When debates run long In the South Dakota Legislature, there’s a parliamentary device to end the chatter and move to a vote.
It’s called “moving the previous question’’ or “calling the question,’’ a fairly common bit of legislative procedure. It didn’t take me long as a Capitol news reporter to see the value of having a way to say, “Move along, folks, nothing more to say here.’’
The way it works in South Dakota is this: Someone weary of the debate rises, gets the attention of the presiding officer (the Speaker of the House or President of the Senate) and says, “Call the question.’’ If the motion is supported, debate ends and the issue goes to a vote. Quite often, the legislators are relieved, because they’ve said all there is to say and sometimes much more.
My favorite memory of the use of that device occurred in 1971 or 1972 when Don Osheim from Watertown was speaker. I can’t recall the bill. It wasn’t a major one, but for some reason it had taken over the House, and debate ran an hour or longer. Eventually, new arguments had been exhausted and so had the Speaker’s patience.
When a legislator finished adding nothing new to the debate, a dozen others leaped to their feet. “Ooh, ooh, me next,’’ they seemed to say. Osheim ignored them. Instead, he recognized a legislator sitting at a desk in the back row of the chamber. This lawmaker, who generally knew how he’d vote on most issue without hearing a lot of debate, was passing the time with a fishing magazine. He was startled to hear his name called, but he stood, grabbed his microphone and said, “Mr. Speaker, I call the question.’’ He sat down and went back to his magazine while the House ended its debate and voted on the bill.
I saw only a few legislators reading magazines in my early years as a reporter in the Capitol. Many read newspapers during floor sessions, though, and they often smoked as they read. In the 1970s, many — not all but many — legislators smoked. Lobbyists, employees and visitors did, too, in the halls and galleries, in committee rooms and on the floors of the House and Senate. Cigarettes were everywhere. Cigars were always around. A fair number of lawmakers even had the stump of a pipe held tight in their teeth, with the smoke encircled their heads like a wreath.
It was pretty common in those days for lawmakers to skim through stacks of daily newspapers as they listened to debate and waited to vote. Generally, they were listening, even if it didn’t appear so. Visitors, school students especially on their annual government class trips to the Legislature, often sat in the gallery, leaning on the brass railing, laughing and pointing at the lawmakers who read the papers and smoked cheap cigars or filtered cigarettes. The smoke drifted slowly up and up. If you looked at the ceiling of the House or Senate in the late hours of a long afternoon of lawmaking, you’d see a gray cloud hanging like fog over the river on a sub-zero day.
Making the Capitol a smoke-free place was both good public health policy and a step forward in visitor perception of elected leaders.
Newspapers appeared less often on legislative desks after members received laptop computers. I recall walking through the Senate gallery once and seeing a group of high-school students leaning over the rail and laughing at a senator who was playing a video game on his laptop.
I also remember being in the Senate late one evening after senators had left for the day. Legislative pages talked as they updated bill books and journals. It was the first year of legislative laptops, and one page said she had to show a senator how to access his email. The guy had hundreds and hundreds of unread messages, she said.
“What did he do?’’ asked another page.
“He said to delete them because he’d never get around to reading them all,’’ the first page said.
I guess that was kind of a high-tech version of calling the question.