Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2009 26 Tishrei 5770
Ex-Parliamentarian's Advice: Cool it
By Roger Simon
When I asked him the main function the Senate serves, his answer was quick, firm and surprising.
"The U.S. Senate is designed to keep bad laws from passing," Dove said.
Isn't that a pretty negative role? I asked.
"Good laws are also passed, but the Senate is there to keep bad bills from becoming law," Dove said. "It is a check on the House, on the president, on the public. It is difficult to get a bill passed into law, and it is supposed to be."
Dove served as parliamentarian of the Senate for 13 years, sitting on the lower tier of the Senate rostrum just below the presiding officer, where he could swivel in his chair and whisper words of advice to whoever was holding the gavel and appearing to run things that day.
Now 70, Dove first visited the Senate as an undergraduate with the Ohio State University Men's Glee Club. But his real introduction to the body came from reading Allen Drury's novel, "Advise and Consent." The book takes its title from Article II, Section 2, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution, which states that presidents shall "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate" exercise certain of their powers.
"It really argues for the Senate to be a powerful force to check a president," Dove said, "which is clearly something the House does not do."
For much of U.S. history, the legislative branch was the most powerful of the three branches, but over time its powers have eroded. In 1803, the Supreme Court ruled in Marbury v. Madison that it could decide which laws were constitutional and which were not, which amounted to one branch nullifying the actions of another.
"There is nothing in the Constitution which gives the court that right," Dove said. "The Congress started to take it on the chin starting then, and it has continued ever since. Major issues — slavery, abortion — were decided not by Congress but by the court."
Congress has occasionally fought back against the increasing power of the executive branch. It passed the War Powers Act of 1973, for example, to try to get back some of its war-approval authority. "But the power that Congress really fought to get back was the money power through the Budget Act of 1974," Dove said. "At the time, it was an attempt to limit President Nixon's action in refusing to spend money that had been appropriated by Congress."
A minor part of the act was something called the reconciliation process, which received scant attention. It was a way to avoid filibusters on major budgetary matters, using a simple majority vote to gain passage. "Now, the reconciliation process has become a monster that presidents know how to use," Dove said.
In 1986, the Senate parliamentarian was given the power, upon the request of a senator, to rule on what can and what cannot be considered by reconciliation. And while much is being written these days about the vast power that this gives a parliamentarian, there can be a price tag attached.
Though the job of parliamentarian is a nonpartisan one, when Dove exercised his powers on a budget resolution bill in 2001 in a way that angered Republicans, Dove was quickly sacked by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Tempers can occasionally run high in the Senate, though Dove does agree with the old saying that the Senate is the "saucer" used to "cool" the hot passion of the House. "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" George Washington supposedly asked Thomas Jefferson one day in trying to explain the new Constitution to him. "To cool it," said Jefferson. "Even so," said Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it." (It is possible this conversation actually did take place, though it seems a pretty sloppy way to drink coffee.)
Dove has seen a change in the Senate over the years. "There used to be a cooperation among the staff, a camaraderie that doesn't exist anymore," Dove said. "There was a friendship. Every night, in the office of the secretary of the Senate, there was a drinking group that started at 5 p.m."
This tradition no longer exists, though drinking probably still goes on.
"It was a nonpartisan drinking group," Dove said. "Senators could gather and drink with the staffs. Those sessions could play a unifying role across party lines."
Working across party lines has always been important to Dove. When his twin daughters were old enough to become Senate pages, he decided they had to work for different parties. His daughter Carrie chose the Democrats, and Laura, who today is the assistant secretary for the minority in the Senate, became a Republican.
Dove disagrees that Senate debate has become less civil. "The Senate reflects the problems of the country," he said. "During the Vietnam War and the civil rights revolution that were tearing the country apart, there was not a lot of civility on either issue. Actually, the Senate is more civil today than in the 1960s, because the issues are not as wrenching."
As parliamentarian, Dove had to rule on whether a senator's comment violated Rule XIX, which forbids one senator to accuse another senator of "any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator." If the rule is invoked, a senator must sit down and not speak again until the Senate gives permission to do so. "It was my least favorite part of the job," Dove said. "It was awful to try to force a senator to sit down."
And then came those days when a senator insulted a member of the House, and the House parliamentarian would place an angry call to Dove seeking redress.
What would Dove do?
"I would commiserate and then not do anything," Dove said. "I was not looking for trouble."
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate