7 min read

The chemistry and physics of Congress

Some thoughts on my new piece for Politico Magazine.
The chemistry and physics of Congress
Photo by Alejandro Barba / Unsplash

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I’m currently reading “Against the Wind,” the second volume of Neal Gabler’s biography of Ted Kennedy, which takes the legendary Massachusetts senator from the 1970s to his death in 2009.

Gabler’s book is a rich account not only of Kennedy’s long career, but of something of a golden age for congressional productivity. (Another author has referred to the upper chamber of the 1960s and ’70s as “The Last Great Senate.”)

This was the mythologized time when senators picnicked together on the Capitol lawn with their families, drank and smoked together, worked out together in the Senate gym — and also got stuff done. In the 1975-1977 Congress, a period of divided government, 729 pieces of legislation were enacted; in the 2021-2023 Congress, when one party was in control of both Congress and the White House, exactly half as many bills (365) became law.

This prodigious legislating was in so small part because of Kennedy, the fabled “Lion of the Senate.” Gabler writes that Kennedy was able to “move the Senate” because he mastered two things other senators didn’t: the chemistry and the physics of the chamber.

The chemistry is obvious enough: the relationships (with senators in his own party, and across the aisle), the back-slapping, the ability to know what a negotiating partner needs and what they want and how to coax them over to your side.

Mastering the physics of the Senate, on the other hand, meant knowledge of its procedures: knowing how the Senate actually works, so he could use the chamber’s arcane rules to his advantage.

I was thinking a lot about this paradigm while reporting out a new story of mine that published over at Politico Magazine on Friday. You can read it here.

The piece tells the story of Kacper Surdy, a second-year student at Durham University in England. Surdy, despite being 20 years old and never having stopped foot in America, has become an expert in the rules and procedures — the physics — of the U.S. Congress.

For the past two years, he’s tweeted at the handle @ringwiss, schooling veteran experts on how Congress works and developing an influential audience of Washington insiders. His account was completely anonymous, creating something of a parlor game among congressional staffers (who largely assumed he worked on the Hill) — until my piece unmasked him.

For any of you who know my own career path in journalism, the story appealed to me for obvious reasons. It was really rewarding to be able to give a bigger platform to a young person who truly knows his stuff, after a lot of other journalists did the same for me when I was starting out. (Kacper’s following has more than tripled since the Politico piece!)

But I hope you’ll read past Kacper’s personal story, as cool as it is, and also engage with the substance of what he told me in our interview.

Because, to be honest, the part about the piece that struck me the most was talking with him about how depleted knowledge of congressional procedure — which, again, is central to how Congress functions — has become in Washington.

In Gabler’s book, he writes about how Kennedy was so dedicated to learning the rules of Congress that he hired his own parliamentarians, dipping into his own (deep) pockets to bankroll people whose sole job it was to tell him how to game congressional procedure to get his bills across the finish line.

We’ve come a long way from that. As Kacper (and many other congressional experts) recount in the piece, the number of rank-and-file members of Congress who have that kind of knowledge of congressional procedure has significantly dwindled. Congress has become so centralized that only leadership offices commit themselves to learning the physics, and (for the most part) members simply do what their leaders are telling them. That’s one reason for the sharp drop in bills being passed since the 1970s: individual members no longer freelance on legislation like Kennedy did, working around his leaders to “move the Senate” and get things done. By and large, they just sit patiently and cast the occasional “yea” or “nay” when a leadership-crafted bill has arrived at the floor.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. By the rules alone, Kacper explained to me, congressional leaders are mostly figureheads. They only have their stranglehold on Congress because, over decades, the norm has built up that lawmakers will do what they say — and, as time has gone on, lawmakers have stopped boning up on the rules, which would teach them ways to work around their leaders if only they tried to learn them. This is true particularly in the Senate, Kacper told me:

In the Senate, they can do more of this stuff. Individual senators have much more power than in the House. In the House, it generally takes a majority to do anything drastic. [Senators] could definitely move to proceed to a bill on the calendar. There’s a huge misconception, even amongst people who work in Congress, that only the majority leader can do that. [Kansas Sen. Roger] Marshall was one example. He moved to proceed to the Israel aid bill [in November]. At the end of the 116th Congress, [New York Sen. Chuck] Schumer, when he was the Minority Leader, moves to proceed to a bill that would protect Obamacare. And he managed to get a vote on that. So even if you’re not successful, you can still get a vote on something that’s important to you.

He also told me about another way senators can work their will, and even bypass the filibuster — by busting norms to force a vote on something directly after they finish speaking on the topic:

After a senator has finished their speech, they will suggest the absence of a quorum. And the point of that is that it prevents the chair from putting whatever’s pending to a vote. And then when the next senator comes along, they will ask unanimous consent to vitiate the quorum call. And then they begin their speech. And that goes on and on until the time when the Senate has agreed that it will vote on that thing. If a senator “forgot” to suggest the absence of a quorum, the chair would be required to put the question [to a vote]. And this is something that comes up when we talk about the filibuster. Because, traditionally, when senators have finished debating something, the Senate should be voting on it. Generally, a simple majority majority will be required. And it’s only because senators prefer this really structured way of doing things that cloture, which requires a 60-vote majority generally, has become so much more important. And that’s really where the idea that you need 60 votes to do something on the Senate has come from, when if senators, especially the leadership, became much more assertive, they could do these things by a simple majority. The senators used to work like that until about, I’d say, the 1990s as far as I know.

In the past few years, when we hear about congressional rules and procedures, it’s usually in the context of a lawmaker blocking something, or somehow pursuing a negative agenda to obstruct what’s on the floor.

What I loved about what Kacper sketched out for me was that it essentially provides senators a way to use the rules to assert a positive agenda, to obtain a vote on a piece of legislation. It would potentially allow lawmakers to use the rules for productive, instead of obstructive, ends.

It would also, most likely, be chaos. But reading Gabler’s book has been a good reminder for me that Congress used to be much more chaotic than it is now. It was less stage-managed and more suspenseful: there were votes where no one knew what the outcome would be in advance and, often, those votes would end in bipartisan coalitions working their will to achieve something for the country.

It may feel like Congress has been mired in dysfunction for a long time — but, in the sweep of our history, this congressional “steady state” (as one expert described it to me) is fairly new. And, importantly, it has emerged by norm, not by being written in the rules. Sometimes, it takes the perspective of an outsider, like Kacper, to notice that and to diagnose ills in our system that many of us take for granted and assume are features instead of bugs.

In this way, beyond just being able to share Kacper’s awesome story, I loved that the Politico piece felt like another building-block towards what I’ve been trying to achieve lately with Wake Up To Politics, highlighting bipartisanship and legislative productivity when they happen — and looking for ways to make them even more prevalent within our system.

“I’ll let you write the substance. You let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time,” the longtime Rep. John Dingell famously used to say. Not only are today’s lawmakers becoming deficient in cross-party chemistry, but they’ve also increasingly forgotten the power that procedure can lend you to get things done in Congress. They’re forgetting to learn the physics. Maybe the words of a genius 20-year-old in the UK is exactly what it will take to remind them.

You can read my piece for Politico Magazine here. I’ll be back tomorrow with a normal newsletter.

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