NRCC Policy Primer: 4 1/2 Times “The West Wing” Got it Wrong on Congressional Procedure
I’m not going to lie, I love The West Wing. But after reading BuzzFeed’s 18 Things “The West Wing” Got Wrong earlier this year, I realized that it was time to come to terms with the show’s flaws.
Most of the time the show was at least somewhat accurate when it came to D.C. jargon, process and procedure. But there were a few times throughout the show’s run they just plain got it wrong on the legislative process and terminology.
First, the boring part. There are essentially four principal forms of legislation that can be introduced in Congress: the bill, the joint resolution, the concurrent resolution, and the simple resolution. None of these are interchangeable and they all have very different purposes.
Bills – A bill is the form used for most legislation, whether permanent or temporary, general or special, public or private. A bill originating in the House of Representatives is designated by the letters “H.R.”, which stands for “House of Representatives,” followed by a number that it retains throughout all its parliamentary stages in a particular Congress. Similarly “S.” is the designation for bills that originated in the Senate. In general, the numbers are given out in order. So when you see “H.R. 2468” that means that there were 2,467 bills that were introduced in the House before it. Bills are presented to the president for action when approved in identical form by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Bills become law.
Joint Resolutions – Joint resolutions can originate either in the House of Representatives or in the Senate. A joint resolution originating in the House of Representatives is designated “H.J.Res.” followed by its individual number. There is little practical difference between a bill and a joint resolution. Both are subject to the same procedure, except for a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution. On approval of a Constitutional amendment resolution by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, it is sent directly to the Administrator of General Services for submission to the individual states for ratification. It is not presented to the president for approval. Other joint resolutions are signed by the President and become law in the same manner as bills.
Concurrent Resolutions – Matters affecting the operations of both the House of Representatives and Senate are usually initiated by means of concurrent resolutions. A concurrent resolution originating in the House of Representatives is designated “H.Con.Res.” followed by its individual number. On approval by both the House of Representatives and Senate, they are signed by the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. They are not presented to the president for action. They do not become law.
Simple Resolutions – A matter concerning the operation of either the House of Representatives or Senate alone is initiated by a simple resolution. A resolution affecting the House of Representatives is designated “H.Res.” followed by its number. A resolution affecting the Senate is designated “S.Res.” followed by its number.They are not presented to the president for action. They do not become law. Examples range from setting debate rules to expressing the sense of Congress on a particular matter, such as honoring an individual.
Ok, lesson over. Why did I go through all that? Well, first, you should know this stuff and now you’re a better citizen for it. Secondly, The West Wing was constantly getting this wrong. What am I talking about? I’ll show you.
1 – From the Season 1 Episode, “Five Votes Down”
In the episode, Presidential Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (the late, great John Spencer) needs five more House votes to pass a bill restricting the sale of automatic firearms. He has to go to the unpredictable Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) to help put them over the top. Hoynes starts talking to former Senate colleagues and says this:
Which is why I’d like very much for you to do the following, Cal. I want you to vote yes on the resolution.
Nope. Wrong. The VP, who in the show is a former Senator, should know that “resolutions” don’t become law, and a new gun law is what they’re talking about in the episode, so that’s just silly.
2 – From the Season 2 Episode, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen Part 1”
In a flashback, Leo McGarry goes to visit Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) on the Hill, who in the flashback is still on the Senate staff of then-Senator John Hoynes. This exchange happens:
I hope you don’t mind I didn’t make an appointment. I’m trying to fly under the radar a little.
Of course, I don’t mind, but the senator just went down for the 404 vote.
It’s probably the annual vote override to veto on the resolution to ship nuclear wastes to Nevada.
It won’t pass.
No kidding, indeed, Josh! Ugh. This one is a mess. Again with the misuse of the word “resolution”. A Senate resolution wouldn’t go to a President for his signature because it can’t become law. Since it can’t go to the President for his signature, it can’t be vetoed by the President…therefore there can’t be a vote to override a Presidential veto on a resolution. Secondly, we’re clearly talking about a bill here: legislation regarding the shipment of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This would not be a resolution, which is a sense of Congress. It’s just all wrong.
3 – From the Season 3 Episode, “On the Day Before”
Right at the beginning of the episode.
Mr. President, I have House Resolution 10, the Death Tax Elimination Act. It bears the signatures of both the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, and is presented to you by the Congress of the United States for your signature or veto.
No. Stop it. These people are all supposed to be professionals. “H.R.” does not stand for “House Resolution” it stands for “House of Representatives” or where the bill originated. So, stop doing that, you should know better!
4 – From the Season 3 episode, “H. Con-172”
OK, first off, what is that? The show’s title is just wrong. “H. Con-172” doesn’t mean anything. That literally reads “House Concurrent One hundred and Seventy Two”. That isn’t a thing.
Second, this exchange happens later in the episode:
We’re willing to end the hearings right now.
And his testimony?
His testimony, the First Lady’s, the balance of the witness list, the
We’re willing to end them right now.
In exchange for?
A joint resolution. H.R. 172.
Yeah. A resolution condemning the President for lying to…
He didn’t lie.
…condemning the President for lying to the American people.
So, in addition to the title of the show being completely wrong, a joint resolution would not have an H.R. in front of it. It would instead be “H. J. Res. 172”.
But even that type of bill in this case would be wrong. At least in this episode, President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) saves the day by correcting everyone later…
As a matter of fact, it’s not a Joint Resolution. The President still has to sign a Joint Resolution so, technically, it’s a Concurrent Resolution. House Concurrent Resolution 172. The lawyers will haggle over the wording in the next few days. So, at least I’ll make history, huh?
There you go, Mr. President! Smarty Pants…
1/2 – From the Season 3 Episode, “100,000 Airplanes”
Late last night, early this morning, the President reached an agreement with the Leadership to accept a Congressional Censure.
How’s he feeling?
Fine. It’s over.
Yeah. A Concurrent Resolution, actually. It’ll take a couple of days for the lawyers to get together on the language.
This one only counts as 1/2 because it’s just Sam making the mistake… But come on Seaborn, get it together! You’re well into your boss’ first term! You should know this!
And a bonus, from the Season 1 Episode of “Mr. Willis of Ohio”
Toby (Richard Schiff) and Mandy (Moira Kelly) work to convince some congressmen — including the nervous Mr. Willis (Al Fann), who assumed his late wife’s office — to approve a commerce bill that includes a vital census-counting provision. Fine, no problems here. But then…
Come on, Toby. Sit down.
I just want to watch this.
We won it 40 votes ago.
I just want to hear this one.
ROLL CALL [on T.V.]
Mr. Widen. Mr. Widen of Pennsylvania votes yea… Mr. Wilder. Mr. Wilder of South Carolina votes yea… Mr. Willis. Mr. Willis of Ohio votes yea.
Toby lets out a sigh of relief as the roll call continues.
Has no one involved in this show ever watched CSPAN? That’s not how they vote in the House. They don’t vote in alphabetical order by Roll Call. That’s the Senate…if they even get around to voting. In the House, they vote all at once, electronically.
And while we’re at it don’t get me started on Ainsley Hayes’ supposedly “horrible” office in the Steam Trunk Pipe Distribution Venue of the The West Wing’s White House…
Leo McGarry: It’s written down here. This is the steam pipe trunk distribution venue.
Ainsley Hayes: I’m working in the steam pipe trunk distribution venue?
Leo McGarry: No, you’re working in your office.
… it’s still larger and nicer than any office I ever had on the Hill.
At the end of the day, The West Wing is a wonderful show. It’s an artistic interpretation trying to make sense of all the madness of Washington…but it doesn’t give it the excuse to get the basics wrong.