You can usually tell if someone is new to the Hill by whether they flinch or even break pace in conversation when the buzzers for votes start going. The real pros can tell you what the buzzers mean. For new staff, Members and visitors to Capitol Hill, we thought a POPVOX primer was in order.
For Members of Congress, there is never enough time in any day. They want to take as many constituent meetings, speech invitations, interviews as they can. Caucuses and Committee meetings must go on, despite almost non-stop activity on the House or Senate Floor when the bodies are in session. To accommodate for this, both chambers employ a system of bells (that sound more like buzzers) and lights (on clocks and displays throughout the Capitol Complex) that provide alerts to Members. Almost no one knows what they mean, and you can easily survive life on Capitol Hill without ever having a clue.
Everyone’s schedule is subject to the buzzing of those bells: committee meetings are stopped, constituent meetings delayed. Elevators flash “members only,” and Members scramble through the Capitol Complex tunnels and across Independence and Constitution Avenue like 8-year-olds afraid of getting a tardy slip for class.
For those who have been around a while, the buzzers make perfect sense. For most who come to the Hill in the past few years, it seems a little archaic – couldn’t they just send out an SMS? Text message? Most people don’t automatically know what is going on from the buzzers alone. Whenever the buzzers start, you can usually look around and see everyone reach for their blackberry holsters in unison, as if someone had yelled, “Draw!” They are checking updates from CQ/Roll Call, maybe an email from their party’s leadership, or a heads up from whomever is watching CSPAN back in the office.
But what do the buzzers mean ?
1 Long Bell: Short Quorum Call
1 LONG BELL, PAUSE, 3 BELLS, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT – “ Short quorum call that ends when 100 or more Members are present”
1 LONG BELL, PAUSE, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT EXTINGUISHED – Quorum call is over
2 Bells: Votes
- 2 BELLS, 2 LIGHTS ON LEFT – 15 minute vote by electronic device (bells repeat every 5 minutes after first bell)
- 2 BELLS, 2 LIGHTS ON LEFT, PAUSE, 2 MORE BELLS – 15 minute vote by roll call. (Bells repeat when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.)
- 2 BELLS, PAUSE, 5 MORE BELLS – First vote on clustered votes. (2 bells repeat 5 minutes after the first bell.)
- First vote is a 15-minute vote
- Each successive vote signaled by 5 bells
3 Bells: 15-min Quorum Calls
- 3 BELLS, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT – 15 minute quorum call (Bells repeat 5 minutes after the first bell.)
- 3 BELLS, PAUSE, 3 MORE BELLS – 15 minute quorum call by roll call. (Bells repeat when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.)
- 3 BELLS, PAUSE, 5 MORE BELLS – 15 minute quorum call that may be followed immediately by a five-minute recorded vote.
4 Bells: Adjournment:
- 4 BELLS, 4 LIGHTS ON LEFT – Adjournment of the House
5 Bells: 5-Min Votes
- 5 BELLS, 5 LIGHTS ON LEFT – Any five-minute vote.
6 Bells: Recess
6 BELLS, 6 LIGHTS ON LEFT – Recess of the House.
12 Bells: Warning
- 12 BELLS @ 2-second intervals, 6 LIGHTS ON LEFT – Civil Defense Warning
7th Light: House in Session