parliament deadlock

Arrest, debate, vote count: How US Congress and other parliaments ensure their members’ presence

In 1988, Republican senator Bob Packwood was arrested and carried into the US Senate to achieve quorum.

The monsoon session of Parliament, which concluded on August 11, once again highlighted the low attendance of its members. On a few occasions, the two Houses, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, had to be adjourned without conducting their business because of the absence of MPs. But this problem plagues other parliaments too.

In February of 1988, the United States Senate – the upper chamber of the US Congress – was discussing a bill on restricting campaign spending. The Democratic Party supported the bill while the Republicans opposed it. In a manoeuvre designed to impede the proceedings of the Senate, Republican senators questioned the quorum – the minimum number of members necessary for a legislative body to conduct its business – in the House and then vanished. The Democrats did not have the numbers required to achieve quorum on their own. To ensure that quorum was maintained, they voted to authorise the arrest and production of the absent senators. Officers of the House were despatched to search for the senators. During the search of the Senate office building, they found Senator Bob Packwood, but he refused to come to the House voluntarily. He was then carried feet first into the Senate chamber so that his presence could ensure quorum in the House.

This extreme step is a power the Constitution of the United States gives its two Houses – the Senate and the House of Representatives – to enable them to compel the attendance of absent law-makers. This incident is a rare example of how a parliament dealt with the absence of its MPs. Similarly, parliaments of many countries have evolved mechanisms to encourage their members to participate in the proceedings of the legislature.

No attendance records

For starters, most parliaments recognise that their MPs are not children who are required to mark their presence in school daily. The attendance records of our MPs in Parliament do not tell us anything. They provide no insight into their participation in Parliament’s functioning, and do not show us whether they were in the House when laws were being passed. The signing of the attendance register just sets the minimum benchmark for MPs to participate in Parliament.

The House of Commons in the United Kingdom does not ask its MPs to sign an attendance register. The United States Congress also does not have this requirement. The Canadian Parliament trusts its MPs to give a self-declaration at the end of every month about the number of days they attended the House. It deducts the session allowance of MPs who were absent for more than 21 days in a session.

While running for president, Barack Obama was confronted by rivals on his record of missing 24% of his votes in the Senate. (Credit: Mandel Ngan / Reuters)
While running for president, Barack Obama was confronted by rivals on his record of missing 24% of his votes in the Senate. (Credit: Mandel Ngan / Reuters)

Debate and recorded voting

Many of these parliaments encourage MPs to participate in parliamentary debate in different ways. For example, in the United States, there is no time limit on speeches. In our Parliament, however, a set time is allotted for debate, and it is divided between the political parties, who decide which of their members will speak. In the United Kingdom, political parties have limited control over which MPs will participate in a debate, and the speaker of the House takes the lead in ensuring a balanced debate by inviting members alternately from across the aisle to speak. Limiting the role of political parties in choosing who speaks on which debate in our Parliament can improve the levels of participation and attendance of MPs.

Most parliaments also require MPs to record their vote on issues and legislation discussed in the House. In fact, in the United States, any reference to the attendance of legislators is about how often they missed a vote in the House. The individual voting record of each member is kept and is available for public scrutiny. This information is then used during elections to analyse their record as a legislator. When Barack Obama was running for his first term as president, the American media pointed out that during his four years as a senator from Illinois, he had missed 24% of his votes. They also highlighted that during his time in the Senate, the median for missed votes was 2%. Having recorded voting rather than voice voting – in which MPs call out “aye” or “nay” without their votes being recorded – in our Parliament will ensure the personal involvement of each MP in parliamentary debate and can be a low hanging fruit in encouraging them to attend Parliament.

The debate, discussion, and exchange of ideas by MPs are the foundation of the institution of Parliament. Low attendance of members weakens this foundation. When MPs are not present in Parliament, the voice of the people who elected them is not heard in the highest representative body in the country. When laws are made without adequate participation, any deficiency in them impacts the lives of everyone in the country. A systematic change in the functioning of our Parliament to ensure greater attendance and participation of MPs is urgently required. It is the first step towards overhauling and strengthening the deliberative nature of our democracy.

This is the second part in a two-part series on the functioning of Parliament. You can read the first part here.

Chakshu Roy is head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research

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