The floor of the House chamber plays a central role in the practice of congressional politics in Washington. In one sense, this centrality is obvious: the floor serves as the physical location of official decision-making and debate. But the importance of the floor to the structure of congressional politics is much wider than this, in a way that is not often appreciated: the rules, norms, and practices that occur on the floor fundamentally shape the structure of legislative and representative practices of Members that occur off the floor in Washington.
Although floor action is the most visibly consequential congressional activity, it is far from the only representational activity that Members undertake in DC; but because of the primacy of the floor, the other activities of Members must play a subjugated role to the demands the floor places on their time and attention. Regardless of the priorities a Member has on any given day, a call to the floor for a vote will have to take precedence, except in the most extreme of circumstances. The demands of the floor, however, can be shaped by the Members through changes to the rules, norms, and practices. And thus we might expect that exogenous changes to the off-floor needs of Members might result in deliberate changes to the structure of floor action to better meet those needs.
Which brings us to clustered voting.
In the 1960s, the practice of voting on the floor of the House was quite different than it is today, and would in many ways be unrecognizable to an observer familiar only with the modern practice. Many of these practices were altered beginning in 1970, and two changes in particular are well-known. First, in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (P.L. 91-510), the rules of the House were amended to allow recorded votes in the Committee of the Whole. Previously, votes on floor amendments in the Committee of the Whole were usually taken by voice, leaving no trace of how individual Members had voted. The second change, also initiated by the Reorganization Act, was the introduction of the electronic voting system, which was first used in January 1973, several weeks into the 93rd Congress. Prior to its introduction, recorded votes in the House were usually taken by roll-call, as they are in the modern Senate. In the larger House, however, this was a serious time-consuming process; roll-call votes often took 45 minutes to complete. The introduction of electronic voting significantly shortened the time it took to vote. Under current House rules (Rule XX(2)(a) and Rule XVIII(6)(g)) 15 minutes are allotted for a vote (and in many cases, as discussed below, less). The introduction of “scoreboards” also left, for the first time, a visual record of the vote as it was in progress.
A third change, however, has received less attention: alteration of the rules to allow the postponement and clustering of record votes (found currently at Rule XX(8)). Prior to these changes, votes occurred on the floor in their natural locations; if several motions were expected to be entertained under the suspension of the rules, for example, there would be a vote on each motion at the conclusion of debate on the motion. Beginning in the 93rd Congress (1973-74), the rules were gradually altered to allow the Speaker to postpone and cluster votes together. The first change allowed clustering of suspension votes, as described above. Whereas previously there would have been a vote at the end of debate on each suspension motion (which could range from 0-40 minutes), the Speaker would now be allowed to postpone all of the votes until all of the motions had been debated, and then have one long series of votes at the end.
The ramifications of this for the Members was enormous. Instead of having to come to the floor to vote at a series of unknown random times throughout the suspension calendar on a given day, now only one trip to the floor for the series of votes would be necessary. While under the prior system Members were forced to either continually be called away to the floor or hang around the floor waiting for votes, the postponement rules meant that the leadership could roughly schedule when the votes would take place, and Members would be free to conduct non-floor activities without interruption. This not only allowed for more efficient use of time on and off the floor, but it also enlarged the very scope of things that were possible off the floor. Prior to clustered voting, a meeting on the other side of Washington would be difficult to schedule with six suspension votes likely at random times over the course of an afternoon; under the modern system, those votes can be condensed to one series in the early evening, requiring the Member to be on the floor for only about 40 minutes total, in one block.
Further changes to the rules in subsequent years allowed every vote after the first in a clustered series to be a 5-minute vote, further reducing the total amount of time spent on the floor (first used in the 96th Congress). Rules were also subsequently altered to allow votes to be postponed to the following day, providing even more flexibility in scheduling. And, most importantly, over the following two decades, more and more types of motions were added to the list of things that could be postponed. In the modern House, the vast majority of votes can be postponed, including ordering the previous question (starting in the 95th Congress), adoption of privileged resolutions from the rules committee (95th Congress), final passage on bills and resolutions (96th Congress), agreements on conference reports (96th Congress). Later precedents allowed for the clustering of many of these different types of votes together, with only one 15-minute vote in any series. This gives the majority leadership incredibly flexibility in shaping when floor action demands the attendance of the Members; as such, they can schedule the floor to the utmost convenience of the off-floor needs of the typical Member.
There are potential downsides to this. While the ability to postpone and cluster votes makes the floor schedule both more predictable and more efficient, that very predictability reduces the need of Members to be anywhere near the floor during debate, which theoretically reduces both the informative quality of the debate, as well as the interest of Members in even having a debate. After all, if you have to be hanging around the floor, you might as well discuss things. But if you don’t need to be there, maybe other things are more important than debate. In the contemporary Congress, the chamber is mostly empty during debate. The ability of the leadership to postpone and cluster votes allows the Whips to send out daily notices to the House community, with detailed (and pretty accurate) guesses as to the expected time of the first vote and how long the series will last. Furthermore, if things are going slow, some of the votes can be pushed to the following day. While all of this maximizes efficiency, it also virtually reduces to the bare minimum the amount of time Members actually need to be collectively present in the House chamber.
The combination of clustered votes and reduced times for the latter votes in a clustered series makes the modern House floor utterly different than the floor in the 1960s. Particularly on a day when the only business is suspension motions, the Members are almost perfectly free to ignore the floor until what is usually about 6pm, at which time they can convene together and take all the necessary votes in less than an hour. This frees up the entire day for both official action (such as committee hearings) or other representational functions (such as meeting with constituents or interest group representatives) or off-campus political activity (such as fundraising or campaign matters). Unchained from potential votes, Members need not keep themselves within quick walking distance of the floor; meetings and events can take place all over Washington or even farther away. Even more so, any shortened week House schedule can be even further reduced: the so-called Tuesday-Thursday calendar can include all postponed votes on Tuesday, making Tuesday night the deadline to return, not Tuesday mid-day. Whether the move toward clustered voting was a cause or consequence of the changing patterns of Member off-floor activities is known; mostly likely, it was both.
One final consequence of the clustered votes is perhaps worth mentioning. It makes following the House on C-SPAN much tougher for the uninitiated viewer. Faced with a series of votes that are often completely unrelated and with no intervening debate, it can make the patterns of procedure on the House floor seem even more indecipherable than normal. Even more frustrating to many is that watching a floor debate that does not end in a vote on the matter at hand, but simply postpones the vote and proceeds to a different debate on a different topic. While such concerns are definitely secondary, it is not just C-SPAN viewers who can suffer this problem; without a linear progression of votes, coupled with the ability to ignore the floor most of the day, Members themselves can be unsure about the exact sequence of votes in a clustered series. While this virtually never results in a Member voting incorrectly (it’s easy enough to ask someone on the floor what the current vote is), it does further disconnect the individual Members from the traditional ideal of the floor as a place to debate an issue and then vote on it.
As macro-development, it’s also important to see the linkages between record votes in the Committee of the Whole, electronic voting, and cluster voting. Without electronic voting, record votes in the Committee of the Whole would not have been feasible, given the potential time commitment. Similarly, it would hardly have been worth clustering votes if they couldn’t be taken electronically: part of the benefit is that the subsequent electronic votes can be reduced to five minutes; if each vote took 45 minutes, it would hardly be worth clustering them. (In reality, the only reason the first vote now is 15-minutes is so that people have time to get to the floor; in certain situations, the chair is actually allowed to reduce the vote time to 2-minutes).