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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.