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Losing It

On The Hill

Poor Trent Lott. Three years into his stint as majority leader, the legendary control freak is still struggling to impose order on the senatorial circus. It's not as if he hasn't tried. Early in his tenure, the fastidious gentleman from Mississippi drew scattered snickers when he implemented a dress code for Senate staffers and decreed that colleagues would henceforth be expected to call before dropping by his office. But etiquette changes can provide only so much comfort in an organization in which a lone senator can logjam legislation on a whim and a debate on tort reform can morph suddenly into a battle over pornography or school prayer. As one anonymous senator told The Washington Post back in '97, "Trent likes to control and manage ... but the Senate is a collection of 100 independent people who don't always like to be controlled and managed."

Deep down, the majority leader must pine for his days in the House. Sure, the offices are shabbier and the partisanship even more shrill. But, institutionally speaking, the House understands a little something about the importance of control. For one thing, the speaker can ram through legislation with a simple majority vote. Better yet, the Rules Committee keeps a tight rein on which bills come to the floor, how long debate will last, and what sorts of amendments can be attached.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Lott has spent the past several months trying to make the Senate operate more like the House. Through a variety of procedural maneuvers, the majority leader has devised a system for holding debate to a minimum and ensuring that members of both parties have little chance to clutter up bills with cumbersome amendments. In the process, he has managed to get both sides of the aisle sniping about his management skills.

For starters, Democrats complain that the majority leader is keeping an iron grip on the calendar, larding the schedule with conference reports and unamendable vehicles that don't allow for open debate. As for amendable legislation, Democrats charge that Lott has appointed himself a one-man Rules Committee. "He will not bring up a bill unless he knows exactly what's coming," gripes one Democratic aide. "He always wants to know, `What will the amendments be? How many? How long will you take on them? When can I move on to something else?' All these things need to be answered before he's even willing to bring up the bill."

In the "regular order" of the Senate, once a bill makes it to the floor, any member may propose any amendment--no matter how absurdly unrelated--to be followed by unlimited debate. While this is, admittedly, not the most efficient way to run a government, the Senate takes great pride in being the world's most deliberative body. Lott, not surprisingly, disapproves of such untidy digressions and has found a way to circumvent them by filing cloture on measures early and often and, for that extra dose of control, by employing an arcane procedure known as "filling the amendment tree." Roughly speaking, the process works like this: As majority leader, Lott has first dibs on amending any measure on the floor. Each bill may carry only a limited number of proposed amendments at any one time. By loading a bill with his own amendments, Lott blocks other senators from attaching theirs. Then, once the tree is filled, he calls for a cloture vote to end debate. The objective, his office explains, is to prevent important bills from getting bogged down by controversial amendments.

Unfortunately, while such maneuvering may soothe Lott's orderly soul, it in no way facilitates passage of legislation. Democrats are furious over what they regard as his attempt to run the Senate "as a dictatorship." Minority Leader Tom Daschle has convened emergency meetings to urge his party members to vote against cloture in the name of protecting the minority party's rights. So far, he's managed to deny Lott the 60 votes needed for cloture in every instance. In such cases, Lott has had little choice but to delay action until another day.

Republicans, understandably, are less perturbed by Lott's micromanagement. But even they occasionally run up against their leader's need for control--most memorably during last October's budget battle. Rather than hash out unpleasant spending details on the Senate floor, Lott and his staff locked themselves away for eight days of private haggling with representatives from Newt Gingrich's staff and the White House--much to the displeasure of their Republican colleagues. "Negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, out of sight of the public, as well as the vast majority of the members of Congress," groused Senator John McCain, denouncing the entire process as "deplorable." Republican anger over both Lott's imperious handling of the process and the contents of the final bill prompted rumblings that the majority leader was on his way out the door a la Gingrich.

Lott survived, but his leadership skills remain under fire. Democrats grow ever more obsessed with his procedural shenanigans: the minority leader's office has gone so far as to put together a report noting that, among other acts of parliamentary heavy-handedness, Lott has filled the tree and filed cloture on the very first day of a measure's consideration at least three times since March. (While that may not seem like much, the Congressional Research Service notes that this procedure was used only three times between 1989 and 1994, and under different circumstances; in each case a cloture vote was immediately taken by unanimous consent.) The Democrats' frustration has begun to spill out onto the floor. In late April, when Lott filled the tree on the Y2K bill, Daschle turned snippy: "I have a great deal of affection for the majority leader, but I must say, I think he should have run for speaker because I really believe he would be more comfortable as speaker."

From a parochial point of view, Lott's members should be pleased about such machinations. By barring Democrats from introducing amendments, Lott can protect his caucus not just from risking a policy defeat--such as the thrashing Republicans took when Lott was pressured to bring gun control to the floor--but from even having to vote on controversial issues. If Lott can get a bill passed without allowing Democrats to bring up their policy aims, fabulous. If not, Republicans can blame the minority for holding up the train.

Ultimately, however, Lott may be doing his party a disservice. By their own admission, the Republicans have come unglued in the message department: Democrats have co-opted pet issues such as crime, the right wing is running amok, and GOP legislators can't even agree on a plan to cut taxes--the party's only articulated policy aim. If ever there was a time to focus on the big picture, this is it. Yet Lott seems to be hoping that, if he can just get a handle on the procedural details, he can camouflage the fact that his party lacks an agenda.

The precariousness of this management approach, however, became apparent when Senate Democrats humiliated Lott's team in the gun-control debate. Since then, there has been renewed sniping in Republican circles about Lott's leadership fitness--specifically his lack of a defining vision for the party. The basic concern seems to be that, no matter how furiously the majority leader continues to rearrange the deck chairs, voters will eventually notice that the ship is going nowhere.

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.