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The Story Of Congressional Clocks

February 8, 2016

Without doubt this is the most interesting story of the day.

Look along the top of a Congressional wall clock, and you’ll see seven small light bulbs. Even the fancier clocks in members’ offices have them. From time to time, these will light up in particular sequences, accompanied by loud, long buzzes or series of shorter buzzes. These patterns all have meanings: they’re meant to communicate to people working on the Hill when electronic votes are called, when one chamber or the other is adjourned or in recess, and when members need to think about actually being in the Senate or House chamber.

The actual clock code is a little more complicated than your average end-of-class-or-day system of rings. Some of the signals are simple: on the House side, five bells means a five-minute electronically recorded vote. On the Senate side, one long bell means the Senate is convening.

But the code can get much more complicated, with two bells followed by two lights and then two more bells (a fifteen-minute vote by roll call) and three bells, pause, then five short bells (a 15-minute, in-person quorum call, possibly followed by a vote).

And your average bell systems don’t include a special code for a civil defense warning. That one’s pretty simple actually: 12 bells, plus six lights. That code doesn’t even need much interpretation: with all the noise and flashing lights, something bad is clearly going on.

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