EDITORIAL April 18, 2013

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

“…the House showed this week it can get things done.”

     There is something positive to say about Congress this week. Despite the rejection of the Senate gun bill the House moved several bills necessary to enhance national security and assure that Federal contractors and grant recipients are not also under a significant tax debt. While business as usual tends to mean that the parties clashed on just about every issue resulting in bills passed by either body that won’t see daylight in the other, the House showed this week it can get things done.

     A clue to what made that happen are the votes on three bills enhancing cybersecurity and two bills aiming to assure that employees, contractors and grant recipients have no serious tax debt; meaning no levy action has been taken or has been responded to quickly. While the House rejected a bill prohibiting Federal employees and applicants from Federal employment, it supported another giving agency heads authority to question the tax debt status of Federal contractors and grant recipients. Another bill agreed to give the Comptroller General the authority to investigate fraud and abuse with enhanced tools when a civil action seems imminent.

     All of this adds up to forward motion; something not seen in the House for months, even years. It is important that Congress takes care of these and other matters even as it grinds to a halt on issues of dispute or those seen as relevant to the 2014 elections.##

Gun Drawn in Otherwise Courteous Senate

…from the Senate Clerk’s Office

April 3, 1850

     John C. Calhoun died on March 31, 1850. Two days later, Vice President Millard Fillmore conducted his funeral in the Senate chamber. On April 3, 1850, responding to the deeply unsettled atmosphere spawned by the South Carolina statesman’s death and the festering slavery issue, the vice president addressed the Senate. His voice tinged with disappointment, he noted that when he first became the Senate’s presiding officer a year earlier, he had assumed he would not be called on to maintain order in a body famous for its courtesy and collegiality. Times had changed. In the earliest years, the Senate had given its presiding officer the sole power to call senators to order for inappropriate language or behavior. The decision was not subject to appeal to the full Senate. This practice changed in 1828, thanks to John C. Calhoun, who at that time was proving to be an unusually active vice president; too active to suit the taste of many senators. The Senate revised its rule to allow members, as well as the vice president, to call other members to order for offensive behavior. If the Senate objected to the vice president’s subsequent ruling on that call, it could overrule him by majority vote.

     In his April 1850 address, Vice President Fillmore lamented that, since many senators appeared reluctant to call their colleagues to order, he would do his duty to contain the first spark of disorder before it ignited a conflagration that would be more difficult to control. “A slight attack, or even insinuation, of a personal character, often provokes a more severe retort, which brings out a more disorderly reply, each Senator feeling a justification in the previous aggression.”

     Two weeks later, Fillmore’s worst fears were realized. When he ruled Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton out of order, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, no friend of Benton, angrily charged that the vice president’s action was an attack on the power and dignity of the Senate. The ensuing debate sparked a bitter exchange between Benton and Mississippi Senator Henry Foote (pictured). As the burly Benton pushed aside his chair and moved menacingly up the center aisle toward the diminutive Foote, Foote pulled a pistol. As pandemonium swept the chamber, Benton bellowed, “I have no pistols! Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!” Fillmore quickly entertained a motion to adjourn, a bit wiser about the near impossibility of maintaining order in a deeply fractured Senate.##