Monday 30 April 2007

How much time is spent on Government Bills?

An interesting paper has been published by the Parliament and Constitution Centre within the House of Commons Library about the number of Government bills considered each parliamentary session - and the number of hours spent at each stage.


Sunday 29 April 2007

The hand of history...is waving vigorously!

The next ten days should be exciting both sides of 'the pond'. In Britain the 10th anniversary of the election of the Labour Government will be celebrated (well I suppose that depends on your political view - but it will be commemorated) on Tuesday. If Thursday were in the States it would no doubt be dubbed "Super-Thursday" with elections for the Scottish Parliament; Welsh Assembly and most district councils (some like Rugby see just 1/3rd elected; many have all seats up - like Blaby & Harborough - two district councils in the parliamentary seat I stood for in 2001 & 2005). Some measure of success for the Scottish National Party could have repercussions for the future of the "United" Kingdom. Then - probably during the next week, after the May Day Bank Holiday - Tony Blair will announce his resignation as Prime Minister.

President Bush will veto the Iraq supplemental, and the two Houses of Congress will attempt to override it (According to Steny Hoyer - http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/015%20Weekly%20042707.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550

"on Tuesday, the House may consider a Veto Override on the Conference Report on H.R. 1591 - U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health and Iraq Accountability Act. Recorded votes could occur as early as 12:00 p.m."

Gonzales is still hanging on - but for how much longer? The Washington Post reported on Friday that "After releasing nearly 6,000 pages of documents related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, the Justice Department says it is drawing the line.

In a letter sent last night to the Senate and House Judiciary committees, Justice gave a list of 171 documents it is withholding from Congress because they involve "congressional and media inquiries" about the dismissals, seven of which occurred Dec. 7.

According to descriptions on the list, Justice will hold e-mails plotting media strategies, draft letters to Capitol Hill, various memoranda and "discussions" related to conversations between Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and lawmakers.

One e-mail from D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's then-chief of staff, focuses on a hotly disputed meeting in December between Gonzales and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Pryor has said he felt lied to by Gonzales because the attorney general had assured him that Justice had no plans to circumvent Senate confirmation for a new U.S. attorney in Little Rock. Subsequent documents show that such a plan was discussed by Gonzales's aides before and after the Pryor meeting. Gonzales has said he opposed the idea."

So that will cool things then?

Ten days to savour - and your comments on the events will be appreciated

Saturday 28 April 2007

Darfur / Sudan

Both legislatures are concerned about the ongoing situation in Darfur, a region in the West of Sudan. This week is being observed as "Global Days for Darfur" [April 23rd - 30th].

In the United States the House Majority Leader has set up a page on his website


which links to a number of useful resources and includes a report from the recent bipartisan CODEL (Congressional Delegation) that visited the area recently. On Wednesday the House of Representatives discussed a bill introduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee ( H.Con.Res 7 )
calling on the League of Arab States to acknowledge the Genocide in Darfur. You can read the debate in the Congressional Record

http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getpage.cgi?position=all&page=H4055&dbname=2007_record from the 5th page in.

At Westminster there is an Associate Parliamentary Group for Sudan, set up to "promote, in Westminster and Whitehall, the cause of peace, justice and development for all the people of Sudan." The issues are frequently raised in Oral Questions in both Houses and in Written Questions. On Thursday the Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, announced that there would be a debate on Darfur soon, although the date has yet to be fixed.

Friday 27 April 2007

The Extent of Parliamentary Privilege

Remarks made in the Chamber of either House of Parliament have been protected by parliamentary privilege - so you cannot sue for defamation if an MP has made his remarks in the House of Commons (this doesn't apply to remarks made by MPs outside). This is an ancient right, now in Statute as a result of the Bill of Rights 1689 [Article 9 - That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament.]

Reporting these remarks has been regarded as attracting qualified privilege - not actionable unless malice can be proved.

In the House of Commons, Business Questions, the issue was raised by Theresa May

The website TheyWorkForYou.com has been threatened with legal action for repeating what was printed in Hansard. Will the Leader of the House make a statement about the application of parliamentary privilege to organisations with a licence to reprint Hansard?

The Leader of the House responded

To deal with the serious point that the right hon. Lady made at the beginning of her remarks, I gather that there was a report that the website, TheyWorkForYou.com, is being sued for defamation for repeating what was printed in Hansard. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving me notice of the issue. The position is made very clear and is spelled out in “Erskine May”, which says that “the publication, whether by order of the House or not, of a fair and accurate account of a debate in either House is protected by the same principle as that which protects fair reports of proceedings in courts of justice...This is a matter of common law, rather than of parliamentary privilege.”

The matter is privileged, and we will obviously watch that action with great care, but our democracy could not work if fair and accurate reports of our proceedings were subject to attack from people moving defamation proceedings."

Capitol Steps

I've mentioned the highly amusing 'Capitol Steps' in previous blogs. Their latest album is now out, and is called "Springtime for Liberals". I'm looking forward to getting my copy. More details on


For a taster (and a site worth returning to every week): http://www.capsteps.com/

Thursday 26 April 2007

How can it be resolved?

Last night the House of Representative voted 218-208 to approve the report agreed by the conference committee of both Houses on the $124bn Iraq supplemental spending bill. The Senate seems likely to vote today. The measure then goes to the President - who has vowed to veto the bill.

With only 218 votes in the House, and the Senate unlikely to increase the 51 votes previously cast for the bill - the chances of the veto being overidden seem remote.

To override a presidential veto each chamber must achieve a two-thirds majority vote of the members present and voting (in other words, those who are actually in the chamber rather than two-thirds of the total).

So how will the matter be resolved? Is there yet sufficient support for compromise - or will this run and run?

Wednesday 25 April 2007

Sir John Major

Last night I attended a meeting arranged by the Hansard Society at the LSE in which Sir John Major was interviewed by Elinor Goodman.

You can watch the whole event on BBC Parliament (Freeview 81, Sky 504, Virgin TV 612) on Saturday April 28 at 9pm or listen to Elinor Goodman interviewing John Major on The Week in Westminster, Radio 4 on Saturday April 28 at 11am.

I mentioned the excellent meetings which the Hansard Society arranges in the blog of April 19th. They also produce some very useful publications. For more details visit http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/

The interview was fascinating. Sir John said he had left politics, but made some very pointed criticisms of his successors and others. He revealed that he spoke to the American President, George Bush Senior, on an almost daily basis. We didn't hear about his relationship with President Clinton! He also discussed the issue of Britain's withdrawal from the ERM - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Wednesday has more details for those who don't vividly remember that key day. He said that he had written a letter of resignation and made a resignation broadcast - but was talked out of it by civil servants. "I was very close to going" he said, and is still unsure whether he should have gone.

I had the opportunity to put the first question from the audience - and asked what advice he would give to an incoming Prime Minister who was succeeeding a 'larger than life' character. It was a deliberately ambigious question - and he choose to talk about his own experience. He made it clear that he thought his greatest mistake was "to put too much of a premium on keeping the Conservative Party together".

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Opposition Days

It is a key principle of the organisation of the House of Commons that "government business shall have precedence at every sitting" (SO 14). That Standing Order though does have exceptions - one being

"Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, seventeen of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party; and matters selected on those days shall have precedence over government business"

Today is the 9th allotted day. Once questions have concluded, and any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements have been taken - and Barbara Keeley has sought leave to introduce the Carers (Identification and Support) Bill [As explained yesterday this 10 minute rule bill procedure is designed to draw attention to an issue rather than introduce legislation] - the House will proceed to Main Business.

The Conservative Opposition have put down two motions for debate - see todays Order Paper
The Government has put amendments down to both motions, which if passed will turn highly critical motions into congratulatory ones. At the end of each debate the motion will be put and voted upon.

These debates can go on until 10pm tonight (with 4pm being the likely time that the debate on the first motion - on Modernising Medical Careers - will end).

Monday 23 April 2007

Bills at Westminster

I am currently marking essays from some of my Open University students about sources of English Law. Arising from this there are a couple of issues about bills in parliament which it would be useful to clarify.

Bills are either (1) Public - affecting public interests. Most of the bills now considered are public - ranging from the Mental Health Bill to the Legal Services Bill. (2) Private - which relate to private - individual or legal individual (a corporation or local authority) - interests.

Public bills may be introduced by Ministers (Government Bills). These have most chance of success because, save for specific time set aside, Government business takes precedence. Ordinary members (backbenchers) can introduce 'Private Members Bills'. They are public bills!

Most bills are introduced first to the House of Commons. My current reckoning is that this session, for the introduction of public bills, the figures are

Government Bills - Commons -19; Lords - 9
Private Members Bills - Commons - 31; Lords - 21
Ten Minute Rule Bills - Commons - 20

The ten minute rule bill procedure (Standing Order 23) is a device to allow a backbencher to raise an issue of importance in 'prime time', though the "bill" he asks leave to bring in is almost never proceeded with.

There are some excellent factsheets available at http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_publications_and_archives/factsheets.cfm

Sunday 22 April 2007

Coming Up in the House of Lords

Advance notice of some interesting business coming up in the House of Lords

Wednesday 25th April - Lord Tomlinson will ask whether the Government has assessed the extent to which the report and recommendations by the Joint Committee on Conventions [Conventions of the United Kingdom Parliament] are being observed.

Wednesday 25th April - Baroness Sharples will ask whether the armed forces have all the equipment they need to minimise casualties in armed conflict.

Monday 30th April - Lord Trefgarne will ask what construction and certification standards the Government propose for the two aircraft carriers to be ordered for the Royal Navy.

Monday 30th April - Lord Alton of Liverpool will ask what is the Government's assessment of the current humanitarian and security situation in Darfur and Chad.

Tuesday 1st May - the House will have the 2nd Reading debate on the International Tribunals (Sierra Leone) Bill

Tuesday 1st May - there will be a debate on the Report of the Constitution Committee on 'Waging War: Parliament's Role and Responsibility'
For the original report and its follow visit:

Wednesday 2nd May - Lord Cavendish of Furness will ask what proposals the Government has for a new constitution or pattern of governance for the European Union.

Thursday 3rd May - Lord Faulkner of Worcester will ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will seek to secure an amendment to the 1995 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in order to make the killing of journalists in war zones a crime under international law.

Friday 20 April 2007

Start of Business - A comparison

I've just watched the opening moments of today's business in the House of Representatives. It is very different to the start of the day in the House of Commons.

C-Span showed the mace being brought into the chamber. At Westminster the presiding officer [Commons - Speaker; Lords - Lord Speaker] enters with the mace being carried behind. The doors of the chamber are then closed. The public cannot see [and the television cameras used by BBC Parliament and parliamentlive, do not record] the entering of the mace or 'prayers'.

I was impressed during a visit to the Senate that, not only were the public able to see the Senate at prayer, but on that day the Chaplain included the public, making the point that everyone there was involved. At Westminster this is not possible and the public are only admitted after prayers have concluded.

There are arguments for and against including the public - what do you think?

Thursday 19 April 2007

Reminder - Gonzales' Testimony

The rearranged hearing will be shown on


at 9.30am (Washington time); 14.30 (UK time)

The Internet and Political Awareness

Last night I attended a Hansard Society meeting on "The Internet and the 2005 General Election", although the presentations and questions ranged much further than that specific event.

The Hansard Society is "an independent and non-partisan educational charity working to stimulate knowledge of and interest in democracy through research, publications, influential seminars, online debate and deliberation, groundbreaking activities with young people and public meetings. [Its] work aims to strengthen parliament by encouraging greater accessibility and closer engagement with the public."


They have regular meetings at Westminster, and elsewhere.

Key questions posed included:-
  • has the Internet helped to increase the political engagement of individual voters?
  • what role did the Internet play in the dissemination of information in the 2005 Election?

Derek Wyatt MP, the Chair of the All Party Internet Group, took a wider remit and recommended visits to the campaigning sites of

Segolene Royal; http://www.desirsdavenir.org/index.php

Nicholas Sarkozy; http://www.sarkozy.fr/home/

Hillary Clinton http://www.hillaryclinton.com/?splash=1 and

Barack Obama. http://www.barackobama.com/

as illustrations of how inventively the new media is being used.

The meeting discussed various statistics from surveys which pointed to the role of the internet in 2005 - and its potential for future British General Elections.

What are your observations on the impact of the Internet on participation in politics? Did using the internet spark off an interest in politics for you? What impact have you seen that it has on Westminster and Washington?

Wednesday 18 April 2007

Modernisation Committee

Now that Parliament is back, sittings of the Modernisation Committee have resumed. I sat through another fascinating morning of evidence [see last blog on the Committee - 28th March] This time there were two panels of witnesses. The first (09.35am) was the Deputy Speaker, Sir Alan Haselhurst assisted by David Doig (Clerk of Bills). The second (10.15am) panel was made up of senior Select Committee Chairs - Alan Williams (Liaison Committee); Tony Wright (Public Administration Ctte) Sir George Young (Standards and Privileges) and Michael Jack (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs).

Sir Alan's main point was "trust the Speaker". He discussed how the Speaker sought to balance the competing demands of backbenchers and Ministers - and was flexible and considerate of the demands upon members. He was concerned that Speakers lists - an issue the Committee seems quite interested in - could limit that flexibility. The impact could be to make debates more rigid and backbenchers could lose out.

Another issue was the question of short speeches. Standing Order 47 allows the speaker to restrict length of speeches [http://pubs1.tso.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmstords/405/405.pdf]
Sir Alan expressed the view that the idea of 3 minute speeches was a well intentioned idea, which had not worked out as well as expected. MPs might be annoyed to find that a prepared speech of 10 minutes had to suddenly be reduced to 3 minutes.

Sir Alan also argued for greater flexibility in applying the 'moment of interruption', to allow for time taken by Ministerial statements. This was referred to as "injury time". It's certainly an useful idea.

The Select Committee Chairs provided some interesting ideas. Sir George Young suggested that Committee Chairs should, in addition to Ministers, be able to make statements to the House. There was discussion of the new 'Public Bill Committees' which replace Standing Committees. The Chairs were positive, but pointed out the differences with Select Committees.

The full meeting can be seen in the archive of parliamentlive.tv - and transcripts should be available on the Modernisation Committee's website in a few days.

Please pass on your comments about these ideas.

Royal Prerogative

The follow remarks were made in the House of Commons yesterday:

21. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): If she will conduct a review of the scope and use of royal prerogative powers. [131526]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): As I said on 30 January, the Government keep policy in that area under review but do not see the case for a wide-ranging consultation exercise at this time.

Mr. McGovern: The BBC recently described royal prerogative powers as “A series of historic powers, officially held by the Queen, that have, in reality, been passed to politicians.”
Royal prerogative powers allow decisions to be taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament. Does the Minister agree that in a democracy, decisions taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament should be illegal? And can we have a review to address that anachronistic anomaly once and for all?

Bridget Prentice: My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor provided a statement on the Government’s position on this in the House of Lords on 7 February this year, at Hansard column 705. Moreover, the Prime Minister is very keen to ensure that Parliament has its views known, and he has made statements to that effect in recent months. In 2003, for example, there was a substantive motion in Parliament on the Iraq war. We are of course prepared to legislate to constrain the prerogative powers when it is appropriate to do so.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Given that in 2004 the Select Committee on Public Administration said that “the case for reform is unanswerable”,
as we come to the end of 10 years of Blair-led Labour Government where ministerial Executive power remains as great as ever, will the Minister accept that making peace and war, making treaties such as the extradition treaty and taking away passports from British citizens in Guantanamo Bay are matters that should be governed not by Ministers but by Parliament, and that unless the Government move on this they will remain a Government who seem to be more keen on retaining power than sharing it?

Bridget Prentice: We should be cautious in this field; let me give an example of why that is. We must be careful about introducing legislation in some of these areas where we would then have the undesirability of their being overseen by the courts, which would not necessarily be a good thing. Indeed, it should be for Parliament, rather than the courts, to comment on some of these issues. The Government have to be accountable to Parliament for their decisions, including decisions on the deployment of armed forces. Parliament’s rights are therefore fully protected under the existing arrangements. That does not mean to say that the Government are not prepared to look at prerogative powers again. We have done that in the past and we are still prepared to do so. We will continue to listen to views on the subject, although at the moment we see no reason to do anything different from the present situation.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree most strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern). Would not it be useful for my hon. Friend the Minister to look at other parliamentary democracies, especially those with constitutional monarchies such as our own, to see how they do things and perhaps to make some progressive reforms in the light of that?

Bridget Prentice: It is difficult to translate specific constitutional arrangements from one country to another. Procedures in the United Kingdom must reflect our constitutional arrangements. There are occasions when the Executive’s ability to take decisions quickly and to be flexible in using the prerogative powers remains an important cornerstone of our constitution. I am not sure that one can easily transfer what may be good in one country to make it fit here. However, as I say, we constantly keep all these matters under review.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the most important royal prerogative is that of taking this country to war? Can she conceive of a situation whereby we would take this country to war without the endorsement of this House? If so, would she consider changing the royal prerogative in this respect?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman asks whether I can conceive of a situation arising in relation to going to war. In order to reassure him, let me quote what the Prime Minister said:
“I cannot conceive of a situation in which a Government...is going to go to war—except in circumstances where militarily for the security of the country it needs to act immediately—without a full parliamentary debate”.
That sums up the Government’s position very well.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am pleasantly surprised to be called. The Under-Secretary said that she would listen carefully to representations. May I draw it to her attention that nobody has spoken in favour of her conservative position on the matter?
There is a case for root and branch review of the power of the monarchical institution, including the prerogative powers, which are not always exercised only by Government. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) drew attention to the fact that no Catholic has been made a member of the Order of the Thistle for hundreds of years—that is royal prerogative. It is unacceptable. We need to re-examine the whole monarchical institution.

Bridget Prentice: Although I may have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s example, I have said repeatedly—today and on other occasions—that we keep such matters under review. I shall take the specific example back for further consideration.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Monday's Question Time

Did you get to watch Question Time? I watched it from home - and have just read Hansard.

Of the 20 questions listed for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport - 3 were withdrawn. Because the Easter Recess intervened questions had to be tabled some weeks ago. It is considered good practice for an MP to withdraw a question if it becomes clear that he will not be able to attend the particular Question Time. If time is too short, the Speaker, out of courtesy should be informed and apologised to.

Each questioner was allowed one supplementary, then other MPs could ask their own supplementaries (but they had to be related to the original question). This requirement isn't usually too difficult to overcome - and Bob Russell; Barbara Keeley; Stephen Hepburn and John Grogan were able to put questions this way, and so avoid the disappointment that their own questions were not reached.

Although Questions were addressed to the Secretary of State (Tessa Jowell), she only answered 2 of the 10 questions taken. Her junior ministers Richard Caborn (3) Shaun Woodward (4) and David Lammy (1) answered questions for areas within their specific responsibility.

The question which attracted most supplementaries was about the likely impact of cost increases for the Olympic Games on funding for grassroots sport. Clearly many members - and their constituents were keen to know.

At 3.15 there were oral questions to 'the honourable Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission and the honourable Member for Middlesborough, representing the Church Commissioners. As neither are Government Ministers (in fact Peter Viggers is a Conservative MP) they answered from the backbenches.

Hearing Postponed

The Judiciary Committee Hearing has been postponed until Thursday.

Monday 16 April 2007

Gonzales' Appearance before Senate Judiciary Committee

The much-awaited appearance of US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, before the Senate Judiciary Committee will take place at 10.00 EST [that's 3pm in the afternoon, London time] (Tuesday 17th April). It has been relocated to Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building.

C-Span 3 are planning to broadcast live. If you can't get to see it on the TV you can watch http://www.c-span.org/watch/cs_cspan3_rm.asp?Cat=TV&Code=CS3

Mr Gonzales' testimony was released on Sunday. A summary of newspaper coverage can be found at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/editorialist/2007/04/todays_editorials_previewing_a.html

The real interest is of course not on the testimony, but on the questions put by members of the Committee and the immediate answers. It should make interesting viewing!

Sunday 15 April 2007

The Congressional Darwin Awards

The Congressional Research Service publishes a mountain of very useful information about the workings of Congress - as well as on key policy areas. OPEN CRS is one website where members of the public can access these excellent resources. That website is http://www.opencrs.com/

Occasionally you will discover a report which highlight some obscure, but fascinating, information. One such is 98-735 "Members of the US Congress Who Have Died of Other Than Natural Causes While in Office".

Amongst the tragic automobile and airplane accidents you will discover that Representative Wickliffe was "killed by a train while walking on a railroad track in Washington DC" - 3 were killed in duels (one by the Chief Justice of California and another by a fellow Representative), two died in (separate) steamboat explosions - and two died "presumably from the effects of food poisoning at the National Hotel in Washington DC".

Saturday 14 April 2007

Question Time - 16th April 2007

Parliament returns at 2.30pm (BST) on Monday. After prayers in the House of Commons, the first item will be Question Time. The weekly Prime Minister's Question Time, held at 12.00 on Wednesdays is well known, but there is an hour of questions every sitting day except Fridays.

You can follow Monday's Question Time Live via http://www.parliamentlive.tv/ or http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/default.stm or, if you can receive Freeview or Sky on BBC Parliament.

Questions will be taken from 2.30 to 3.15 by Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (Questions are addressed to the Secretary of State, but she may delegate her junior Ministers to answer a specific topic). At 3.15 the House will move on to questions to the 'honourable Member representing the Church Commissioners and to the honourable Member representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission.'

The Questions are listed in 'Order of Business' (known by everyone as the 'Order Paper'). This is available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmagenda/ob70416.htm.

To ask an oral question a member has to "table" the question [Note - a major difference between the Westminster Parliament and Congress - while in Washington 'to table' means to set aside (in effect to 'kill off') at Westminster it means to initiate - so MPs table questions, amendments, motions... as the start not the end of action]. Questions for oral answer (there are different rules for questions for written answer) - can be tabled any time after the previous question time for that Department up to 12.30pm three days (excluding Fridays, Weekends, Bank holidays and recesses) before the day they are due to be taken. [5 days for the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Attorney General].

Questions can be tabled in person at the 'Table Office' or submitted electronically. As there are usually more questions than time available, the questions chosen for answer, and the order in which they will be taken is selected randomly by computer. This is still known as 'the shuffle'. There is a quota for each department (which is linked to the time allowed for answering - on Monday DCMS have 20). The quota is designed to ensure there are sufficient questions, but it is unlikely that the last one will be reached.

The answering Minister will give the prepared answer, but the MP who has asked the question can now ask a 'supplementary'. The Minister will not have notice of this - so must answer on his feet. (In reality a good guess about the supplementary can be made - and most Ministers prepare, and are prepared by their Civil Servants, for potential supplementaries).

Hope you enjoy watching PQs on Monday (if you miss it there is an archive at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Archives/). Later in the week I will review Monday's Question Time.

Order of Questions

1 Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) Cons
2 Tony Baldry (Banbury) Cons
3 David Amess (Southend) Cons
4 Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) Lib Dem
5 Philip Hollobone (Kettering) Cons
6 Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) Lab
7 Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) Cons
8 David Taylor (North West Leicestershire) Lab
9 Graham Allen (Nottingham North) Lab
10 Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth North) Lab
11 Mark Tami (Alyn & Deeside) Lab
12 Norman Baker (Lewes) Lib Dem
13 Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) Cons
14 David Hamilton (Midlothian) Lab
15 Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) Lab
16 John Grogan (Selby) Lab
17 Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) Lab
18 Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) Lab
19 Bob Russell (Colchester) Lib Dem
20 Barbara Keeley (Worsley) Lab)

Friday 13 April 2007

Congratulations, Senator Stevens, but....

while the Senator from Alaska has become the longest serving Republican Senator (that is as a Republican - in total service Senator Thurmond exceeds him, but he served some of his 47 years in the Senate as a Democrat)

Senator Stevens has a long way to go to catch up with the long serving Democrats. If President pro tempore of the Senate, Robert Byrd were to announce his retirement today [unlikely - he was re-elected for 6 years just last November] - then Senator Stevens would need to serve beyond 3rd April 2017 to pass Senator Byrd's record. He would then be over 93 years old! But Senators Kennedy and Inouye are still ahead!

The days served are:-

Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.)* 17632 days
Strom Thurmond (D/R-S.C.) 17335 days
Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)* 16228 days
Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)* 16171 days
Carl T. Hayden (D-Ariz.) 15281 days
John Stennis (D-Miss.) 15035 days
Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)* 13989 days
Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) 13935 days
Richard Russell (D-Ga.) 13888 days
Russell Long (D-La.) 13882 days

* -- Still servingSource: Senate Historian

Thursday 12 April 2007

www.washminster.com is live

The promised companion site http://www.washminster.com is now up and running. Please feel free to visit; send me your feedback; recommend to friends; link on your website....


Local Elections

On this side of the Atlantic there is election fever (OK, I exaggerate, turnout will probably be appalling, but there is much activity!). The first Thursday in May is the nearest equivalent Britain has to "the Tuesday following the first Monday of November" in the USA.

Of course General Elections are held whenever the Queen dissolves Parliament (on advise from the Prime Minister) - and European Elections are usually held in June, but elections to local authorities, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are held every four years on the first Thursday in May. Some local authorities elect all their members every fourth year - as in Harborough District Council and Blaby District Council (both have elections in 2007) and the County Councils (2005, 2009...); while some elect one third every year, with the year of County elections as the year "off". Rugby Borough Council follows this pattern. [Note - a Borough Council is a 'District Council' by function - but for historic reasons it has the privilege of calling itself a Borough Council - similarly its presiding officer is a 'Mayor' whereas normally District Councils merely have a 'Chair'].

Elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are held every four years - 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011...

The Proper Roles of Congress and the Presidency

"Members of Congress are not simply potted plants, though the White House apparently would like them to be. Congress plays an important role in determining policy and providing funding for America's international policies. It is important for us to get first-hand information on these critical issues facing our nation, because as we have unfortunately seen, we cannot rely on the Administration to give us accurate and untainted information." - Representative Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

There are a number of fundamental struggles going on between the Presidency and Congress at the moment - and they are not just about the inevitable conflict between a Republican Executive and a Democratic Party controlled Congress.

Congressman Lantos' remarks come after sustained criticism of leaders of Congress by the administration for meeting foreign leaders. Is foreign policy the exclusive preserve of the President? What are your views?

The controversy over the firing of attorneys has now entered a new phase. Subpoenas have been issued - and the President is asserting 'executive privilege'.

Recess appointments are a third example of the current struggle between the two branches.

Things are certainly getting interesting in Washington these days. Your observations would be appreciated by myself, and the community who follow this blog.

Wednesday 11 April 2007

Recess Appointments - What should the Senate do?

The row about the use of Recess Appointments (see blog entry for April 6th) is hotting up. The Senate is back [It met on Tuesday April 10th from 10.00 to 20.02 - for the Congressional Daily Digest visit http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/dailydigest] - and angry Democrats are looking at an effective strategy to respond.

Roll Call reports that they may be considering a two pronged strategy

[1] Shortening Recesses further. Reid had cut the length of recesses, partly to stop recess appointments. That didn't work, as last week Bush ignored the tradition that no recess appointments are made during breaks of less than 10 days. The speculation is that a shortened August recess won't stop, but will make more difficult, attempts to push through such appointments in the summer.

[2] Blocking further nominations - making the point that ploys like last weeks are ultimately self defeating. The functioning of the system requires both the Legislature and the Executive to cooperate. If the President tries to ignore the wishes of Congress, then he can't expect that cooperation.

I recommend the article by Norman Ornstein in Roll Call (I have a great deal of respect for him, and his columns and books are always worth reading). The full article can be found at


He concludes -

"So what is a Congress to do? The only answer is to use its own powers to make clear to the president that there is a cost, and a serious one, to such behavior. Of course, the Senate can block other presidential nominees, but that kind of hostage-taking or revenge killing would mean further damaging the already fragile nomination process and discouraging good people from service.

The more tempting course is to use the power of the purse. Mr. Fox may find he can serve in Belgium, but there are lots of ways to make his tour of duty unpleasant, including cutting off funds for his residence. And there are ways to make White House operations more difficult without cutting essential services. I hate to see this kind of interbranch warfare. But it is time to put some limits on a presidential abuse of power that has gone way too far."

Feeling Hungry?

I'm very much in favour of 'Open Government'. Citizens should have a right to know what's going on within the institutions. Roll Call is presenting some particularly interesting morsels of information - the menus from restaurants within the Congressional buildings.

Check out whats on offer in

The Senate Restaurant http://www.rollcall.com/dining/senate_menu.html

Rayburn Cafeteria (House) http://www.rollcall.com/dining/house_menu.html

Tuesday 10 April 2007

Companion on its way

I spent the British Bank Holiday working on a companion website to this blog. It will provide full links to business in all four chambers in the two legislatures. In addition it will link to sites which explain practice and procedure. I hope you will find the site a useful aid to following events at Westminster and Washington - and an inexhaustible source of information about how and why they operate.

I'm hoping that the site will go live by the end of this week. The web address will be


Monday 9 April 2007

Seating in Committees - Westminster & Congress

From the Washington Post - 9th April

"In a seating arrangement reminiscent of boy-girl, boy-girl, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic-turned-independent senator from Connecticut, has mixed things up on the committee dais."

UK Select committees often sit around the horseshoe shaped table [In contrast to Public Bill Committees (formerly 'Standing Committees') - where the Government sides opposite the Opposition in a mini-version of the full chamber] - without segregation according to party.

I have often taken students to Westminster to see Select Committees - unless they recognise the MPs - they often can't tell who represents each party. One of the reasons for this mixing of members, and the bipartisan reports - is that in the Westminster system, backbenchers have learnt that majority/minority reports can easily be ignored by the Government.


It's a holiday weekend both sides of the Atlantic - so I'm relaxing by indulging in a little bit of reading and watching DVDs. The subject - the settlement of Jamestown, which occured 400 years ago.

First of all I watched the episode in Alistair Cooke's excellent history of America. As well as pointing out the significance of Jamestown as the first permanent European settlement in America - he drew attention to the fact that a few years later, the first representative body in America, the House of Burgesses of Virginia, met in the church.

There's a lot of information on the internet. Of course the main site is http://www.jamestown2007.org/. I was very interested to read of the conference which will be held this week on the "Rule of Law" - http://ruleoflaw.richmond.edu/ This will bring together British and American lawyers to discuss a most important topic.

We'll be celebrating the anniversary in England too - for further details visit http://www.beginyouradventure.co.uk/

Friday 6 April 2007

Dodd challenges legality of latest 'recess appointment'

The US Constitution allows the President to "fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session." (Art 2 Section 2 Clause 3). This seems to be an exception to the general principle that "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate (he) shall appoint ambassadors..."

President Bush's use of recess appointments has been controversial, even if it is not unconstitutional - but the withdrawing of Sam Fox's nomination to be Ambassador to Belgium when it faced likely defeat in the Senate; followed by the recess appointment days later in a short recess has angered many. Senator Dodd has made the following statement

“It is outrageous that the President has sought to stealthily appoint Sam Fox to the position of ambassador to Belgium when the President formally requested that the Fox nomination be withdrawn from the Senate because it was facing certain defeat in the Foreign Relations Committee last week. I seriously question the legality of the President's use of the recess appointment authority in this instance. I intend to seek an opinion on the legality of this appointment from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and invite other Senators to join with me in that request. This is underhanded and an abuse of Executive authority -- sadly this behavior has become the hallmark of this administration.”

This will be an interesting story to follow!

Thursday 5 April 2007

Where There's A Cause There's A Caucus

There's an interesting article in today's Washington Post (A15 for readers of the hardcopy version ) which can be found at


by Zachary A Goldfarb - on Congressional caucuses, or as they are technically known - 'Congressional Member Organizations'. I recommend the Article.

On the Eastern side of the Atlantic we have a similar type of group - known as an 'All Party Parliamentary Group'. Perhaps not surprisingly for Britain it is said that the largest one is the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group. (Zachary Goldfarb mentioned the popularity of the Congressional Wine Caucus). The British-American Parliamentary Group is one of the most popular. It's purpose is described as

"To promote friendly relations and mutual understanding between members of Congress and Members of Parliament [which includes Members of the House of Lords]; to arrange for the exchange of visits and information; and to provide opportunities for discussion."

A recent notice on the parliamentary intranet invited members to apply to be a member of the two person delegation represting the UK Parliament at the 400th Anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

In Britain APPGs are usually classified into Subject Groups and Country Groups. Registration is compulsory for any group which has members from more than one political party -and which has at least one officer sitting in the House of Commons.

Details of the rules - and the registration details of APPGs as at 14th March 2007 can be found at:


Wednesday 4 April 2007

1992 Rerun

Re-live the 1992 experience (not a happy one for non-Tories) - BBC Parliament is rebroadcasting its election night coverage on Easter Monday

9am-10.40pm (British Summer Time) - Washington DC 4am - 5.40pm

If you are not in the UK and can't get BBC Parliament the programme is webcast at -


The Veto

President Bush has said "If either the House or Senate version of this bill [The emergency supplemental spending bill] comes to my desk, I will veto it."

In the United Kingdom there is no veto. A bill is signed into law by the Queen giving the "Royal Assent". In theory she could refuse to sign - but this was last done in 1708, when Queen Anne refused her Assent to a Bill for settling the Militia in Scotland. Three hundred years on the view is that she cannot, by convention, refuse the Royal Assent. Executive power now rests with the Prime Minister and Cabinet - but as they control parliament (an assertion I will explain in a forthcoming blog), they can ensure that no bill gets through parliament - so the veto power is irrelevant.

President Bush has not used the constitutionally established veto power (US Constitution
Article 1 Section 7) very much - though faced for the first time with both Houses of Congress in opposition hands - he may be going into overdrive!

A very interesting article on the veto power can be found at

Tuesday 3 April 2007

Legislatures' Role is to oversee War Spending

"Vice President Dick Cheney said in Birmingham on Monday that the Democratic-controlled Congress must learn there is only one commander in chief, and he lives in the White House. "

Long before the American Declaration of Independence - the British Parliament had fought its most important battle with the King. At the heart of the struggle between Parliament and the monarch in the first half of the seventeenth century - was the issue of funding for war. Charles I tried to ignore Parliament, and eventually declared war on it! The result was the English Civil War.

While the monarchy was eventually invited to return - the principle was established that while the Monarch is the Commander in Chief (as the Queen still is) - and the decision to go to war is a matter of the Royal Prerogative - it was parliament's right to fund, or not to fund, a war.

What would the founding fathers have made of Vice-President's Cheney's outburst? They clearly gave Congress the right to declare war; they gave Congress control of the purse strings. They knew their parliamentary history - surely they didn't expect the President to have the right that even the English King had been stripped of.

What do you think? Your comments are appreciated.