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It seems like bills are only put up for vote when the votes for and against are known beforehand. So, does it matter what they debate about during the actual sessions of congress? Is it purely for show? Or is it for their constituencies?

Another way of asking my question might be this: are any members of congress actually persuaded by the speeches of other members?

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Floor speeches are for the constituencies, for the judiciary to understand the reasoning behind the passage of a bill, and sometimes for other audiences (e.g. foreign audiences or large-dollar political donors).

After visiting and seeing the largely empty chamber floors during debate, I had the same question as your second phrasing: "Are any members of congress actually persuaded by the speeches of other members?" So I asked someone who might know: a member of congress who's been serving for decades. He said that he couldn't think of any example from all his years of service where he's even heard of that happening. He then told a story about a very emotional (and well-attended) speech given by one member about the personal effects of something they were voting on, which was quite touching and there might not have been a dry eye in the chamber, but he said "I don't think it changed a single vote." He then gave the answer in my first paragraph above.

Congresspeople are apparently expected to know how they are going to vote before a bill comes up for a vote. Congresspeople are busy meeting with constituents, committees, lobbyists, donors, etc. and taking care of other work much of the time when floor speeches are happening, so a lot of the time they don't even hear the speeches. Sometimes, if they have the floor speeches on the TV in their offices as they're working and they hear some claim (e.g. "Bill X requires Y") that is especially surprising or interesting, they might ask their staff to look into it and find out if that's true.

Congresspeople also rely heavily on their colleagues who are on the committees that go through bills in greater depth, to help them understand bills and the pros and cons thereof. Party/caucus leadership can also be influential in persuading members about how to vote. However, most of those conversations happen on the side or outside of the chamber. There so many other factors that go into deciding how to vote on a bill, which carry far more weight than "what other congresspeople said on the floor," that the latter factor is relatively unimportant.

Short answer to your second phrasing: Generally, no.

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As you pointed out, the votes are mostly known beforehand.

The reason for that is that the arguments that will be given have already been discussed most of the time, and some negotiation happened before the voting and speeches.

Answering to your question, then, the main reason for those speeches is to let the people know the arguments that the members have had in order for the others to cast their vote. In other words, they are not giving that speech to convince the rest of the chamber, who have already made a decision, but for the people to know why they voted as they did.

You should keep in mind that the press is present, and that what happens in the Congress floor is in the public domain, though it isn't what the congressmen negotiate in private; that's why we need to know the grounds for their decisions.

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    While likely correct, is there some evidence that this is indeed that case? – user4012 May 11 '15 at 13:11
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I don't know about the US specifically but the courts can take parliamentary debates into account if an interpretation difficulty arises later on. The parties might even submit some of the arguments made in favour or against specific amendments or for a whole statute to bolster their case. That's not necessarily the main reason why members of parliament bother with it in the first place but it's one way in which what was said can sometimes matter and also an additional reason to make the debates part of the public record.

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    Courts do this in the US as well, at least to some extent. – cpast May 17 '15 at 15:46

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