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What’s to Blame for Senate Obstruction?

While the recent Senate rules reforms are modest, they are important steps to ensure the Senate is a functioning, legislating body. But what comes next?

  • Diana Lee
February 5, 2011

Last week, Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced a handshake agreement aimed at curbing obstruction and increasing transparency in the Senate. While these reforms are modest, they are important steps to ensure the Senate is a functioning, legislating body. But what comes next? Changes in procedure must be followed by a change in culture – not just of the Senate, but also of the public to hold senators accountable for their actions.

The chicken-and-egg relationship between Senate rules and Senate culture is a complicated one. Some argue, as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), has during a Senate Rules Committee hearing on the filibuster, that the rules are not the problem. Instead, lack of comity is to blame for legislative gridlock. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said it plainly: “The Senate needs to change its behavior, not to change its rules.” In this view, a rules change would be fruitless because the real problem is that of a Senate cultural decline. Others, such as Norm Ornstein, acknowledge that while changes in the culture would surely affect the Senate’s daily proceedings, we must change the rules that incentivize obstruction and partisan games.

No matter what we blame for the Senate’s current state of dysfunction—its rules or its culture—it is clear both are flawed and both contribute to the chamber’s flawed operation. Rules can shape culture and vice versa. And just because the problem might originate in Senate behavior, that doesn’t mean that rules reform can’t be an effective way of fixing the situation. We may not be able to pass a resolution that forbids senators from placing a blanket hold on all pending nominations for reasons completely unrelated to the nominees. But lowering the number of executive appointments needing Senate confirmation might reduce the incentive to do so.

Last week’s agreement was an attempt to address Senate culture through changed procedures without going as far as an official rules change. Senate leadership publicly pledged to not use the so-called Constitutional Option to affect a rules change via majority vote at the start of a new Congress. They also agreed to refrain from filibustering on the motion to proceed and to use the tactic known as “filling the amendment tree” less. These agreements are nothing more than promises; there are no consequences for violating any of these pledges.

Instead, the agreement places the burden of enforcement onto fellow senators, the media, and ultimately, the public. Changes in Senate rules and culture are not the only avenues for reform; the public can and should play a more prominent role to check Senate dysfunction. While there might not be official repercussions for placing an irresponsible blanket hold on nominees, the American public needs to speak up the next time it sees abuse of the Senate’s rules. There is too much work to do in 2011 for the Senate to delay important legislation with the same old stall tactics. We need to let our senators know that it is unacceptable to obstruct progress for individual or party gain and that we will hold them accountable.