged injuries.” The only remotely plausible link is the Vice President’s role as presiding officer of the Senate, but any ruling by the presiding officer is subject to appeal to the full chamber. Thus, even if the Vice President had been presiding at the time of the votes Common Cause complains of (which he was not), and even if he had ruled on a relevant issue (which he did not), it would still be the Senate, not the Vice President, that caused the alleged injury.

Accordingly, Common Cause’s failure to sue the Senate or any senator leaves it “Hoist with [its] own petar,” as the court puts it, quoting Hamlet (act 3, scene 4, if you were wondering).

To appeal or not to appeal, that is the question. Perhaps Common Cause’s quixotic quest (to mix metaphors) will yet have a third act. Or perhaps it will decide it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Only time will tell.

The Debt Limit and the Paradox of the Post-Nuclear Senate

The Senate is set to vote on cloture for the debt ceiling bill that passed the House on Monday. If the cloture vote should fail (i.e., if there are not 60 votes to end debate and advance the measure to final passage), we will have an interesting illustration of the paradox of the post-nuclear Senate. As Professor Seth Barrett Tillman has observed, since the Senate Majority Leader has already asserted the power to change/suspend/reinterpret(depending on how you want to look at it) the Senate rules by simple majority vote,  it is not clear in what sense the minority still has the power to prevent the bill from passing. It has the power only so long as the majority allows it to do so, which seems a lot like not having the power at all.

For ordinary legislation, one might argue that the filibuster rule, while not truly binding on the majority (or not recognized by the majority as binding, anyway), reflects a Senate norm that significant legislation should not be passed with narrow majorities. But the President and his congressional allies have advanced a theory that the debt limit is different than ordinary legislative matters. Raising the debt ceiling, it is claimed, is a technical necessity to prevent default on existing debt and potentially catastrophic economic consequences. For that reason the President has declared the debt limit exempt from the normal give and take of the legislative process and has decreed that he will only accept a “clean” debt limit bill.

The House leadership bowed to the President’s unwillingness to negotiate and allowed a clean debt limit measure to come before the House. The vast majority of Republicans voted against the bill, but there were enough Republicans voting for it, including the Speaker and House Majority Leader, to allow the bill to pass.

The argument will be made that Senate Republicans, even though they may prefer to vote against the debt limit bill for symbolic/political/ideological reasons (as Senator Obama did a number of years ago), have an obligation to produce enough votes to allow cloture to be invoked. But this argument loses much of its force in a post-nuclear Senate. If the Senate majority believes that the debt limit is so important, how could it justify not invoking the nuclear option to move the bill to final passage? Clearly there is no legal argument against doing so other than those which would have been equally applicable to the majority’s previous invocation of the nuclear option.

The Filibuster and Obamacare: My Comments on Seth Tillman’s Comments

Seth Barrett Tillman sends in the following thoughts (also posted on The Volokh Consipiracy)  on Obamacare and the Senate’s use of the “nuclear option” to limit the filibuster:

The Nuclear Option and Political Responsibility for Obamacare

 The Senate’s use of the nuclear option pins any defects in the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) on the Democrats. Until the nuclear option was used, Democrats said that they had to pass an arguably defective bill because they could not get around a minority Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. In other words, although the Senate was able to invoke cloture and pass the ACA when it had Senator Ted Kennedy’s vote, once he died and was replaced by Senator Scott Brown, the Democratic majority in the Senate was unable to pass an alternative bill or substantively amend the ACA.

 But the use of the nuclear option undercuts that narrative. We now know that the Democratic majority always had the ability to change the rules and to end debate on any amendment or amendments to the ACA. The Senate Democratic majority always had the power to terminate debate—it is just that the Senate Democratic majority refused to exercise that power.

 If Obamacare is defective, it is not because the Republicans filibustered or threatened to filibuster any amendments, but because the Senate Democratic majority refused to terminate debate using a power which was always within their reach. It follows that political responsibility for any virtues or defects in the ACA rests entirely with the Democrats who passed it.

I don’t have any comment on the political aspect of this argument, but Tillman raises an interesting legal question. There is no doubt that the Senate majority “had the power” to use the nuclear option in 2010 if by this one means nothing more than it could have acted, as a factual matter, to override any filibuster. This calls to mind the “debate” President Obama had with a heckler the other day, in which the heckler yelled that Obama had the power to stop all deportations by executive order, and Obama replied “Actually I don’t.”

The heckler meant that Obama had the power, as a factual matter, to sign an order halting all deportations, which is certainly true. It is also (virtually) certain that such an order would have the effect, at least in the short term, of stopping deportations and quite likely true that it would prevent any further deportations for the remainder of Obama’s term.

What Obama meant is that although he has the factual power to take this step, he lacks the legal authority to do so. More precisely, Obama believes, or says he believes, that he lacks the legal authority to stop all deportations. On the other hand, Obama believes, or says he believes, that he has the authority to halt certain categories of deportations, and one can see how the heckler might not appreciate the difference.

Which brings us back to the Senate. One might infer from its action last week that a majority of the Senate believes it has the lawful authority to override a filibuster by a simple majority vote, although I cannot identify any coherent legal theory that would support the precise action it took (overriding the filibuster as to non-Supreme Court nominations only). There is a coherent legal theory, advanced by Republicans in 2005, to the effect that the filibuster is unconstitutional as to nominations only (not as to legislation), but it does not appear that the Senate is relying on that theory to support its action.

Leaving that aside, one can say with confidence that if the Senate acted lawfully last week, it could have lawfully overridden the filibuster against the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But it remains possible that a majority of the Senate did not believe in 2010 that it had this authority, and that a majority of the Senate does believe that (due to changes in seats or changes in attitude) today.