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SOME POSSIBLE RELIEFS
To meet modern conditions, if the customary allotment of time cannot be more effectively used, there should be increase of time or lessening of work or both.
As a matter of fact various improvements in methods and processes that have been discussed in “Legislative Procedure" would let more work be done in the same time. Here may be added some consideration of benefits of the same sort that would come from rearrangement.
The time schedule of the Federal Government ought to be reconstructed. The Fourth of March as Inauguration Day should be abandoned, but if not, a new Congress should meet on that day. With each Congress first convened March 4, the two-year term could have three regular sessions that would in my judgment conduce to more and better work, with much less hardship to members. As things go now, there are two regular sessions, one known as “the long session,” which before the World War had been averaging seven months in length, and the other known as "the short session," of three months. Partly by reason of the growth of work, partly from unusual causes, special sessions have of late been the rule. Of the seven Congresses beginning with 1909, only one was without a special session, but it is to be hoped that the exceptional needs will not continue.
If the normal amount of business should now call for a month more of work in each term than the average for the period 1889– 1909, then Congress would meet the situation by working twelve months out of every twenty-four. This it could most conveniently arrange by using for work the first six months of each calendar year. Several factors combine to make such programme desirable. By reason of the campaign and election, autumn sittings are open to objection every other year. In the intervening years the session might begin November 1 (as was contemplated in part by the bill that President Jackson vetoed in 1836 because it also fixed a date for adjournment), and this would have the decided advantage of permitting adjournment earlier in the following summer — an advantage particularly desirable every four years in view of the custom of holding the national conventions in June. Perhaps, though, the programme would balance better if the winter session began each year on the same date. With no meeting in November, it would not be wise to try to meet in December. The inevitable recess from before Christmas to after New Year's has shown December convening hardly worth while. If the session should open in January, the member who had settled his family in apartment or residence would find it much more convenient to have their abiding place continuous each year until summer than to alternate between long and short tarryings. By reason of the climatic conditions of Washington in mid-summer, adjournment ought to come not later than July 1.
The ideal schedule, then, if March 4 must continue as Inauguration Day, would be to have the first regular session of a term run from March 4 to July 1 or earlier; the second from January 1 to July 1 or earlier; the third from January 1 to March 3; and so on.
The Legislatures, without increasing the total of their days of sitting, could probably accomplish more and do their work better by resort to a practice familiar in Massachusetts years ago, a practice abandoned just before railroads came to remove the chief objections it had developed, those connected with travel. There were two sessions of the General Court each year, one in May seldom exceeding a fortnight, ending with adjournment to the following winter. In the Convention of 1820 much debate arose over the proposal to change to an annual session, beginning with the first Wednesday in January, and in the end an amendment to that effect was submitted by the Convention. It was not at the time adopted, but a like amendment prevailed eleven years later.
By the debate in 1820 it appears that a great part of the business of the May session was of a private nature. “It is now almost invariably the practice," said Leverett Saltonstall of Salem, "it is indeed an established rule, to pass an order of notice in all these cases; with a very few exceptions they are made returnable at the next session of the General Court. No act would pass unless an order of notice had been issued, nor except in especial cases, unless the order is returnable at a subsequent session." He would appeal to gentlemen of experience in the Legislature, to the members of the standing committees, if many of these projects do not expire between the sessions. Nothing more is heard of them. The passions have had time to cool. “What will be the effect of the proposed alteration in business of this kind ? If there is but one session a year, orders will be returnable at the same session at which they are presented. The interest of the parties will be kept alive. The passions will continue excited, their ardor will have no time to abate. As to public laws the same reason will apply and with at least equal force. Now most important subjects are referred from one session to the next. It is seldom that an important public law passes at the same session in which it is proposed. It is postponed to the close of the session, and then, almost of course, it is referred to the next. In the meantime it is published, and at the next session public opinion is found against it, or the plan is abandoned by its author. But if this alteration takes place what will be the course? Will the new projects for improvement be referred? Who that is acquainted with the benevolent ardor of our reformers can believe that? Great attempts will be made to carry them through at the single session, and laws will thus often pass, which otherwise would not.” 1
Procedure, meant to accomplish somewhat the same benefit that Mr. Saltonstall found in the old Massachusetts practice, has recently been adopted in California. The Legislature meets every second year on the first Monday after the first day of January, and continues in session for a period not exceeding thirty days. A recess is then taken for not less than thirty days. In the first part of the session any member of either House may introduce as many bills as he pleases. On reassembling after the recess, however, no member can introduce more than two bills, and to introduce any he must have the consent of three fourths of the members. When LieutenantGovernor Wallace was asked in the Governors' Conference of 1913 what had been the result, he replied that as the plan had been tried but once, he could not give much helpful information. "Most of our members would say that it is a failure, that it is a waste of time and quite ineffective. And there are those who would say it is very valuable, because it has aroused the interest of the people and because it has given them an opportunity, after the introduction of a bill, to consider that bill. My impression is, it is like a great many other things — it has its very good side, and not quite as good as the father of the measure expected it would have when he had it introduced. ... It has this weakness, that at the end of the first section of the session, when it comes to the last day or two, members will introduce bills that have no particular meaning, that have to be amended and remodeled at the next session. I think it is a good thing, but a long ways from perfect.” 1
1 Mass. Con ention of 1820, 87 et seg
In March of 1917 Arthur P. Will, Chief of the Legislative Counsel Bureau of California, wrote to me: “Of late considerable doubt has developed regarding the advantage of the plan and there are proposals to return to the old style.” From another source I am informed that one objection arises from geographical conditions peculiar to California. The members from the Southern part of the State, it is said, now the more numerous, go home for the recess, consult in regard to the more important measures proposed, reach agreements, and on their return present a united front, dominating the situation.
In spite of such uncertain testimony, the conditions in Massachusetts seemed in 1918 to warrant putting the split session within the power of its General Court. The Constitution forbade adjournment for more than two days at a time. The gradual advancement of the time limit on the introduction of business had reached a point where if the Houses had the power and saw fit, it could be arranged to have nothing but the routine of organization and the reference of bills in the first week or two, and then a recess during which the committees might work. At the end of the recess enough reports would be ready for steady occupation in the two chambers. Men on the minor committees would have most of the recess free for their own concerns; the major committees could work steadily, without the waste of time produced by the uncertainty as to the length of a daily sitting of the House. It proved possible to persuade the Convention itself to test the principle. After sitting on ten days in June, it adjourned on the 26th until July 10th and then adjourned for another week, committees sitting in the intervals. After this there proved to be enough work ready for the usual course of consideration. The success of the experiment led the Convention to advise an amendment of the Constitution authorizing the General Court within the first sixty days of a session to take a recess or recesses amount, ing to not more than thirty days. This was adopted by the people. As yet the General Court has not taken advantage of the new power, for that body is most reluctant to change its habits, but doubtless the need of time-saving processes will presently compel it to rearrange its accustomed schedule.
1 Proceedings of the Governors' Conference of 1913, 307, 308.
It is interesting and significant to find the Constitution of Czecho-Slovakia calling for two regular sessions each year, spring and fall; and that of Russia requiring the Central Executive Committee, which seems to be the chief lawmaking body, to meet three times a year.
LONGER SESSIONS RATHER than reform their processes, the chief legislative assemblies of the world have followed the line of least resistance by lengthening their sessions. The first ten Congresses averaged to be in session 283 days (including Sundays and holidays); the second ten, 313; the third, 329; the fourth (excluding long recesses), 339; the fifth, 344; the sixth (to March 3, 1909), 331. The next seven Congresses averaged 570 days - nine and a half months of each year (for a Congress covers two years).
Parliament has kept pace with Congress. Before the World War it was the English practice for the Houses to come together early in February, and usually sit until some time in August, occasionally into September. In the nine years 1902-10 the House of Commons averaged to sit on 141 days (Sundays omitted), but as it averaged to work eight hours and a half a day, where the lower branch of Congress averaged only about five and a half, the two bodies were not very far apart in the actual time of sitting. In this period the frequency of autumn sessions began to make the strain serious. In the nine years before the outbreak of the War, there were only two without autumn sessions. Mr. Balfour strongly deplored this when testifying in the spring of 1914 before the Select Committee on House of Commons Procedure. That the House had been compelled to sit such a large proportion of each year in so many recent years, he thought really a very serious blot on the Parliamentary system. He was convinced that Mr. Gladstone was right in