« AnteriorContinuar »
This official had no desire to risk his popularity by the enforcement of any such law, and it had been almost forgotten when in 1894 it was brought to the aid of Speaker Crisp for the purpose of maintaining a quorum. The Sergeant-at-Arms prepared a form of certificate the Speaker approved, by which the members were to certify the number of days they had been absent in the course of the month. Discussion followed as to whether the law was really in force. On a question of privilege the Speaker ruled it was alive and the Sergeant-at-Arms had simply done his duty. The law exempted the member who assigned as the reason for his absence the sickness of himself or some member of his family. Many conscientious members suffered deduction, but a remarkable amount of sickness prevailed in the families of others. In the next Congress a paragraph to return the sums deducted was stricken from an appropriation bill. Again in 1914 the old law was remembered, late in August when a hot summer had kept the attendance very slim. Animated was the debate. Of course the virtuous attendants denounced unmercifully the guilty absentees. One member said the average daily absence for three months had been 205, and that the truants had drawn from the public treasury at least $442,800 for services not rendered. By a vote of 212 to 27 deductions were ordered. Again at the next session the question of reimbursement came up, and this time it was provided for, without discussion and without a dissenting vote.
Senator George F. Hoar, writing with long experience as a legislator, spoke strongly on the subject of absentees. “We ought," he said, "to have laws upon the statute book, both national and State, punishing by sufficient penalties every Senator and Representative who absents himself from the body to which he belongs, and declaring that such absences shall operate as a resignation of the seat."i Such a Spartan course might be in theory admirable, but even to attempt its practice would be quite futile. Laws of such a sort simply would not be generally enforced. Always the motive behind the attempts to enforce would be suspected. Partisanship or animosity or jealousy or ambition or ulterior purpose would be attributed to the complainant, and whether rightly or not, this would create sympathy and breed excuse for the culprit. No, the remedy would better be left to conscience and public opinion.
1 “Has the Senate Degenerated ?" Forum, April, 1897.
As a matter of fact, there are legitimate occasions for absence, particularly in the case of Congressmen. Many members must occasionally go home for a few days, to give reasonable attention to domestic or business affairs. Such visits are indeed not without distinct benefit to the public. Washington is the worst place in the country for knowledge of what the people are really thinking. Every Senator and Representative may well at no infrequent intervals mix with his constituents and benefit by the reaction. Also the giving of information on public questions and the stimulating of opinion, by way of addresses and speeches, form an eminently desirable element of Congressional service.
A word, too, may be said for occasional absence that has nothing in view but rest and recreation. Most Congressmen are well along in years. Their work is often arduous. They toil six days in the week without even Saturday afternoon off or adjourning over all the holidays. The capital has during several months of the year as detestable a climate as there is in the country, for the site, though almost at sea level, is too far from the ocean to benefit by sea breezes, and on the other hand the mountains are many miles away. From June to October the air is humid, lifeless, enervating; exercise is almost out of the question; sleep eludes. A city that in autumn has many delights, in winter is comfortable, and in spring is unsurpassed in charms, becomes almost intolerable after the arrival of hot weather. Yet of late years Congress has worked nearly or quite through almost every summer. Is it unforgivable for a member to run away once in a while in the hope that a little relief may bring him strength enough to do better work on his return?
Taking into account these causes of absence, and others equally reasonable, such as illness of members themselves or in their families, it is not especially reprehensible that at any given time about a quarter of the membership is likely to be found away from Capitol Hill. A hundred roll-calls in the 66th Congress (1919–21) examined at random showed an average of 286 members voting. Adding the paired members present and those sitting in committees with due authorization, makes it probable that well over 300 are ordinarily in the Capitol or the office buildings. The largest number recorded on any one of these votes was 361, the total membership (with no vacancies) being 435.
Much of the absence from the sessions of the House, without actual absence from town, is equally defensible, but on quite different grounds. A great deal of the work of Congress is of no general interest or concern, either to the members or to the public. Take, for example, the annual discussion of Indian affairs. Few of the Senators or Representatives from the eastern half of the country know or care anything about them. As a rule it is better to leave their consideration to men who have some acquaintance with the subject. Or take the government of the District of Columbia, which is supposed to get from the House two days in each month. It is the work of a City Council. Why demand the attendance of four hundred and more Representatives? Or take the details of the appropriation bills, which at any rate in the House may consume more time than everything else together. Conclusion on these will almost invariably be just as wisely reached by forty men as by four hundred. Sir H. S. Maine, writing in 1885, recalled that Jeremy Bentham used to denounce the non-attendance of members of Parliament at all sittings as a grave abuse; but, said Maine, "it now appears that the scanty attendance of members, and the still scantier participation of most of them in debate, were essential to the conduct of business by the House of Commons, which was then, and still is, the most numerous deliberative assembly in the world." Although the House of Representatives at Washington is much smaller, yet the presence of the full membership is the last thing to be desired for the efficient transaction of most of the business. On the contrary, ordinarily the smaller the attendance, the better the work.
In view of such considerations members feel it is no dereliction of duty to pass in their offices or the lobbies a considerable part of the hours when the House is in session. If anybody thinks attendance has fallen below the safety-point, he can by doubting the presence of a quorum, bring in enough absentees to better the situation, at least for a while, for the members will stay until in their judgment no harm is likely to result from departure. On the whole, the practice of ignoring the absence of a quorum works out satisfactorily, and there is no real ground for the criticisms either of the stranger in the gallery who chafes because he thinks his Congress is not attending to business, or of the demagogical member who abuses the confidence of his constituents by boasting to them that he is one of the few members always at the post of duty.
DECORUM in lawmaking bodies is to be looked at from two points of view. The customary conduct of such bodies may be orderly or disorderly; their abnormal periods may be few or many, mild or violent.
It is probable or at any rate not improbable that in customary conduct there has been steady improvement with the gain in the manners of mankind and with the perfecting of rules of order for assemblies. Lacking much definite evidence on the subject, it is permissible to draw from rules made in early times the inference that there was decided occasion for them. Thus when we find Parliament ordering in 1640, "those who go out of the House in a confused manner before the Speaker to forfeit 10s.," we are warranted in imagining a considerable degree of indecorous conduct. So when we find the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1703 making a rule of like tenor, “that no Member presume to go in or out of the House before the Speaker, he being present, nor depart the House without his Leave," and another, “that the Members forbear talking to each other, and keep Silence, unless they have Occasion to speak in order as aforesaid," again we suspect an impolite and unruly body; and our suspicions are strengthened when we see it was at the same time provided "that any Member indecently carrying himself towards the Speaker, or any of the Members, by Reflections, or other uncomely Behavior, in the House, or shall transgress this or any other of the following Rules, shall for the first Offence be reproved, for the second and after fin'd, as the House thinks fit, not exceeding Ten Shillings."
The Massachusetts General Court found it necessary to provide in 1640 that "if any bee speaking about private business, whilst the business of the Court is in hand, hee shall forfect 12d."1 The Rhode Island Assembly of May, 1648, was more concise, and in the matter of the penalty more lenient, ordering “that they that whisper or disturb ye Court, or useth nipping terms, shall forfeitt sixpence for every fault.” The 1 Records of the Colony of the Mass. Bay in N.E., I, 304.
enforcement of such a fine nowadays would permit the lowering of the tax-rate by the income from whispers, but nipping terms are not now so plenty that at sixpence apiece they would largely profit the Treasury.
More delicate and diffuse was the injunction among the Orders adopted at the opening of the Virginia Assembly of 1658– 59: "Every member shall keep order, and give due attention to the reading or debating of whatsoever shall be proposed or presented for the consideration of the House; and every burgesse shall, with due respect, address himself to Mr. Speaker in a decent manner, and not entertain any private discourse, while the public affairs are treated of.”
It is to be presumed that restless members by moving about have always bothered the others. At any rate, among the Notes of Rules for the Continental Congress prepared by Jefferson in July, 1776, were : "No person to walk while question putting. Every person to sit while not speaking." Nowadays American legislative bodies endure commotion with little protest. Members perambulate as the whim takes them, and the constant flitting of pages and messengers is accepted as a matter of course. Very different is the custom in the House of Commons. There no attendant nor messenger dare pass beyond what is called the bar. A messenger stands at the bar with letters or telegrams until some member comes and takes them from him and passes them on to their rightful owners. In the House of Lords, however, messengers and attendants are allowed to pass up and down the chamber delivering notes and telegrams very much as in the Capitol at Washington.
Sydney Brooks noticed in Congress perpetual violations of the rule that forbids a man to pass between the Speaker and the member who is addressing the House. He says the House of Commons is punctilious to what some think an absurd degree in the observance of such points of order. If a member moves about the House with his hat on or puts even a toe beyond the line on the floor which no man may cross while speaking, cries of “Order! Order!” are heard on every side. Brooks thinks this very wholesome. “It may seem trivial in a given solitary instance, but it is only by ceaseless stringency in the small points of decorum that the intimacies of daily strife in a contentious and excitable body can be kept on a high plane.” 1
1 "Congress and Parliament: A Contrast," No. Am. Review, January, 1900.