Is this the most powerful person in the USA? – and the quaint parlour game of American politics

Photo above by Gage Skidmore on Flickr CCL

A Floridian recently said to me that Nancy Pelosi is the most powerful person in America. I had to do a double-take. I thought she said that Nancy Pelosi was the most powerful woman in America. I thought this because people have been saying it for years. But, no, my American acquaintance actually said that Nancy Pelosi is the most powerful person in the USA.

After the last month, it is hard to disagree. Whatever your views on the partial US government shutdown, it is hard not to concede that Nancy Pelosi knocked Donald Trump’s border brick-laying ambitions into a cocked hat.

I have been paying quite a lot of attention to proceedings in the US House of Representatives recently. It is interesting to compare some of their procedures with those of the House of Commons.

I suppose that it is reasonable to say that the “cut and thrust” of the Commons (which often revolves around interventions and groaning/heckling) is replaced in the House of Representatives with the most extraordinary parlour game.

I don’t quite know what to call it but, for shorthand, let’s call it the “recognise/reserve/yield” game. It goes roughly as follows, with apologies for me being a bit bemused by it:

Step 1. Control is with the Speaker, who isn’t really The Speaker 99 per cent of the time. It is the “speaker pro tem”, who is a representative appointed by The Speaker to chair the proceedings.

2. The Speaker pro tem either sees on their sheet or physically sees a member wishing to speak. That member may or may not be approaching one of eight microphone stands.

3. The Speaker pro tem enquires, quaintly:

For what purpose does the gentlewoman/man from (insert home state of representative) seek recognition?

4. The relevant representative then says something “off mike” to the speaker like “I wish to address the House for a minute” or “Well, I have got this fantastic idea I was bursting to tell people about”.

5. The Speaker then says:

Without objection, the gentleman/woman from (insert state) is recognised for one minute.

6. The representative then talks for one minute.

7. At the end of the one minute, the speaker does an interesting thing. There is no ten seconds grace or “would you please bring your remarks to a conclusion” as the chair says at Lib Dem conferences. Instead, the speaker taps the wrong end of his or her gavel. The speaker does this a couple of times, bang on one minute. Then the representative has to stop pretty quickly.

Now that is complex and arcane enough. But when a bill is being debated there is a sort of farming-out-of-control thingy. The Speaker “recognises” a lead representative from each party. That lead representative is then given control or “yielded” to for a certain amount of time. They each speak for as long as they need then reserve their remaining time and yield it in turn to members of their own party who give back any time they have left to the lead representative. This is done in turn with the lead representative of the other party and their respective nominees.

So it is a very strange game of yielding, reserving, giving back and recognising. (Those four precise terms are used very repetitively.) Think of “Gone with the wind” and a complex Jane Austenesque dance routine and you wouldn’t be far off. One half expects bows, curtsies and insistence on little pinkie fingers being raised aloft as tea is sipped from decorative porcelain cups.

I apologise for the extended explanation. The point I am making is this. We often complain about the House of Commons being arcane and antiquated. Progressives such as myself often dream of starting our Parliament off again in a green field with a circular or semi-circular chamber. And make it all nice and polite and constructive.

Well, the Americans had a green field 243 years ago and erected a semi-circular chamber and made it all nice and polite. But its procedures are every bit, if not more, strange and convoluted as those of the House of Commons.

Having said that, they do let members bring their children in to sit with them, have a woman as leader and the caucus of one of the controlling party is a remarkable model of diversity. So it’s not all bad in “The House”.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Jan '19 - 7:03pm

    I have a dream. It’s if Trump and Pence are somehow removed from office, Nancy Pelosi will be President.

    And thank you for this brilliant eye-witness account. I am incredibly jealous.

  • Martin Land 30th Jan '19 - 3:54pm

    As I teach students, power in America comes from the ability to persuade. When you combine the constitutional position of the House Speaker with someone who has the skills of Nancy you have a formidable operator. Sadly the reverse is true of Trump.

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