A new Congress means new rules.
Over in the House the new GOP majority has committed to post its rules package online so that every interested American can see it and, hopefully, better understand how the chamber will operate over the next two years. Things in the Senate, however, are not as clear.
Right now the Republicans--who start the year in better position than they were two years ago--are marshaling forces to beat back an effort to terminate the filibuster, an institutional safeguard that protects the rights of the minority while oft times frustrating the ability of the majority to get its way.
The filibuster, which both sides have used to their advantage over the years, was a particular thorn in the side of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during the last session of Congress--despite the fact that the Democrats at times enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority. The arguments some Democrats are making in support of its abolition, however, ignore some significant facts.
The rules of the Senate are written in such a way as to protect the rights of the minority--one of the few remaining vestiges of the idea that senators were the representatives of their states as political entities rather than the people of their states. Under Reid’s leadership, the Republicans say, the right to debate and the right to amend proposed legislation--two of the Senate’s most important functions--have been curtailed by the majority.
“The Majority Leader is always the first to be recognized on the Senate floor, and he can use that power to offer a series of Democrat amendments to pending legislation in a manner that prevents Republicans from offering any of their ideas,” the Senate Republican Policy Committee said in analysis released Monday. Reid has used this tactic, which is know in Capitol Hill parlance as “filling the tree” “a record 44 times.” In fact, he has filled the tree “three times more often than the previous majority leader, and more than the past six majority leaders combined.” The GOP is also critical of Reid who, it says, “has made a habit of shutting down debate before it even starts.”
“In the Senate, the majority can force an end to debate on any matter by a procedure known as cloture. Majority Leader Reid has indicated his lack of interest in deliberation by moving to shut down debate the very day measures are first considered on the Senate floor. According to CRS (the Congressional Research Service), the majority has done this nearly three times more, on average, than the previous six majorities. In fact, the current majority in its two Congresses in power has moved to end debate on measures a total of 29 times prior to any amendments even being voted on. The previous majority did this less than half as often--only 12 times in the preceding two Congresses,” the RPC says.
[See a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats.]
Reid’s effort to exclude the minority from the legislative process, Senate Republicans say, is the primary reason the filibuster has been used so frequently over the last two years. Right now the two sides are at loggerheads, with the Democrats threatening to change the rules on a party-line vote, throwing aside decades of Senate traditions in the pursuit of political power. If the voters tried to send a message in the last election that they wanted more debate and more b-partisan solutions it is so far, as far as the Senate majority is concerned, falling on deaf ears.