FOR 40 YEARS, Rep. William Natcher never missed a roll call. The Kentucky Democrat cast his first vote as a member of the US House of Representatives on Jan. 21, 1954, beginning what turned out to be an unbroken string of 18,401 consecutive votes.
The string snapped earlier this month. To cast votes 18,398 through 18,401, Natcher -- now 84 and gravely ill -- had to be wheeled into the House on a hospital gurney, hooked up to IV tubes and oxygen. The ordeal exhausted the old man; he couldn't repeat it. When the House reconvened next day and members were summoned for a procedural vote, Natcher -- for the first time since the early Eisenhower years -- wasn't on hand.
That day, the president visited Natcher in hospital to bestow a medal upon him. His colleagues gave him a standing ovation in absentia. Speaker Thomas Foley paid tribute to "a record I believe will stand forever."
It probably will. But Natcher's amazing voting streak is more than just the measure of one congressman's obsessive dedication to perfect attendance. It is also a graph that tracks the deepening meaninglessness of House votes over the past generation. Natcher reportedly feels dejected that his lifetime voting average will no longer be 1.000, but he shouldn't. Voting in the House is no longer something to be proud of.
To understand why, you need to wade into the arcana of House procedure. Beware: The reek is overpowering.
The place has gone rotten. Check-kiting scandals and drug dealing in the House Post Office are part of it, but it is the legislative process itself that has been most degraded. The House has become an oligarchy -- an institution where unfairness is entrenched and democracy is almost unknown. The degeneration of the House may or may not have had an effect on Natcher's health; it would certainly have made James Madison sick.
In Natcher's younger days, roll calls mattered. If you studied your member's votes, you knew his positions. And votes directly shaped public policy; congressmen knew that real stakes, affecting real people, were riding on their yeas and nays.
Not any more. "Twenty years ago," says Jerome Climer, president of the Congressional Institute, "when important bills came to the floor, they were debated and amended. Legislation was often changed before the roll call. The debates could make a difference. Now it's just a mechanical process where the outcome is known in advance."
What has died can be summed up in a word: deliberation.
Example: It was once normal to set aside six or more hours for debate before voting on a major bill. Now, two hours are routine -- and the "debate" is little more than brief set pieces delivered to a near-empty chamber.
Example: House rules require bills to be available three days before a vote. Today, that rule is nearly always ignored. The massive Clinton tax bill of 1993 ran to more than 3,000 pages. Yet representatives could not see the text until just 12 hours before the vote. Any member intent on reading what he was about to vote on would have had to suck down 250 pages per minute.
But for turning votes on the House floor into antidemocratic farces, nothing has matched the rise of the "restrictive rule."
All major bills come to the floor of the House accompanied by a special rule, crafted by the House Rules Committee and adopted by majority vote, that sets forth the conditions under which the bill will be taken up. For 180 years, "open" rules were commonplace -- that is, House members could offer any amendment that was germane to the measure being considered. Closed or restrictive rules -- those allowing members to vote on only a few amendments, pre-selected by the leadership -- were rare.
In the 1977-'78 Congress, Tip O'Neill's first as speaker, 85 percent of all rules were open. In the current Congress, only 21 percent have been. What a shock it must have been to the 110 lawmakers elected in 1992 to find that they had no power to legislate -- to actually shape the laws put before them for approval.
Not that you have to be a freshmen to be disgusted.
"It's rigged," said Rep. Tim Penny, a Minnesota Democrat, in a conversation last week. "Closed rules deny a fair fight. Votes are meaningless. The leadership can stop any measure from being debated by denying it under the rule. They predetermine the outcome by manipulating the options."
Try explaining to constituents that you weren't allowed to vote for something. "If the people don't understand it, they don't know how to change it. That makes them feel alienated and angry. It's having a very corrosive effect."
Too corrosive for Penny. After 12 years in Congress, this staunch Democrat is packing it in, fed up with the way his party's leaders are misruling the House.
"The top leaders . . . have been here so long they can't imagine doing it any differently," he says. "They've blinded themselves to the insidious and destructive changes that have taken place. They have more influence and power under the system they've created. Why would they want to change?"
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)