The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The increasing uselessness of speaking on the House or Senate floor

Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Tex.) knows how to give a floor speech. But to what end? (Harry Hamburg/AP)

A philosophical question for you: If a lawmaker gives a speech and no one's around to hear it, does it even make a sound, politically speaking?

Judging by the number of times lawmakers spoke on the House or Senate floor this year, as compiled by C-SPAN, some members of Congress still quite clearly believe that speaking on the floor matters. A lot. In 2015, congressional lawmakers spent hundreds of hours and, for a few talkative few, a hundred or more days on the House or Senate floor making speeches.

Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) spent 20 hours and 43 minutes this year talking on the floor, the most time out of any House lawmaker. (When you break it down by days, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) gets the top spot for speaking on the House floor 110 separate days this year.) In terms of time spent on the floor, Gohmert was followed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) with 9 hours and 52 minutes and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) with 7 and a half hours. (Hoyer, it's worth noting, is a member of Democratic leadership and, therefore, is likely needed on the floor more often.)

What they were talking about for all those hours, we're not really sure. And if those of us who follow Congress for a living are scratching our heads trying to remember what was said, we doubt their messages got across to their constituents, either.

That's the problem with floor speeches in an era of cable news interviews and social media and disaffected voters. Long gone are the days when lawmakers would wax passionately to a full chamber and packed galleries in hopes of swaying their colleagues and the public.

In the modern era, delivering a speech on the House or Senate floor is mostly a formality that has little actual impact.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives get about one minute at a time to talk, and -- a little secret the C-SPAN cameras don't let on -- they're often speaking to an empty room and often about mundane topics.

Consider some of the speeches given on a recent October morning.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) wanted to state for the record that on an earlier vote, she wasn't present because of an event but "Had I been present, I would have voted no."

After losing a baseball bet to Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a Dodgers fan, begrudgingly sang "Meet the Mets" while wearing a  New York Mets tie.

In the Senate, the top speech givers are congressional leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who open the Senate almost every day by giving a speech. According to C-SPAN, they've each spent between 17 and 19 hours over 120 to 150 days giving speeches this year, usually setting the political tone and pace for the day with their speeches.

But those who arguably have the most to gain with free publicity -- senators running for president -- have decided floor speeches aren't really the best way to get it. With the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who spoke 11 hours and 39 minutes, the other senators in the race rank toward the bottom of days and hours speaking on the Senate floor.

Even senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who used floor speeches to help define their political brand (in Paul's case, a 2013 filibuster to block the president's choice for the CIA, and in Cruz's case a 2013 21-hour speech against the president's 2010 health care law), have decided it's not worth their time to keep talking on the Senate floor.

Cruz spoke for 7 and a half hours, Paul roughly 7 hours and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) 1 hour and 51 minutes, according to C-SPAN.

Most lawmakers, presidential candidates and others spend much more time talking directly to voters on cable news shows or via social media. They tweet as much as 365 days a year, and the popular ones can spend every morning and evening doing TV interviews if they want.

So why even bother to take time to make a floor speech? Well, lawmakers are usually taking to the House or Senate floor to accomplish one of three things:

1) To side step hierarchy. Not everyone gets invited onto CNN. Sarah Binder, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution, says those with the least power in Congress -- freshmen, minority party members and ideologues out of step with party leaders -- can use floor speeches to make a point they wouldn't have otherwise been allowed to or found the space to make. Tea party conservative Gohmert has used his speeches to stake out positions to the right of his party's establishment, such as on immigration reform.

2) To promote their own political or party brand: Most floor speeches often end up disappearing into the ether or getting posted on a lawmaker's YouTube channel, where exactly 10 people watch them. (One notable exception: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a rabid online following for her floor speeches.) But some lawmakers have calculated that the cumulative effect of going to the floor over and over again will, eventually, have an impact. Binder says she's noticed lawmakers these days using the floor as a platform to shape their messaging, whether for the party as a whole or their own political brand. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), recognizable for his bow tie and bicycle pin, frequently uses the floor to promote public transportation and bicycle use. He spoke 69 days this past year, according to C-SPAN.

3) For a dramatic moment: This is the type of speech most people think of when they think of C-SPAN cameras and Congress. One of the most striking examples is in 2014, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of spying on Senate staffers during their investigation into the agency's use of torture. Her speech was big news, and the symbolism of a senator using the Senate floor to argue about a perceived breach in the separation of powers certainly added gravitas to her case.

The floor speech remains a useful tool for any one of those three goals. But lawmakers have so many more new tools at their disposal to accomplish the same things. Floor speeches then, in the main, are a lingering relic of the past; a quaint and increasingly unhelpful way to reach the average American -- who, let's be honest, probably isn't paying attention to Congress anyway.

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