Major debates on the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives are increasingly rare. This is not by accident.
Leaders in both chambers do all they can to prohibit arguing between legislators when bills are brought to a vote. The House precludes debate by adopting closed rules before voting on a bill. Said rules limit debate to mere minutes and forbid legislators from offering amendments. The Senate achieves much the same by operating under unanimous consent agreements, wherein the majority leader gets each senator to agree to not speak on the legislation to be voted upon, and to forgo the ability to offer amendments.
How it came to be that some of the most garrulous of all Americans — politicians — agreed not to debate is a long, complicated story.
Partly, it is an adaptation to the presence of television cameras. What person who has to run for reelection wants to admit that someone from the other party has a stronger point, and then, heaven forbid, accept a change to a bill?
Partly, the present situation also is an adaptation to the intense conflict between the political parties and attendant mutual distrust. Over the past 30 years, partisan control of the chambers has shifted back and forth between Democrats and Republicans at a rate not seen since the period immediately after the Civil War. Whomever is the majority wants to defend their majority and therefore views honest debate as threatening. The leader of the majority party does not want to have a vote on legislation fail, let amendments be offered, or even permit the expression of views for fear they might make his or her party look bad before the public eye. Party leaders’ desire to manage public opinion, which is a bit of a fool’s errand, trumps the responsibilities of governance.