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Friday, December 24, 2010

Momentum builds for Senate rules reform

The New York Times published a nice article today about Democratic enthusiasm for Senator Tom Udall's efforts to overhaul the United States Senate's outdated rules, which have been abused to the extreme by the Republican caucus throughout the past two years.

When the Senate reconvenes in early January, Senator Udall plans to introduce a motion calling for the chamber to adopt its rules by majority vote, in keeping with the Constitution, which says that each house of Congress may determine its own rules. The reason Udall hasn't already introduced such a motion is because it could be blocked under the current rules. Udall explains the conundrum:
[T]he rules make any effort to change them a daunting process. Currently, the rules for the Senate continue from one Congress to the next. However, as last modified in 1975, even attempts to change the rules can be filibustered, and in fact require an even greater threshold (two-thirds, or 67 senators) be met than for the regular business of the Senate.

When the authors of the Constitution believed a supermajority vote was necessary, they clearly said so. And while the Constitution states that we may determine our own rules, it makes no mention that it require a supermajority vote to do so. In addition, a longstanding common law principle, upheld in Supreme Court decisions, states that one legislature cannot bind its successors. To require a supermajority to change the rules, as is our current practice, is to allow a Senate rule to trump our U.S. Constitution and bind future Senates. This should not be.
By adopting Udall's motion, the Senate could establish a new precedent that respects our finest traditional values rather than subverting them. Democracy requires majority rule with minority rights. But the Senate rules, as currently written, give a minority the power to block anything from leaving the chamber. That's not democracy.

The filibuster won't be abolished in January, but if the Senate were to adopt its rules by majority vote, that would be a big step forward.

The Fix the Senate Now campaign, which NPI supports, has proposed eight ideas for reforming the chamber's rules. The eighth idea — getting rid of the filibuster — isn't on the table, as I just mentioned, but prospects for the other seven are improving.
  1. On the first legislative day of a new Congress, the Senate may, by majority vote, end a filibuster on a rules change and adopt new rules.
  2. There should only be one opportunity to filibuster any given measure or nomination, so motions to proceed and motions to refer to conference should not be subject to filibuster.
  3. Secret “holds” should be eliminated.
  4. The amount of delay time after cloture is invoked on a bill should be reduced.
  5. There should be no post-cloture debate on nominations.
  6. Instead of requiring that those seeking to break a filibuster muster a specified number of votes, the burden should be shifted to require those filibustering to produce a specified number of votes to continue the filibuster.
  7. Those waging a filibuster should be required to continuously hold the floor and debate.
  8. 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.
None of these ideas has been publicly endorsed by the full Democratic caucus, but each and every one of the returning Democratic senators have signed onto a letter to Senator Reid calling for rules reform:
All Democratic senators returning next year have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging him to consider action to change long-sacrosanct filibuster rules.

The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, to weaken the minority’s ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.
This letter is a very encouraging sign. We urge the Pacific Northwest's Democratic senators to push hard for the ideas outlined above, to at least ensure that some of the most antiquated and ridiculous provisions in the Senate rules are abolished or altered to prevent majority rule from being sabotaged.


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