Monday, 31 January 2011

New Initiative to Open up the Lords

This announcement appears on the Parliamentary website -

You’ll be able to have your say in a debate taking place in the House of Lords this Thursday through a new online initiative with the BBC Have Your Say website where your views will be fed directly to Members taking part.

BBC Have Your Say: Lords Debate: The value of good parenting?

The initiative aims to provide a new and accessible way for people to engage with the House of Lords and share their views on issues that concern them. It also gives Members of the Lords the opportunity to gain insights from a wider audience to inform their work.

You’ll be able to share your views on the role of good early parenting in preparing a child for success in school – which will be debated in the House of Lords next week – by posting your comments to a forum hosted by the BBC.

You’ll also be able to talk to Lord Northbourne firsthand, who proposed and will open and close the Lords debate, by taking part in a live web chat on Tuesday 1 February.

A summary of your comments will be forwarded to the Members of the Lords taking part in the debate before it takes place to help inform them of related issues affecting everyday lives. You can also post comments during the debate and watch it live on Parliament TV, as well as BBC Democracy Live. The debate will take place in the House of Lords on Thursday 3 February.

Lord Northbourne, a Crossbench Member who speaks regularly in the House of Lords about education and children, will focus on how an important minority of the nation’s children are today failing to achieve their potential in school. He will outline several strategies which could help and support disadvantaged parents in their parenting.

Other Members scheduled to take part in the debate include:

Baroness Crawley (Labour), a former teacher and youth theatre leader
The Bishop of Oxford, who will be making his maiden speech
Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative), Schools Minister at the Department for Education
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench), a former primary school teacher and university professor
Baroness Benjamin (Liberal Democrat), former children’s television presenter
Baroness Hollins (Crossbench), expert in learning difficulties
Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench), former chair of the Inner London Juvenile Court
Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Conservative), who will be making her maiden speech
Baroness Sharp of Guildford (Liberal Democrat), Governor for a Guildford primary school
Baroness Massey of Darwen (Labour), a former French and English teacher who also ran a community playgroup for seven years
Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat), a former teacher and ambassador for the NSPCC

Further information

The debate on the role of good early parenting in preparing a child for success in school is scheduled to take place on Thursday 3 February, following short introduction ceremonies and oral questions. It is due to run for approximately 2.5 hours.

Watch the debate live on Parliament TV (Thursday 3 February, from approx 11.45am)
Lords Hansard: Read a transcript of the debate from Today in the Lords (available 3 hours after debate starts)

House of Lords debates

Debates on specific issues of public policy account for nearly one third of business in the House of Lords chamber and are an opportunity to discuss important topical issues and draw the government’s attention to concerns and questions.

Members have a correspondingly wide range of professional expertise and specialist knowledge to underpin the arguments they deploy in the debates and, in this way, the debates can play an important role in shaping future policy and laws.

Members of the public can attend House of Lords debates and follow proceedings from the public gallery.

The Capitol Building itself



This is a guide to the parts of the Capitol Building. The sound of a train can be heard - Union Station is very close!

Follow the links to the websites for the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Mount Vernon to the Senate

This is the record of a walk from George Washington's estate in Virginia - along the Mount Vernon Trail - through the city of Washington DC - to the steps of the US Senate

Mile One

Potomac View

Mile Five

Mile Six

The Beltway

Jones Point

Half Way!

National Airport

Close up at National Airport

Wrong Year?

Memorial Bridge

As we walk onto the Bridge, we enjoy our own, very special, fly past

Lincoln Memorial

Washington Monument

Conclusion - On the Senate Steps

And so, after 20 miles and 7 hours 38 minutes - we arrive on the steps on the US Senate

A closer look at the Capitol



For further information about the Capitol and the US Capitol Visitors Center follow this link.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Filibuster

The Senate spend much of Thursday discussing changes to the Filibuster Rule. The main rule remains in force - it will still require 60 votes to break a filibuster through Cloture. However there are changes in rules and practices which should reduce the current problem.

As you might imagine - commentators take differing positions on what was achieved. Politico's main article is entitled "Filibuster reform goes bust" - stating "The youth of the Senate lost a fierce fight to the filibuster Thursday, proving once again that the institution can still crush the whims of the moment. If there’s any doubt that tradition trumped the fast-paced era, look to how the deal is described: a “gentleman’s agreement.” The Washington Post however is more upbeat noting that "Senate leaders announced a bipartisan deal Thursday to speed up the chamber's work by limiting the use of the filibuster and dropping the confirmation process for about 400 federal agency nominees...The broad agreement is the most significant change in the chamber's rules in 35 years."

An important truth arises - imposing restrictive rules alone won't bring a desired result. The cloture rule was introduced in March 1917. It was designed to reduce the impact of filibusters - it had the opposite effect. In 1975 Cloture was made easier - the required number to pass it was brought down to 60 - yet it has been used more frequently - eventually leading to the "crisis" we have recently seen. Any rule can, with a bit of imagination be thwarted or undermined. Goodwill, ultimately, is the only way to make procedures work. Without it - new ways will be found to thwart the effects of ones political opponents.
The complete days proceedings can be viewed below (warning - there is over 7 hours of material here - but it gives a good sense of what the Senate normally looks like. I did see some discussion & negotiation going on in front of the cameras - but normally - though that is a vital part of the work done in the senate - it isn't often seen on camera.

Senate Proceedings Part 2

Friday, 28 January 2011

Union Station

Union Station is the rail gateway to Washington DC. It is also home to a wide variety of shops and restaurants. Its website is accessible here.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Coming up Shortly

Yesterday I attended an excellent event organised by Politico - called "Mapping out the 112th Congress with Reactions to the State of the Union". The final speaker was conservative Republican Congressman, Mike Pence (Indiana)- who spoke about the key events coming up in the House

Politico Seminar

Videos from the seminar I attended yesterday are available here.

Guide to Capitol Hill

>

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Making Better Law

The Hansard Society have now posted the audio of the excellent meeting I recently attended to launch their report "Making Better Law". It would be a good use of time if you were studying, or about to study, UK Constitutional Law (for example as an Open University W200 or W201 student) to listen to the audio - highlights some key issues about the strengths & weaknesses of Parliament & our constitutional system. Also a good intro to the legislative process.

The report itself is available for purchase on the same webpage.

The webpage address is:
http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/blogs/recent_events/archive/2010/12/20/2837.aspx?utm_source=September+2008+newsletter+list&utm_campaign=9044a47b36-January_2011_Newsletter_1_24_2011&utm_medium=email.

Is now the time?

Events in recent months provide good arguments for the adoption of a written constitution - for Britain. The UK has traditionally relied upon "conventions" (legally unenforceable rules - but which all actors in the constitutional system regard as binding.) to check the abuse of power. In other words - and it has been surprisingly effective - 'good' behaviour is maintained because 'Englishmen don't do THAT sort of thing'. There are many theories why this, in effect social pressure, has worked. [warning to my students - in forthcoming tutorials I'll be discussing this in detail!]

But the weakness of this approach is becoming increasingly obvious. Social sanctions may not be enforced, or be effective in the face of someone determined to ignore the conventions. This is highlighted by the Coalition's approach to Parliament. {Now, I'm not saying that the previous Labour Government was virtuous in this respect, it too pushed legislation through too fast and without adequate scrutiny} - but the actions of the Coalition have become worrying.

This is best illustrated (though this is an example - it illustrates a pattern of behaviour) with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny (understandable, as the Coalition was only created and entered power last May), but that should have meant a more measured approach for the bill in Parliament. Instead two very important constitutional measures were welded together . Both measures merit detailed scrutiny. Instead the bill was rammed through the Commons. I recommend reading the 1st and 3rd reports of the all-party Select Committee on Political & Constitutional Reform. There is now a serious crisis in the House of Lords as Peers seek to give the proposals the scrutiny they were denied in the Commons.

At issue are proposals to
(1) reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons by almost 10%
(2) major changes in the rules for redrawing constituency (distric) boundaries - an issue many British people have not yet appreciated the significance of
(3) the abolition of public inquiries as part of the redistricting process
(4) the speed at which the next Review must be completed - before the next election. It had previously been a more measured process - allowing for consultation and debate.
The term "gerrymandering" has ben raised many times - something the Brits have tried to avoid.

The Coalition's response to demands for more than cursory scrutiny has been to pack the Lords with new Coalition-supporting peers - so it will be nigh on impossible for it to be defeated (a break with the understanding between 1999 and 2010 that a Government should NOT have a working majority); to ignore the usual intervals between the stages of a bill - steamrolling debate - and moving closure motions - something not done for over 20 years, then twice in one week.

We can only rely on an "unwritten constitution" where the Government of the day respects the conventions and practices which protect against the bulldozing of controversial legislation (and to be honest that system hasn't been very effective for the last 40 years). Perhaps we now need to consider written, legally enforceable rules - because our trust in fair play and respect for the unwritten rules has been destroyed.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Parliamentary Sovereignty

Question Asked by Lord Lester of Herne Hill

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty derives from recognition by the courts of the legislative supremacy of Parliament; and, if not, what is the source of the doctrine in British constitutional law.[HL5827]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): The Government note that there are differing views concerning the origin of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. They consider, however, that it is clear that the legal principle of parliamentary sovereignty is recognised and applied by the courts.

SOTU

This evening, or Wednesday morning in the UK, President Obama will make his way from the White house to Capitol Hill - to give the "State of the Union" to a joint session of Congress.

While I will be working on the Hill during the day, I have no intention of being around for this evening - security will be tight, and it will be difficult to move around - so I should be watching it on C-SPAN with friends in Northern Virginia.

Details of the C-SPAN coverage can be found here. There will be a BBC News Special at 2am on Wednesday (UK time).

Previous Washminster articles on SOTU can be accessed below
2008, 2010

Legal Heavyweights on Hacking of MPs mobile phones

After Andy Coulson's resignation last week in relation to the scandal that MPs (and other 'celebrities') had their phones hacked into - the matter is being considered today before the Standards & Privileges Committee.

The witnesses are due to be -

Professor A W Bradley - a leading academic on Constitutional Law. Students will recognise him from the textbook known as "Wade & Bradley" - a popular textbook on UK Constitutional & Administrative Law



Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC - a widely acclaimed human rights lawyer, who is also a Liberal Democrat Peer. He was named in The Times Law 100 2009 listing the most influential lawyers in Britain - with the comment that he is a “leading public and constitutional lawyer, is still changing the law and pushing the boundaries of reform”.

Rt Hon Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead - was a Law Lord, sitting on the House of Lords Judicial Committee, then the highest court in England (Now replaced by the Supreme Court). He is responsible for many of the leading judgements - and in the Pinochet case wrote in his judgement "International law has made plain that certain types of conduct, including torture and hostage-taking, are not acceptable conduct on the part of anyone. This applies as much to heads of state, or even more so, as it does to everyone else. The contrary conclusion would make a mockery of international law."
Location: The Grimond Room, Portcullis House

Monday, 24 January 2011

Zip Codes and Postcodes

In Britain we have postcodes. The postcode for the House of Commons is SW1A 0AA. The SW is the postcode area. (other examples are NN - Northampton area; MK - Milton Keynes area; WS - Walsall area; LE - Leicester area). The 1A is the postcode district within the area. (I live in MK4, I grew up in WS9). Each district is subdivided into sectors (BBC Northampton is in NN1 2). The final two letters are the smallest unit  (known as the postcode unit )- and may represent a single street, part of a street or even an individual building. (The Palace of Westminster has AA for the Commons and PW for the Lords).

Zipcodes in the US are numeric - the basic unit has five numbers - which can cover an area as small as the Senate (20510) and the House of Representatives (20515)

The first three numbers are the Sectional Center Facility - which is the central mail processing facility for that area. The first number represents a number of states (Primary State Prefix), the second and third a region withinn the area designated by the first number (SCF). The final two digits (local zip) represent sorting areas, which may be a city or town, part of a city or town, or a smaller settlement. 

I spent the last week in 20015 and am now in 22308 (can you work out where?). In order to give a more precise location there is "ZIP+4", this may be as small as a city block. The zipcode for Politics and Prose is 20008-2024.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Newt Gingrich

Press reports this weekend say that former House of Representatives Speaker, Newt Gingrich may be moving closer to running for the presidency in 2012. Whatever you may think of him - and he provokes strong feelings either way - he is an interesting character.

His intial career was as a History Professor - but was keen to be active in politics. He unsuccessfully ran for the House of Representatives twice, before being elected in November 1978. He founded the Conservative Opportunity Society in 1983 - this brought together a number of (then) young, conservative Republican congressmen to attack the majority Democrats in the House. Their tactics were aggressive, controversial - and very effective. I have to admit that I do not share his ideology, but cannot help admire his tactical genius at that time. He has highlighted the importance of the language used.

He rose quickly to leadership of the House Republicans (a fascinating story in itself) - and led them to victory in 1994. It was the first time that the Republicans took the House in forty years. As Speaker he was the leading spokesman for opposition to President Clinton.

His skills in "bomb throwing" were less useful whilst Speaker - and he made a number of strategic mistakes which helped Clinton retain the presidency in 1996 - and led to Gingrich's own fall in 1998.

The editor of Time Magazine, James Gaines, wrote "For better or worse, he has changed the language and substance of American politics perhaps like no other politician in recent history,"

He continues to be controversial - it will certainly be interesting if he does run!









Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Making of the President

One of the delights of visiting Washington DC is to visit the many bookstores (though sadly Trovers and the Borders near the National Press Club have now closed). I get lots of new ideas - and pick up books which are either unavailable in the UK or are cheaper.

I've already visited Politics and Prose; Borders at 18th & L Street; the George Washington University Bookstore; and the bookstore in the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. Unbelieveably, I can still lift my case!

Already I have original editions of  "The Making of the President 1960" and "...1972". They are great studies for anyone interested in political campaigning - as well as US political history. Theodore White (C-SPAN programme about the influence of Theodore White is available here.) was a political journalist, who wrote the first of the series (1960), and continued through 1972. He began a tradition of campaign books which has now mushroomed. He died in May 1986.







Friday, 21 January 2011

Next Weeks Agenda for the House of Representatives

MONDAY, JANUARY 24TH
On Monday, the House will meet at 12:00 p.m. for morning hour and 2:00 p.m. for legislative business. Votes will be postponed to 6:30 p.m.

H.Res. 43 - A resolution providing for consideration of a resolution Reducing Non-Security Spending to Fiscal Year 2008 Levels or Less (Special Rule, One Hour of Debate) (Sponsored by Rep. David Dreier / Rules Committee)

TUESDAY, JANUARY 25TH

On Tuesday, the House will meet at 10:00 a.m. for morning hour debate and 12:00 p.m. for legislative business. The House will recess no later than 5:00 p.m. to allow a security sweep of the House Chamber prior to the President's State of the Union address. The House will meet again at approximately 8:35 p.m. for the purpose of receiving in a joint session with the Senate the President of the United States.

Legislation Considered Under Suspension of the Rules:

1) H.Res. __ - Medal of Honor Flag Resolution of 2011 (Sponsored by Rep. Tom Latham / House Administration Committee)

2) H.R. 366 - To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes (Sponsored Rep. Sam Graves / Small Business Committee)

H.Res. 38 - A resolution Reducing Non-Security Spending to Fiscal Year 2008 Levels or Less (Closed Rule, One Hour of Debate) (Sponsored by Rep. David Dreier / Rules Committee)

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 26TH

On Wednesday, the House will meet at 10:00 a.m. for legislative business.

H.R. 359 - To reduce Federal spending and the deficit by terminating taxpayer financing of presidential election campaigns and party conventions (Subject to a Rule) (Sponsored by Rep. Tom Cole / Ways and Means Committee / House Administration Committee)

THURSDAY, JANUARY 27TH

On Thursday, the House is not in session.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 28TH

On Friday, the House is not in session.

Friday Morning

Thankfully the threatened snow didn't hit Washington DC overnight. However temperatures are predicted to fall this weekend - so my sponsored walk (to raise funds for my election campaign in Milton Keynes in May) won't be happening this weekend!

Yesterday I spent some more time in the Library of Congress reading through the Washington Posts of late 1974 and early 1975. This is for research into congressional "history" (I don't like to think of the time I can remember as "history" - it's just "early current affairs"!). It was interesting to come across reports of what was happening in England - we had a government with a razor thin majority.

The big news from London yesterday has not merited the attention of the TV news in Washington. Thanks to the internet I have been able to update myself via the Guardian; Independent, BBC News & Sky (and that all on my iPhone by the bed).

Today I'm turning from scholar to tourist - at least during the daylight hours.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Fifty years ago today this magnificent speech was made. There are a number of celebrations, some in the Capitol Building - and one at the Kennedy Centre this evening (sadly I didn't get an invitation from President Obama to join him!)

Filibustering

A subject in the news - both sides of the Atlantic. I picked up a book by Gregory Koger with that title in the library of Congress bookshop. It's an interesting book - "which seeks to provide a general overview of how legislators obstruct (and respond to obstruction, measures filibustering in both chambers of Congress over time, and explains patterns of filibustering in both chambers"

It looks at the history and practice of filibustering - and explains why filibusters have increased in number and effect - just as rules to break filibusters have been made easier.

Well worth a read - whether you wish to learn more about congressional practice -  or engage with the current debate which maqy come to a climax next week - or even how to develop an effective filibustering strategy!

The view from the Library of Congress



I filmed this at about 1pm Washington time (6pm UK time)yesterday. The morning was spent catching up on the news [It is so good to be able to read the physical editions of The Hill, Politico & the Washington Post - I'm grateful for the ability to read them online from 3600 miles away - but it's nicer to read - and mark - the hard copies. I also rang & then emailed a number of Members' offices - to set up interviews in the coming days.

Having made my way to "the Hill" I popped into the Library of Congress Book/Gift shop - before making this video. Then I crossed to the Newspaper and Current Periodicals Reading room, which like the Congressional Research Service, is based in the Madison Building. I spent some wonderful hours reading the Washington Post from November 1974.

I made my way to Politics and Prose - where I picked up a signed copy of President Carter's Diaries. I have quite a bit of reading to do - and I'll be blogging about some of that soon.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Better than a Pub Quiz!



This morning I downloaded and installed on my iPhone, an "app" prepared by the Parliament's Education Service - called Parliquiz.It is available here.

I enjoyed the series of quizzes on the app - and the detailed information which is available on the "correct answers" which you receive after getting details of your score and time taken to complete. I'd strongly recommend this enjoyable app. It is free!

Message from David Morgan

Filibuster News

The Senate isn't meeting this week (but the House of Representatives is). Monday is the day it is due to return - and the issue of the Filibuster is likely to come up. Common Cause has an article about the issue on its website - accessible here. There are links to a number of useful pro-reform resources.

One of the key arguments put forward by those who don't want any reform - is that the Filibuster has been a key tool to protect the rights of the minority against the majority. Reformers point out that the current use of the tool is very different from the principled (and romantic) use of the filibuster, which is fondly remembered from the film "Mr Smith Goes to Washington".

What are your views? Do share them with the "Washminster Community"

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Today in Washington

Snow fell in the Washington area overnight - but then a drop in temperature left roads very icy. As a result most schools and local government buildings are opening a couple of hours late.

The House of Representatives returns - and gets down to "repealing" the Health Care legislation which was passed last year. As often happens the legislation has been given a very emotive title - something that would not be done in Britain - it is the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act". I'd love to hear what the clerks at Westminster would say if such a contentiously titled bill were submitted to them!

The Republicans have the votes to pass the bill through the House of Representatives - they remain in a minority in the Senate, so its not likely to pass there. Even if it did, the President could veto it. That veto can be overridden - but only if, in both Houses - "two thirds" of both Houses require to back such an override. Don't hold your breath.

But a heated couple of days are expected - the bill has already been attacked on two fronts

1 the bill has been estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to raise public spending - see CBO report here - so will worsen the deficit

2 the closed rule for debate - restricts debate - contrary to the promises by the new majority to do away with such restrictions on debate.

So it will be interesting!

All through the night

It's now 7-10am on Tuesday at Westminster - and their Lordships are continuing with their debate which began on Monday afternoon. Lord Toby Harris has updated his blog as the night has gone on - it's worth following - it can be accessed here.

The live debate can be followed on BBC Democracy Live, which unlike BBC Parliament can be accessed from outside the UK.

I have to say that watching the live feed, I've been very impressed by the numbers of Peers in the Chamber listening to the debate on the Opposition benches. As the Government has found out, their Lordships have a lot of stamina!

Monday, 17 January 2011

MLK Day

Today is a public holiday in the USA, honouring Martin Luther King, whose birthday it would have been on Saturday. Sadly this year we are particularly reminded of the awful events of 1968 - when political assassinations scarred and diminished the nation. But this day is also a reminder of the constant struggle to extend freedom - and the efforts needed to achieve it.



A website dedicated to MLK can be found here.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Stormy Week Ahead

This week could be an even stormier one in the House of Lords. The battle over the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill has come close to its climax. The Government fears that unless the bill is passed quickly, the Electoral Commission will take the view that there is insufficient time to make the arrangements for a referendum on 5th May. [The bill is partly to give the legal authority for such preparations]. However progress in the House of Lords has been slow. While the government was able to rush this bill through the Commons (see the bipartisan criticism in the reports by the all party Political & Constitutional Reform Committee - 1st Report and 3rd report) - it has been unable to do so in the Lords - which of course is the strongest reason for having a second chamber. Last week the Leader of the Lords threatened to curtail debate - an action which, in my opinion was a big mistake, as it angered many Peers (already uneasy that the House of Lords is being packed by Coalition supporters - to give it an ample working majority).

This week three days will be dedicated to considering the bill - itself an almost unprecedented action - and there are likely to be late night, if not all night, sittings. The government's actions are now being described by peers as "overtly bullying tactics" which are "against both the conventions and the spirit of the House of Lords" It has even been said that "what the Government is doing with regard to this Bill threatens the fundamental role of the House of Lords as a revising chamber" which is "providing proper scrutiny of the Government of the day."

Lord Toby Harris wrote in his blog last Wednesday -

"The problem is that the Bill is enormous, running to 301 pages, with 19 clauses and 11 Schedules, and should really be two separate Bills: one dealing with the proposal to have a referendum on the alternative vote system; and the second dealing with the proposals to gerrymander/equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies.

The Bill was (as is usual) not considered fully in the Commons and so the Lords has been considering it (as is also usual) on a line-by-line basis. The House has just completed amendment 58ZZZB which relates to Clause 10 (on page 8 of the Bill) – the first clause that deals with the second part of the Bill. On Monday, which was the seventh day of Committee, the “silence of the lambs” (as I put it) was noticeable – in the debate on one amendment eighteen Labour Peers and two cross-bench peers spoke, but only one backbencher from the Conservative Coalition was prepared to defend the Bill.

Given the importance of the Bill, its complexity and the need for proper scrutiny, all this is taking time.

And the clock is ticking – the Electoral Commission have said that unless the Bill receives Royal Assent by the middle of next month it will not be possible to hold the AV referendum on 5th May as the Conservative Coalition wants.

One option is, of course, to split the Bill into two parts. Indeed, Labour peers suggested this when the Bill was first considered in the House of Lords, but the Government didn’t want to know.

The other is to soldier on through the night for each of the Committee days scheduled, but with sixty groups of amendments still to be considered, even that may not allow sufficient time to deal with the Bill adequately.

So rumours are now swirling around that Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House, has started threatening that he will table a ‘guillotine’ motion to cut off consideration of the Bill.

This would be unprecedented. It has NEVER been done before.

And as the whole point of the House of Lords is that it takes the time to scrutinise legislation properly, such a motion would be a constitutional outrage.

So not content with appointing dozens of new Conservative and LibDem placepeople to pack the Government benches, the Conservative Coalition is now contemplating playing fast and loose with the Constitution itself, so as to get through their Bill to change the composition of the House of Commons.

Is Lord Strathclyde trying to win the Robert Mugabe Award for Constitutional Innovation?

This week, it will be worth following events in the House of Lords closely!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Are Standards Slipping in the Lords?

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked the Leader of the House this week "what assessment he has made of the importance of behavioural and procedural conventions in the Chamber."

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, self-regulation works only when Members act to support it. It puts the responsibility on us all as individual Members, in our political groups and on the Cross Benches, to ensure that the rules set out in the Companion and the conventions of the House are adhered to in spirit as well as in letter.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, that is a very helpful reply, but does the noble Lord not agree that too many bad habits have been brought from the other place and are causing a problem, such as interrupting in timed debates and not giving way at Question Time? In a self-regulating House, these are extremely important and valuable parts of our procedure.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Viscount is the living embodiment of courtesy and good practice in this House and many of us would do well to emulate his behaviour. He is quite right that refusing to give way at Question Time is at odds with the usual courtesies extended in this House and that repeated interruptions are an aspect of behaviour that some argue have infiltrated from another place, which we should not be seeking to emulate. However, I think that there is general good will across the House to maintain some of the very good behaviour in the House when it is at its best. The best way of doing that is to follow the example of those who emulate that practice.

Lord Barnett: Is not the bigger problem ministerial behaviour? Is the noble Lord aware that some Ministers do not seem to understand government policy on transparency? I give one small example. I asked a very simple Question recently on whether the Treasury would supply information on what its representative on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England had said about interest rates and quantitative easing. The Answer that I got was that it was a matter for the Monetary Policy Committee to publish, but Ministers know that it never does. Will the noble Lord perhaps issue guidance to Ministers-some of them, not all-on government policy on transparency?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I do not agree that that is a bigger problem than concerns about the conventions and rules of this House. Ministers in the House of Lords have standing instructions to treat Back-Benchers from all sides of the House with utmost courtesy and to be as transparent as possible. If the noble Lord received an Answer from one of our Ministers that he did not like, that was still the right Answer to give.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the noble Viscount makes the important point that since the introduction of a number of colleagues from the other place the behaviour pattern of this House has changed. In light of that, will the noble Lord consider the role of the Lord Speaker to ensure that such rules and regulations are not flouted?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I know that some in this House would wish to see a greater role for the Chair, notably at Question Time, and no doubt they will have made representations to the Leader's Group, chaired by my noble friend Lord Goodlad. My view is that our existing practice, whereby it is the responsibility of the whole House and all Members present to draw attention to breaches of order and failures to observe custom, continues to serve us well, as the Question asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, today illustrates.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House remember that about 30 years ago, when he and I first became Members of this House, Baroness Hylton-Foster was Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers. If any new boy or girl in her flock transgressed, she took them aside later and came down on them like a ton of bricks. Would it not be a good idea if the leaders of the various parties were to do that today?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lady. I am sure that the current Convenor is as firm with her flock as was the noble Baroness 20 or 30 years ago. I point out that in 1998 the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, wrote a report that is worth rereading. I have suggested to the Clerk of the Parliaments that he should consider whether aspects of it should be republished and given to all noble Lords in an as easy-to-follow format as possible.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, like all noble Lords, I recognise the importance of behavioural and procedural conventions and, like the noble Lord, I believe that there is good will on all sides of the House. If any noble Lords sitting on my Benches have occasionally not adhered to behavioural conventions in the Chamber, the responsibility must lie with me as leader of the Labour group. Mea culpa-I will try to do better. Does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that one reason why we adhere to certain behavioural and procedural conventions is precisely to maintain the difference between this House and the other place? We are one Parliament with two Houses and we celebrate the distinctive characteristics of this House.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I very much welcome what the Leader of the Opposition has said. The whole House should recognise what she has said and the support that she has given to the current conventions and the rules as laid out in the Companion.

Friday, 14 January 2011

DSG

The Democratic Study Group was a very influential group, which played a key role in changing the House of Representatives. It was founded in 1959 "as a liberal counterpoint to the influence of senior conservatives and southern Democrats". In a June 1974 article by Stevens, Miller and Mann entitled "Mobilization of Liberal Strength in the House 1955-70, The Democratic Study Group" (available via JSTOR), the early years of the DSG are described -

"Although small groups of liberals had been meeting on an ad hoc basis with increased frequency since 1953, the formal organization of the Democratic Study Group (DSG) in September 1959 marked the first sustained effort to counter the conservative coalition. The organizational structure and operating strategies developed in the first few months, aimed as they were at the problems of information, attendance and strategic bargaining, remained remarkably constant over the subsequent decade.


Concerned with increasing the likelihood of liberal policy outputs, the DSG engaged in activities at every stage of the legislative process. But its major focus continued to be providing information necessary to bring some coherence to the liberal Democratic bloc."

Members paid a (substantial) research fee to subscribe - which enabled the employment of a number of members of staff. The paper quoted above reported that - "In practice, virtually all of DSG's activities are generated and executed by the staff, which has assumed an independent leadership role in recent years. The DSG staff ordinarily consists of approximately twelve people, four of whom engage in legislative research. The institutionalization of the DSG has left the staff director a good deal of discretion in initiating and overseeing DSG operations."

A key player was Richard Conlon, the staff director. He spoke about the DSG on a C-SPAN programme in 1988 which can be accessed here. Sadly, Mr Conlon was killed in a boating accident in June 1988.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

1975

In yesterday's post I described the difficulties that the Democrats faced in the House of Representatives in 1975. This side of the Atlantic the Labour Party faced its own difficulties. However it did not "enjoy" a large majority in the House of Commons. Instead, it barely had a majority. The October 1974 General Election had at least taken it out of being a "minority Government" - just! It needed 318 seats for a majority - it won a net 18 seats - taking it to 319!!

The big issue of 1975 was the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Economic Community (the 'Common Market'). Britain had joined in 1973 - but this was a decision of Parliament alone. The people were not consulted. In fact there had never been a nationwide referendum in Britain before (and in fact, there has been none since - though referenda have been held in parts of the country). Labour was divided to the core on the issue. Even the Cabinet was split. The doctrine of "collective responsibility" was - for this issue, and just for the duration of the referendum campaign - suspended to allow Ministers to participate on either side of the argument. It was hoped that the resounding result would end the party infighting. It was a hope that was not achieved.

There were a number of backbench rebellions over a number of matters - Economic Policy; Foreign and Defence Policy being major issues of division. Labour's William Hamling died in March 1975 - and the subsequent by-election in Woolwich West in June saw a Tory win. Labour now had a majority of just one seat!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

President Ford

My recent reading has concentrated on the House of Representatives in period 1972 to 1977. Obviously the Watergate scandal and the impeachment process has figured large - but there is an interesting tale to tell during the 94th Congress. In the aftermath of Watergate the Democrats scored amazing sucesses in the November 1974 elections. They held 289 of the 435 seats in the House - supposedly a veto-proof majority - yet  President Ford was able to thwart many of their plans.

The President's strategy was to veto legislation that the Democrats had been able, with their large majorities in both the House and Senate, to pass through Congress. It was on overriding the vetoes that the Democrats were caught out.

In the first session of the 94th Congress (1975) there were 17 vetoes - 4 were overridden : 6 were sustained by the House; 1 by the Senate: and there was no attempt to override 6.

In the second session (1976) there were 20 vetoes (the last five were 'pocket vetoed' - again only 4 were overidden : 1 was sustained by the House : 5 were sustained by the Senate and no attempt was made to override 5.

The problem for the Democrats was that the caucus was divided - and Ford exploited the divisions. Sometimes it was southern conservatives who refused to help override Ford's veto - sometimes it was Democrats from the Eastern cities.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Ipswich, Suffolk

We have returned from a weekend in Suffolk. Deborah was teaching in the town on Saturday, and in Huntingdon on Monday - and we decided to make a long weekend of it to celebrate my birthday (which is actually today). I'd never been to Ipswich before. It's a very nice town, with many old buildings remaining from its past. Cardinal Wolsey - Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor - and until his fall from the King's favour, the most powerful man in the land beside the King - was born and brought up in Ipswich.

We were in a hotel on the new marina - in a building which was once a salt house on the docks. If you've never been to Ipswich, I'd recommend a visit. A pleasant olde English town - lots of pubs & restaurants - and coffee shops. On our journey home we stopped in Huntingdon - birthplace of Oliver Cromwell. So a weekend reminding me of the powerful influence of East Anglia in the 16th and 17th Century. It was also the area that produced many of the early English emigrants to America.

Of course the weekend was overshadowed by the awful news from Tucson Arizona. A terrible reminder that with freedom comes responsibility. The language of hate and utter contempt, along with the availability of lethal weapons is a dangerous mix. I'm all for vigorous debate - and as a politician myself, I appreciate rhetoric , but America deserves better than this.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Westminster Returns

Parliament returns this afternoon. Now it has its seat in the Palace of Westminster - but originally it met around the country. The King summoned Parliament to advise him - and the meeting place was where HE was. Over time the residential palace of Kings alongside the Thames became Parliament's home. King Canute is believed to have been the first King to live in Westminster. Henry VIII was the last. The House of Lords made the palace its permanent home long before the Commons. It was only in the late 1540's that the Commons were granted a permanent meeting place in St Stephen's Chapel.

There are some useful histories of Parliament available - my favourite is below

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Richard Nixon

As February 6th approaches, expect to hear from conservatives about the birthday of Ronald Reagan - it will be the centenary of his birth. We probably won't hear too much today about another Presidential birthday. Richard Nixon was born on this day in 1913 (yes, that's right - the Vice President from the 1950s was younger than the 1980's President!)

Whatever else may be said about the 37th President - he was most of the most interesting characters of the Twentieth Century.

Final Address to Staff



Books about Nixon









One of my favourite movies of all time

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Battle of New Orleans

Those of a certain age may think of Lonnie Donegan's song about the Battle, which was fought 196 years ago today. I have to admit that I was aware of the song long before my interest in the history of the "War of 1812" was aroused.



Lonnie Donegan - Battle Of New Orleans
Uploaded by fredozydeco. - Independent web videos.

A short history of the battle can be accessed here. A map of the battlefield is available here.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Newsy

As from today the Washminster blog includes a direct link to Newsy.com (see right hand column of the page). Hope you find this multi-source online video news service a useful addition to the services available on Washminster

Following the Lords

The Government Whips Office in the House of Lords is not just a facility for the use of the Government's business managers. It provides a service to all Peers about business coming up in the Lords. Its information also available to the public here.

While business papers are available on Parliament's website - as are bills and their related paperwork,
you can find on the Government Whips page -
  • Speakers lists
  • Speaking times for debates (guidance only - Members can't be ordered to sit down, but the will of the House is made clear)
  • Estimated rising time for that particular day
In addition the Clerks provide details of divisions (votes) on the Divisions Analysis Page.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Presidential Vetoes

The Constitution gives the President the power to veto legislation passed by Congress. (Article I Section 7)

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law. But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by Yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively. If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law


As part of my research I have come across two very useful books setting out the specific vetoes by each President

Presidential Vetoes 1789-1988
Presidential Vetoes 1989-2000

Vetoes of President George W Bush can be accessed here and President Obama here

A table of the number of vetoes by each President can be found here.

A CRS paper on Regular Vetoes and Pocket Vetoes can be accessed here.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Today's the day...

More on the Filibuster

An informative look at the Filibuster - and the current debate
http://www.newsy.com/videos/dems-seek-filibuster-reform/

The 112th Congress meets today

According to Section Two of the Twentieth Amendment "The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day." Originally the date when a new congress began was 4th March. This was the result the Act of the Continental Congress adopted September 13, 1788, which provided ‘that the first Wednesday in March next to be the time for commencing proceedings under the Constitution.’ It happened that the first Wednesday in March 1789 was the 4th day of March. As terms of Senators and Congressmen were measured in years, noon on March 4th marked the end of one term and the start of the next.

For the first 73 Congresses, elections were held on the First Tuesday after the first Monday in November - but terms of the newly elected members did not begin until four months later. This was addressed by the 20th Amendment.

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary in its report suggested several reasons for the proposed Twentieth Amendment. It said in part:

“[W]hen our Constitution was adopted there was some reason for such a long intervention of time between the election and the actual commencement of work by the new Congress. . . . Under present conditions [of communication and transportation] the result of elections is known all over the country within a few hours after the polls close, and the Capital City is within a few days’ travel of the remotest portions of the country. . . ."

“Another effect of the amendment would be to abolish the so– called short session of Congress. . . Every other year, under our Constitution, the terms of Members of the House and one–third of the Members of the Senate expire on the 4th day of March. . . . Experience has shown that this brings about a very undesirable legislative condition. It is a physical impossibility during such a short session for Congress to give attention to much general legislation for the reason that it requires practically all of the time to dispose of the regular appropriation bills. . . . The result is a congested condition that brings about either no legislation or ill considered legislation. . . ."

Public Law 111-289 was signed by the President on 30th November, which appoints today for the convening of the first session of the One Hundred Twelfth Congress.

The last Daily Digest of the Congressional Record for the 111th Congress reads -

Senate Chamber
Program for Wednesday: Following the presentation of the certificates of election and the swearing in of elected members, there will be a required live quorum to convene the 112th Congress. All Senators are asked to report to the floor at that time. The Senate will then be in period of morning business.

appointing the day for the convening of the first session of the One Hundred Twelfth Congress

House Chamber

Program for Wednesday: Convening of the first session of the 112th Congress.

I'll be watching live - with the help of two computers - one showing the House on C-SPAN and the other showing the Senate on C-SPAN2. Events should kick off at 5pm GMT (though I've found that timing in Congress is not as precise as it is in Westminster).

CRS have produced excellent guides to the first day of a new Congress in the
House
Senate

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Tentative Schedule for Wednesday 5th

Thanks to the Huddle, Politico for this tentative schedule for the first day of the new Congress -

12 p.m. The clerk calls the House to order [5pm UK]
12:05 p.m. Quorum call  [5-05pm UK]

12:40 p.m. Nominations for speaker will be made [5-40pm UK]
12:45 p.m. Members vote for speaker by alphabetical roll call  [5-45 pm UK]

2 p.m. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presents Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the House
[7-00 pm UK]


2:25 p.m. Michigan Democrat John Dingell, the dean of the House, administers as Boehner takes the oath of office [7-25 pm UK]


2:40 p.m. The rules of the House for the 112th Congress will be brought to the floor under a privileged resolution [7-40 pm UK]


3:55 p.m. The House votes on the new rules [8-55 pm UK]


4:50 p.m. The House adjourns [9-50 pm UK]


I can send you a pdf of the new rules as they would look if the rule changes proposed by the incoming majority are adopted - email - info@washminster.com

How many Washingtons have served in Congress?

The answer is Six.

George Washington was a member of the First and second Continental Congresses - before being chosen as "commander in chief of all the forces raised or to be raised" in June 1775 - and the rest is history!

The other five Washingtons were

George Corbin Washington, an Anti-Jacksonian who sat in the 20th to 22nd and the 24th Congresses (1827-1837) as a Representative from Maryland. He was a grand nephew of the first President, born in 1789 (the year the first Congress met) and he died in 1854. He served as President of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company after his congressional service.

Joseph Edwin Washington , A Democrat from Tennessee who served in the 50th to 51st Congress (1887-1897). He lived from 1851 to 1915.

William Henry Washington, A Whig from North Carolina who served a single term as a Representative from North Carolina (27th Congress - 1841-43), after which he returned to State Politics.. He was born in 1813 and died just 10 months before the Civil War broke out.

Harold Washington, who represented Illinois in the 97th and 98th Congresses (1981-85), a member of the Democrat majority while Reagan was President. He subsequently became the first African American Mayor of Chicago. Richard Wright has written -

"The politician who truly set the stage for Obama's rise was also a South Side congressman: Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983, beating two white opponents in the Democratic primary -- incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and future Mayor Richard M. Daley. In the general election, the difference between Washington and his Republican opponent was black and white -- and nothing else. When Washington campaigned at a church in a Polish neighborhood, he was greeted with the grafitto "Die, Nigger, Die."

In New York, Obama read about Washington's victory and wrote to City Hall, asking for a job. He never heard back, but he made it to Chicago just months after Washington took office. In his memoir "Dreams From My Father," he wrote about walking into a barbershop and seeing the new mayor's picture on the wall. (It's probably still there. To this day, Washington's image is as revered by South Side blacks as St. Anthony of Padua's is by Italian Catholics.) The old men, who'd suffered a lifetime of slights by white mayors, saw in Washington a sign that the black community had finally arrived as a citywide power. Blacks may have run things in their own neighborhoods, but they were still crammed into dreary housing projects, and they sent their children to overcrowded schools -- while white schools just across the color line sat half empty. And of course, the big political jobs -- the state's attorney, the County Board president, the mayor -- had always been controlled by the Irish.

"Before Harold," the barber said, "seemed like we'd always be second-class citizens."

He died in 1987.



Craig Anthony Washington, who is still alive - and will be celebrating his 70th birthday this year - represented Texas as a Democratic Representative in the 101st to 103rd Congresses (1989-1995). He was defeated in the Democratic primary in 1994 by Sheila Jackson Lee, who remains a congresswomen.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Comparing British and American Government

A subject central to Washminster. Just before Christmas C-SPAN aired this programme which brings together some very useful information. I recommend this as a resource to revisit many times - I will certainly be making much use of the comments made.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Elena Kagan Interview

I enjoy listening (in the early hours of the morning - or late at night when my eyesight tires)to the C-SPAN podcasts which I subscribe to. Last week I listened to a very interesting interview given by the new Supreme Court justice. It provides a useful insight into the workings of the Supreme Court of the United States. And don't forget this evening's C-SPAN special on the Court. A legal feast!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Welcome to 2011!

If your New Year's Resolution is to learn about the US and UK Constitutions; their governmental institutions and elections - then Washminster is the place - day by day - to increase your knowledge and appreciation.

Can I recommend watching C-SPAN this Sunday (2nd Jan) at 6:30 pm ET [11.30pm UK] when they will be broadcasting "The Supreme Court: Home to America's Highest Court"

This documentary takes an unprecedented look at the Court, in which you hear directly from all current and retired Supreme Court Justices about the role of the Court, its traditions, and its history. Tour the building and go behind the scenes with experts on the Court, including staff, journalists, and historians. Originally aired in 2009, the documentary has been updated to include comments from the newest Justice, Elena Kagan, as well as a look at several recent developments at the Court.

It is available live on C-SPAN (sadly not broadcast via satellite TV in Europe); or via their website. It will also be broadcast on C-SPAN Radio (for which there is an iPhone app). For those of you in Europe, or otherwise unable to watch live - it will be available later on C-SPAN's archive website.