How to Paralyze Action in Congress

That Frustrating Filibuster

Occasionally our Congress can be fun. As when a House appropriations subcommittee discovered that the National Park Service spent $330,000 for an outhouse without running water for employees at a Pennsylvania park. You can imagine the jokes about waste.

But mostly, Congress isn't fun at all, unless you enjoy observing the manifold methods by which minorities - even a minority of one - can thwart the will of the majority.

And so it was that supporters of campaign reform in the Senate managed to block action on a multibillion-dollar highway bill by tacking on a ban on soft money in campaigns and then assembling the necessary 41 votes to defeat the effort to break their filibuster.

What a filibuster does, beyond frustrating the legislative process, is enrich the legislative language. What would you think if you heard Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, on the Senate floor, say the following: "The dilemma we have at the moment is the regular order is not allowed because we have a procedure on the Highway Reauthorization Bill to fill the tree, which prevents a second-degree amendment at some point to get back into consideration of it"?

What that means is he's been unable to offer an amendment because the GOP leadership has filed the permissible number of amendments, obliging him to resort to a filibuster until the leadership comes to its senses.

Bottom line: no action at this session on the highway bill or campaign reform, among a host of other bills. But Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who several times pronounced campaign reform dead, has now found it necessary to promise a vote when Congress returns, and no later than March 6.

We know about the power of a committee chairman to block consideration of a nomination. We know that from Sen. Jesse Helms's veto of the nomination of ex-Gov. William Weld as ambassador to Mexico.

BUT you do not have to be a chairman to be able to create paralysis. Any senator has the power to freeze action by notifying the leader, usually in secret, of having put "a hold" on a bill or nomination. Former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum told me he sometimes used a hold, but only to keep a bill from being railroaded through. But senators often use holds as a form of hostage-taking to extort a concession on some unrelated matter.

At one point recently, anonymous Republicans had 42, and Democrats had two, holds on nominations. As Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle described the process, somebody takes say, Charles Rossotti, who has been unanimously recommended for Internal Revenue commissioner by the Senate Finance Committee, and says to him, "Hello, I'm your holder, come dance with me."

So much for the greatest deliberative body in the world.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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