On Becoming a Congressional Parliamentary Procedure Nerd

Over the last two years, a lot of potential legislation went nowhere. This is not unusual, as many legislators drop bills with little chance of passing, but it’s particularly true when there’s a different party in the majority in each House of Congress. Priorities of the House are not priorities of the Senate during such times, so bills sit languishing after passing one of the two with little hope of consideration in the other chamber.

Yet, with every election, there is potential for change, and 2020 was no exception. And what a setup it’s turned out to be! An evenly-split Senate! This is something that hasn’t happened since 2002. Parliamentary procedural nerds everywhere, rejoice!

Except for those of us that hate the Senate.

Y’all. I hate the Senate, and I make no apologies for it.

I don’t hate the Senators. That’s an important distinction. No. My visceral hatred is reserved for all of the ridiculous things Senators can do to keep themselves from having to do anything. It’s actually as if some of them actively want to do nothing but be in a social club. I waiver on whether or not I truly believe that last statement, because often I talk myself out of it, but then that sneaking feeling that I was right comes back… It’s a conundrum.

But let’s back up. How do I know enough to have a visceral hatred of Senate procedures? Many people work for the Senate or the House for a few years and still have no idea that the House is the only one with a standing Germaneness Rule, for example. Sometimes the Senate requires germaneness, but only under certain stipulations.

The reason you should care is that House and Senate procedure are going to be in fashion again in articles you read in POLITICO, The Hill, The Washington Post, etc., over the next two years (at least). President Joe Biden was a Senator and likes the legislative process. We’re going to see him try to pass much of his agenda through traditional means, That is healthy for our democracy but potentially undecipherable for the layman who could get bogged down trying to figure out how the House and Senate function. And especially in these conspiracy-laden times, this can leave some feeling as though politicians are trying to pull a fast one on the American public.

There’s good news, though! You can be as nerdy as me about House and Senate procedure, and all it will cost you is time and effort.

I recommend starting with this series of short videos on the legislative process, which provides a great introduction. You’ll learn the basics, but don’t expect to come away with an insider’s knowledge. For that, you’ll need to keep going.

Way back in 2007, the first year I worked in a legislative position in a House office, this page was already old, but it was a solid resource that the Democratic majority had archived and kept available on the internet. I love that it’s still available. While much of this is still relevant, every two years, the House adopts new rules, so know that it’s got some outdated information. The basics still hold, though.

Similarly, the Republicans on the Rules Committee used to put out a series called Parliamentary Bootcamp, and they also have archived these reports and kept them available on the internet. Unlike the broad scope of the Democrats’ page, this series explores particular topics in depth through one-to-two page reports. They also have fun graphics. Read the Democrats’ page before getting into this series and then these reports will make more sense.

Finally, as I am ever the librarian, I have narrowed a search of Congressional Research Reports to active reports on the topic of the “Legislative and Budget Process.” Each of these reports are compiled by librarians and subject experts who work for Congress, so you can learn a ton through them. They each have a narrow focus, and as you can see, I’m offer you layers of knowledge, and this one absolutely should come last. However, once you have read a report on any one of these topics, you’ll be well on your way to being a real wonk.

Congratulations, and welcome to the club! I look forward to debating the Byrd rule with you in the near future.

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