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While researching a recent Twitter/Facebook Fact-of-the-Day post, I came across a notation in the Congressional Globe (similar to today’s Congressional Record) that I hadn’t encountered before. In 1867, the administration negotiated and the Senate approved a treaty to purchase Alaska from Russia. The House didn’t approve an appropriation for the purchase until 1868, however; as I looked at the records from July 14, 1868, I noticed a series of comments from Members stating that they were “paired” with another Member and giving the votes of each person in the pair.

Pairs? At first it sounds more like a setup for card playing or dancing, but it turns out to be a relative of the vote-swapping that American voters have sometimes negotiated during recent presidential elections. In this case, it’s a way for Members of Congress, especially absent Members, to place into the official record how they would have voted had they been on site.  Until 1999, three types of pairs were recognized (one person present, one absent; both absent; or only names, not preferred votes, listed in the record). These are informal agreements between specific Members who generally are on opposite sides of the issue, and they are understood to be acceptable only when they do not affect the outcome of the vote.

Currently, the only form that remains in use in the House is what was known as a “live pair.” At specified moments, a Member may vote “present” on the floor and note that he or she is paired with an absent Member. Then the Member can note how each person would have voted. Such an occurrence is rare now, with Members instead choosing to make similar arrangements among themselves without taking the formal step of announcing the pairing for the record. Most Members prefer to use non-pair options for placing their preferred vote in the official record even when they are absent.

USCHS President Ron Sarasin says that when he was in office in the 1970s, staffers would set up the pairings between Members. USCHS volunteer Jay Pierson was one of those staffers when the practice was more common: “It [pairing] was done by Floor staff who would either talk to a Member or Members about it or call the Members’ offices. Of course if there were an odd number of Members wishing to be paired, someone would be left out!”

Notice in the Congressional Globe about pairings on the appropriations vote.

Notice in the Congressional Globe about pairings on the appropriations vote.

In case you’re curious, in 1868, the pairings in the House on the Alaska appropriations vote were:

Robert Van Horn (Republican from MO) was paired with Cadwallader Washburn (Republican from WI)–Halbert Paine of WI announced the pairing and noted that Washburn would have voted no. (More of a “specific pair” than any other kind, since both were absent.)

Dennis McCarthy (Republican from NY) announced that he would have voted “no” and that he was paired with John Pruyn (Democrat from NY), who would have voted “ay.”

Benjamin Boyer (Democrat from PA) announced that he was paired with George Washington Woodward (Democrat from PA) and that Woodward would have voted “ay” while he himself would have voted “no.”

Anyone recall a more recent example of pairing occurring in either the House or the Senate? Former staffer Pierson can only recall one live pair being done during his 35 years working on the House floor.

Works Consulted
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Congressional Globe, 40th Cong., 2nd Sess. 4055 (1868). (View the page cited)

Davis, Christopher M. Pairing in Congressional Voting: The House. Congressional Research Service, 2015.

Hass, Karen L. Rules of the House of Representatives, 114th Congress. Page 33 (Rule 20).

Primary Documents in American History (Treaty with Russia for the Purchase of Alaska), Library of Congress, accessed April 5, 2016.