Speaking to a visitor in her Senate office, Dianne Feinstein was interrupted by a series of annoying, high-pitched beeps that served notice of an impromptu vote in progress.
Feinstein’s mood quickly turned dour as aides scurried to brief her about the pending amendment. She had less than 15 minutes to make up her mind, take private elevators and a subway to the Senate floor and cast her vote.
“This is one of the most frustrating things,” Feinstein said, her voice rising in disgust. “See, I don’t know what the vote is. You don’t know when committee meetings are. You don’t know when you can attend something or make a speech. This takes a lot of getting used to.”
After nearly nine months in office, California Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer continue to learn--and grapple with--the many peculiarities of a complex institution that is like no other in American government.
In separate interviews, the two Democratic senators raised a wide range of concerns about the way the Senate operates: On any given day, they never know when their work will start, when it will end or what business will be conducted. They are dismayed that Senate rules allow a single member to hold up legislative action on pressing issues. They see too much time and energy wasted on what they consider frivolous debate and procedures. And, as if representing 31 million constituents is not enough of a challenge, they say they are overloaded with too many committee assignments.
Both senators hope that in time a wave of new legislators will push the Senate to become more responsive, efficient and productive.
“I think it is very clear that people would like to see the Senate handle its business differently,” Feinstein said. “They have elected some of us who ran on that theme. They will elect more. As the powers that be get the drift of it, I think they would rather get in the boat of change than sink with the tide.”
It is not unusual for new senators, particularly those who once served as mayors, governors and House members, to express frustration with the Senate’s sluggish pace. Legislation typically crawls, if it moves at all, because the floor schedule is subject to the consent of every senator. By definition, the Senate is a place where the interests of all 50 states are represented equally, often making it difficult for consensus to emerge.
The complaints voiced by Feinstein and Boxer fit squarely into a rising debate over legislative efficiency and whether the rules that critics say encourage obstructionism are necessary to protect the deliberative roots of the Senate.
Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, said the freshman senators “are reacting to features of the contemporary Senate that are, I think, harmful to the institution, both operationally and in terms of its public image.”
Indeed, many members of Congress recognize that the institution needs reform. Last year, the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress was created in response to public concerns about legislative ineffectiveness. The 24-member committee is due to file a report in December after several months of hearings. Any suggested revisions must be approved by Congress.
Some historians warn that the rush to “fix” the legislative process is overlooking the Senate’s obligation to fully explore and debate issues of national importance. The Senate increasingly has ceased to perform this function, said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a leading authority and master of Senate rules.
“It is not the Senate that I once knew,” Byrd said in testimony before the joint committee. “It has lost its soul. But the answer is not to be found in tinkering with process or in the pursuit of efficiency, whatever that means. The Senate was not intended to be efficient.”
The concerns cited by Feinstein and Boxer stem in part from their own backgrounds in politics.
As a 10-year member of the House, Boxer was accustomed to the Democratic leadership asserting its power by limiting debate, controlling floor action and steering bills to passage. Under House rules, Republicans often are helpless in their efforts to frustrate the will of the majority party.
The Senate is vastly different, bending over backward to give enormous leeway to each member throughout the legislative process. Under rules of unanimous consent, one member can--at least temporarily--stop 99 others from considering a bill.
But the Senate rules, Boxer said, often are abused by legislators who seek “just to be an obstacle, just to stop a program.” This occurred in April, Boxer said, when the Senate yielded to a Republican filibuster and abandoned President Clinton’s $16.3-billion economic stimulus package.
“We are facing a lot of pressing problems that need addressing,” Boxer said. “I totally believe the Senate should be a deliberative body, but I don’t think that should stop us from changing some of these obstructionist rules.”
Although Boxer is quick to deplore the modern-day use of the filibuster and other delay tactics by Republicans, Democrats also use Senate rules to delay business when it is to their advantage.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) threatened this month to put a hold on all Pentagon nominations and budget bills until the Defense Department explains why he was prohibited from landing at a Sarajevo airport during a foreign trip last year. Moynihan maintains that the military lied to him when it said the airport was closed.
Because cooperation between Democrats and Republicans is key to achieving consensus in the Senate, Boxer will have to moderate the partisan approach that served her well in the House if she hopes to be effective in the Senate, said Mann of the Brookings Institution.
For Feinstein, the lag in moving legislation can be maddening for a senator who will face a campaign for reelection less than two years after assuming office. As mayor of San Francisco for a decade, Feinstein was accustomed to issuing orders to department heads and getting quick results. In the Senate, such swift action is unheard of.
“You can’t go out and institute a program of graffiti removal” as a senator, Feinstein said. “You have to discuss it. You have to get legislation passed. You have to go through two houses. It might take six years, and that’s the frustrating part.”
Between them, Boxer and Feinstein have introduced 17 pieces of legislation. They are fully aware that years may pass before many of their initiatives are enacted.
As mayor, Feinstein also was in a position to control her appointment calendar. As senator, the constant last-minute revisions to her daily schedule are “driving me crazy,” she said.
Feinstein is tired of canceling meetings that were planned weeks in advance with visiting California business executives. Or rushing in and out of different committee hearings held at the same time. Or not getting briefing papers in advance to prepare for committee votes.
Often, Feinstein finds herself working in her office while watching senators on television during appearances on the floor. She would like to hear their remarks, but usually is tied up with meetings and phone calls. This is why C-SPAN viewers who watch the Senate often see legislators speaking to an empty chamber--an image that both California senators say reflects poorly on the Senate.
Instead of spreading debate over several days before a vote, Feinstein suggests, the Senate should meet more regularly as an entire body to discuss major issues.
“The time the Senate is the best, it seems to me, is when everyone is in the Senate chamber and you have a set period of time for real debate, not when it’s run out over a long period of time and nobody’s there and the redundancy is just amazing,” Feinstein said.
“If everybody were assembled and the people who really had something to say got up and said it, I think in two hours you would have a (full) debate on any given question. And then you go ahead and vote.”
Recommendations for reform are not new. Dating to 1947, Congress has studied different ways to overhaul a system that too often seems bogged in gridlock. But members of the Senate, in particular, have been loath to alter the status quo.
Some of the changes Boxer and Feinstein support include:
* Clamping down on use of the filibuster, the hold and other obstructionist maneuvers. They said the filibuster should be utilized as it was originally intended--sparingly and only when an individual senator feels compelled to bring all floor business to a halt to debate critical issues of national importance. Instead, the threat of filibuster is now an almost weekly event that is invoked for reasons as trivial as a senator’s travel schedule, according to Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.).
In recent years, filibusters have been allowed to drag on without holding up floor action because senators objected to the inconvenience of being detained around the clock and unable to consider other bills. Boxer and Feinstein want to force any member who launches a filibuster to remain on the floor continuously, day and night. “If you feel something is so strongly detrimental to this country, then stand on your feet. And if you stop standing on your feet, the vote is taken,” Boxer said.
* Making amendments germane to legislation. This would prevent the practice of senators introducing controversial and unrelated provisions solely for the purpose of dooming a bill. Current rules permit senators to attach an amendment of any kind to any legislation pending on the Senate floor. Earlier this year, conservative senators delayed a vote on President Clinton’s family and medical leave bill by debating numerous amendments dealing with gays in the military. Boxer and Feinstein said they have not used this maneuver to stymie legislation.
* Reducing the size of committees. With 17 committee and subcommittee assignments between them, Boxer and Feinstein said, their staffs are spread too thin and they are unable to focus on areas of specialty. Although Congress has strived to cut committee and subcommittee assignments before, the numbers continue to increase to accommodate members’ desires for greater influence and staff.
* Revamping the schedule so all senators spend a full week in Washington, not three days as is often the case. Senate leaders have failed in previous attempts to keep members in Washington five days a week because they frequently leave town for fund-raisers, foreign travel, visits to home states, speeches and other appearances.
* Requiring advance notice of committee meetings. It is not unusual for hearings to be arranged hastily, making it difficult for newcomers to know what is going on, Feinstein said. She suggests requiring the Senate to post notices of committee hearings at least one day beforehand.
“The Senate is frustrating,” Feinstein said. “But it is not an action body. It is a deliberative body.”