But more often than not, legislation is stalled and the Senate spends considerable time in quorum calls – quiet periods when there is no visible floor action while senators work out their disagreements in the background.
Quorum calls can last for minutes or hours, leaving the presiding officer to his or her devices to overcome the dull lull.
“I always had a book,” said former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.
To encourage presiders, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., and Senate Secretary Francis Valeo in the late 1960s came up with the Golden Gavel, a prize presented to senators who logged 100 hours in the president’s chair during a single session of Congress.
Gorton, a senator from 1981 to 2001, is the chamber’s iron man with a hard-to-break record six Golden Gavels, according to Ritchie’s office. Gorton insists that he has seven.
“I found it to be an interesting way to hear from my colleagues, so I was a happy volunteer,” he said.
On his way to collecting the gavels, Gorton tried to become so proficient in Senate rules and procedures that he wouldn’t have to lean on the parliamentarian.
“I very much liked the parliamentarian, but whenever I could I tried to get ahead of what he told me to do,” he said.
Former Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., who filled Barack Obama’s seat after he became president, was only in office 22 months, but he made sure to earn two Golden Gavels before returning to Chicago.
“Absolutely, they’re on display in my den right now,” Burris said. “I showed them to my college classmate from Howard University law school recently. He said ‘Wow, is that real gold?’”
On the House side of the Capitol, presiding officers are recruited and selected by the speaker’s office.
Boehner has a corps of nearly 30 House Republicans who are capable of handling legislative floor activity. That bench shrinks if bills are particularly tricky, and to about a dozen if especially politically contentious legislation hits the floor.
That go-to team includes Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
“This is the U.S. House of Representatives, anybody who has the privilege of presiding and hearing different people debate on different things, that in and of itself is a plus,” Hastings said. “I’ve always been one that likes presiding, back to my high school . . . so it sort of comes naturally to me.”
Newer House members interested in presiding have to perform off-Broadway before getting a prime-time spot at the rostrum.
They are given the gavel during low-pressure periods of the legislative day such as morning business, when members line up and deliver one-minute speeches to a largely empty House chamber. Those who pass muster are slowly worked into presiding rotation and given more challenging assignments.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has made the leap from one-minutes to regular floor action.
“I wanted to do it to better prepare me for the debate side of things,” said Meadows, a freshman. “It’s something you can’t take lightly. It’s been a learning experience for me.”