Blogs > Cliopatria > William Safire: What Does It Mean to Have an Up-or-Down Vote in the Senate?

Aug 15, 2005 4:40 pm

William Safire: What Does It Mean to Have an Up-or-Down Vote in the Senate?

[T]oday let me deal with the hot modifier or intensifier before vote on Congressional and White House lips: up-or-down and its variant, up-and-down.

Up-and-down, in the 19th century, meant ''plain; direct; unceremonious.'' Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in ''Old-Town Folks'' (1869) that ''Miss Debby was a well-preserved, up-and-down, positive, cheery, sprightly maiden lady.'' (I found this in the Century Dictionary, a 10-volume set published a century ago, an invaluable etymological resource available free on the Internet.)

In 1894, ''Republicans as Obstructionists'' was a New York Times headline over a report of an attempt by Democrats in the House of Representatives, unable to achieve a quorum to vote on contested elections, to order the sergeant-at-arms to arrest 28 absent members. But the speaker of the House, the Democrat Charles Crisp, was frustrated by the lack of a forum to do even that. ''The Republicans will neither agree to let the motion be withdrawn,'' he complained, ''nor to vote it up or down.''

The 21st-century general meaning has become ''decisive.'' About the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court, The Associated Press reported Vice President Dick Cheney to have said, ''The Senate has a duty to give this nominee fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair up or down vote.'' (The hyphenation-resistant A.P. and I disagree about hyphenating up-or-down, used here as a compound adjective.)

There is a more specific meaning in the Senate, however. ''It is an unofficial term for a vote on the question rather than a vote with respect to the question,'' says a helpful parliamentary source who insists on anonymity out of sheer shyness. ''It's the polar opposite of a motion to table.''

What's the difference? Ilona Nickels, author of the C-Span Congressional Glossary, explains: ''A vote on a 'motion to table' is not a vote on an amendment but a vote on whether or not to address it at all. It's that squishy middle that avoids voting on the content and gives politicians a procedural out. You can then say you didn't vote against it; you only voted to table it for now'' -- and perhaps the language will be changed or the issue will disappear.

But what about voting to confirm nominees? ''With nominees, an up-or-down vote means that you don't want anything to block the vote,'' says Don Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate. ''You can't change the language, as in an amendment, because they're people.''

That means an up-or-down vote on substance is roughly synonymous with a recorded yea-or-nay vote, a roll-call vote and -- also in informal usage -- a clean vote. It is distinct from a vote on procedure, like a motion to table, to recommit, to amend an amendment or to end debate in a filibuster.

Even in an up-or-down, yea-or-nay or roll-call (all hyphenated) vote, a senator can avoid taking a stand by voting ''Present.'' However, as noted above, not even a senator can vote to amend a nominee.

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