Fire-Alarm Pace in Congress Tests Stamina of Lawmakers

BELLS bong and buzzers wail. Dozens of people in dark suits stream out of a Capitol Hill office building and collect on the sidewalk. Police stop traffic.

Nearby, a fourth-grader from Indianapolis watches the spectacle. "Look," Mindy tells a classmate, "the congressmen are having a fire drill."

She is wrong, of course. The bells only serve notice that a vote has been called in the House of Representatives and that members are due on the floor. But given the practiced chaos of the moment, and the joyless expressions on some lawmakers' faces as they trudge by, it's easy to understand Mindy's mistake.

Last year, House members cast 568 recorded votes - nearly double the 1993 total. On busy days, members shuttle between their offices and the floor as many as 14 times, often at a hair-mussing sprint.

Some members are tired of voting so much, especially when most tallies are not even close. It makes the institution less efficient, they say, and their jobs more harried.

"People call roll-call votes now even on noncontroversial measures," says veteran Florida Rep. Sam Gibbons (D), who is retiring this year. "You have to leave what you're doing, and it takes 35 or 40 minutes. It's one of the downsides of the place."

Each time the bell tolls, Mr. Gibbons and others say, hearings must be interrupted, constituents shown the door, and briefing books abandoned.

It wasn't always like this. When Gibbons arrived in 1963, for example, the House cast just 232 recorded votes in the entire two-year session. By contrast, the current Congress could surpass 1,100.

The change began in 1973, when the House instituted a system of electronic voting. Under the old system, clerks counted the votes of each member, a process that consumed about 45 minutes. With the magnetic voting cards members use now, votes take just 15 minutes, plus travel time.

But like so many technological "advances," the system has created more work. As soon as voting time shortened, members started calling more votes.

Rising partisanship also plays a role. Minority members call votes to delay proceedings; majority members use them to marshal the troops. Both sides seek recorded tallies to obtain records of who supports what, especially in an election year.

These tactics began in the 1980s, says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute here. Back then, he says, Republicans in the minority called roll-call votes on irrelevant parliamentary questions to waste time and "express their displeasure" with Democratic doings.

A chief gripe, Mr. Ornstein says, was that Democrats brought so many bills to the floor under "closed rules," in which debate was strictly limited. But since Republicans won control of Congress last year, they, too, have used closed rules, prompting Democrats to adopt the same obstructionist tactics.

Democrats have introduced specious amendments as attack measures, Ornstein says, trying to force opponents "to vote against apple pie and country."

In the House, when debate ends on a bill, the Speaker calls for a voice vote. If one-fifth of members present desire a recorded vote, congressional staffers sound the buzzers, and the stampede begins.

Members take several routes. Some cross the street. Others walk through underground tunnels or ride the Capitol subway. Often, members arrive with seconds to spare.

In January, during a House vote on the defense appropriations bill, express elevators reserved for members filled. Five congressmen, including New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R), decided to take a public elevator from the Capitol basement to the chamber on the second floor. On the way, the elevator stopped on the first floor, and Mr. Boehlert and his colleagues missed the vote.

During her campaign, Michigan Rep. Lynne Rivers, a freshman Democrat, vowed to attend every vote. She was able to maintain the promise for five months, until late one night, two of her Democratic colleagues grew incensed at how long the day's debate had droned on and offered a motion to adjourn. At the time, Ms. Rivers was halfway home.

Indeed, researchers at the Congressional Research Service say this session's record workload has stretched Congress thin, and private surveys indicate members feel more pressed than ever.

To ease the burden, congressional leaders often stack votes late in the day, so members can cast several at once, rather than racing back and forth. In addition, a new rule prevents most committees from meeting at times when votes are likely to be called.

But many members, such as Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Walker (R), seem resigned to the frenetic lifestyle. While he concedes that votes often scuttle hearings at crucial moments, Mr. Walker says they also bring members together to discuss, deliberate, and cement friendships.

"It can be a hassle sometimes," he says, "but that's what a legislator does. If you don't like it, don't run for Congress."

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