At a deli in the Senate’s basement, it was clear this was wearing on people. One Capitol employee asked another: Where are you working today? “Senate chamber,” his buddy replied. “Shoot myself in the head.”
These sham roll calls have been a feature of Senate debate for decades, but this year has been special: According to C-SPAN, the Senate has spent more than 32 percent of its time in quorum calls. That’s more than in any comparable period dating to 1997.
The main reason seems to be the bare-bones agenda pursued by the Senate’s Democratic leaders: There have been just 87 roll-call votes so far, compared with 205 in the same period during 2009. Senate Democrats have not even proposed an official budget; the strategy appears to be to shield vulnerable incumbents from controversial votes on spending.
“Why are we here?” asked Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a critic of the large number of quorum calls this year. “The Senate is not operating the way it was designed, because politicians don’t want to be on record.”
Democrats, on the other hand, say they haven’t brought up much legislation because they think Republicans will just block it.
“You always hope it’ll get better,” said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
It might. There is an upcoming deadline to lift the national debt ceiling, and that could produce major legislation later this summer.
But not yet. This year, in fact, C-SPAN worries that its library of classical background music has been over-used. It is trying to expand its options, within a set of strict conditions: The music must be “calm and benign.” No cannon-booming “1812 Overture.” No funeral marches.
And it must not imply any comment on the nothingness happening onscreen. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call recently suggested Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Non-starter.
C-SPAN has also started using a graphic showing tweets from members of Congress. It’s a signal that lawmakers are doing something. Just not here.