Hoping for New Senate Rules in the New Year

There is one reason to be especially hopeful right now, just days into 2011.  Incredibly enough, the Senate is poised to reform its archaic procedural rules that allow a minority of senators to veto legislative action supported by the majority.  In fact, just weeks ago, all returning Democratic senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid endorsing rules reform as the first priority for the 112th Congress when it convenes on January 5th. 

January 4, 2011

I love the hopeful feeling at the start of a new year.  Briefly, anything seems possible.

There is one reason to be especially hopeful right now, just days into 2011.  Incredibly enough, the Senate is poised to reform its archaic procedural rules that allow a minority of senators to veto legislative action supported by the majority.  In fact, just weeks ago, all returning Democratic senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid endorsing rules reform as the first priority for the 112th Congress when it convenes on January 5th.       

This is very good news.  Over the last decade or so, filibuster abuse has changed the nature of what used to be considered the world’s greatest deliberative body.  To start, rampant use of the filibuster has instituted a de facto 60-vote requirement for ordinary business, contrary to the principle of majority rules that underlies our governmental structure.  And, rather than promoting actual debate on substantive issues, filibusters today are constantly used to prevent debate from ever occurring – often obstructionists seek to thwart all legislative progress, including serious deliberation.  When nothing happens, senators in both parties are allowed to avoid making hard calls on tough decisions, thereby shielding themselves from any kind of political accountability.  What progress does occur is regularly riddled with concessions made to appease individual senators whose votes are needed to reach a supermajority.    

Even worse, the Senate’s dysfunction is uncontainable; it taints the operation of our government as a whole.  Appropriations bills are a prime example. By constitutional design, these bills originate in the House before moving to the Senate for final passage.  Although, year after year, the House submits such measures to the Senate in a timely fashion, the Senate consistently fails to address these bills by deadline, leaving agencies adrift and ineffectual.  As a result, in fiscal year 2010, about 290 billion dollars authorized for nondefense discretionary spending had to be appropriated without legislative guidance – or legal authority.

The Senate’s failure to vote on nominated federal judges constitutes another example.  Under the Constitution, the Senate must confirm or reject the President’s judicial picks.  Last session, however, the Senate simply looked the other way as dozens and dozens of judges languished in confirmation purgatory, even though they were rated “Unanimously Well Qualified” by the American Bar Association.  Albert Diaz, for instance, waited for 409 days before recently being confirmed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals – even though he was ultimately confirmed without any objection.  No wonder Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, decrying the numerous “judicial vacancies in critically overworked districts,” just publicly admonished the Senate to stop playing partisan games and find “a long-term solution to this recurring problem.”        

As more and more Americans are recognizing, the current state of affairs is simply unacceptable.  We elect representatives to address the myriad complex problems faced by 21st century America – indeed, we contribute cherished tax dollars to pay our senators for this very purpose.  For our government to properly function as one “by the people, for the people,” our senators must actually debate important issues and then make decisions.  To accomplish this, the Senate must be governed by fair and equitable rules – like any court proceeding or sporting event. 

Happily, productive ideas of how to curb unprincipled obstruction abound.  To start, there is bipartisan support for outlawing filibusters on a motion to proceed – in other words, to eliminate filibusters that prevent debate entirely.  Similarly, there is widespread agreement that there should be only one opportunity – one bite at the apple, so to speak – to delay a vote on any given measure or nomination.  And, it should be difficult for obstructionists to block action preferred by the majority.  While under current rules, filibustering senators need not even show up to stop the show, many reasonably argue that obstructionists should be forced to actually go out on the Senate floor and debate, with “political courage.”  Ultimately, once all senators have had a reasonable opportunity to express their views, every measure or nomination should be brought to a yes-or-no vote in a timely manner – the way our legislative process is intended to work.      

Without rules reform, we should expect the ever-escalating procedural arms race to continue through both Republican and Democratic rule.  Senate dysfunction is simply not a partisan issue, but one that should concern everyone who is affected by Senate action or inaction – namely, we the people. 

So tomorrow, when the Senate kicks off its first legislative day, here’s hoping that the Senate undertakes robust procedural reform.  Our democracy deserves that fresh start.