There has been quite a bit of talk these days about obstructionism, the filibuster, and one party obstructing the work of another party. The fact of the matter is that both sides in the United States Senate have engaged in a game of procedural chicken, with the American people on the losing end of this inside-the-beltway game.
Today the Senate will have yet another vote on cloture on a motion to proceed to the Defense Authorization Bill. Although this will be spun by the left as Republicans obstructing the will of the Senate, the facts of the situation show that this is a complex situation where both sides are using the Senate rules to impose their will.
Republicans and possibly a few Democrats are filibustering the defense authorization bill. This means that 60 members have to vote in favor of shutting down debate for the Senate to proceed on the legislation. Some Senators are concerned that the controversial issues of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, abortions in military hospitals, and the DREAM Act (an immigration proposal) will be debated on this measure to the exclusion of an open and free amendment process.
Many students of the U.S. Senate see a disturbing trend by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) to abuse the rules of the Senate by using a procedural tactic to stifle debate and amendment. Reid is expected to use a procedure called “filling the amendment tree” to block any opportunity for Senators to offer amendments unless they get the consent of the Majority Leader. Reid will use the tradition of priority recognition for the Majority Leader to offer a series of amendments to the defense authorization bill.
Reid will fill up all of the possible amendments to the bill with technical corrections as a means to prevent Senators from offering substantive amendments. This will block out amendments from the other 99 Senators. A Senator will then have to get the consent of Reid to offer an amendment. This is not a good faith application of the Senate’s rules.
Moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe (R–ME) is angry about this abuse of the rules and traditions of the Senate. Snowe released a statement yesterday:
First and foremost, the Senate should have the ability to debate more than the three amendments the Majority Leader is allowing, especially as this bill is the largest discretionary authorization measure that Congress considers, that the bill describes the policies and programs that provide resources and direction to the nearly 2.4 million men and women of the military—active, reserve and civilians, including the courageous Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that two of the three amendments don’t even relate to the military. It is therefore imperative that Senate deliberations on the defense bill be conducted without limitations and in a manner that allows for the consideration of all related amendments that Senators may wish to offer.
Snowe has correctly identified the problem with Reid’s procedural tactic of “filling the amendment tree.” Snowe and other Members of the Senate who will vote to sustain a filibuster are actually protecting the rights of the minority to offer amendments and participate in the deliberations over the defense authorization bill.
When you hear those of the left complain about Senate obstructionism, understand that the current situation in the Senate is complicated. Many in the Senate are using the filibuster to protect the rights of all Senators to participate in this process. We are seeing this play out this week.