The Washington Post reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) has pledged to reform the filibuster—if and only if he retains his position as Majority Leader in the next Congress and President Obama wins a second term.
This shows that Reid has no ideological commitment to “filibuster reform”; he merely has a commitment to expand his powers in the next Congress. It is a safe bet that Reid and his fellow liberals will abandon and fight “filibuster reform” if Republicans take over the Senate and/or Mitt Romney is elected president.
The “filibuster reform” of choice for the left is Senator Tom Udall’s (D–NM) S. Res. 10. Udall’s heart is in the right place. He is still in his first term and is witnessing a Senate in dysfunction. The problem is that his solution will not magically change the Senate into a functioning body and may do more harm than good.
The Udall rules change would remove the opportunity for Senators to filibuster a motion to proceed to a bill. This has been a tool of the minority party to force an open debate on legislation. Reid has abused his authority as majority leader to block the minority party from the opportunity to offer amendments over 60 times, more times than all of his predecessors combined. Many times, the minority party has filibustered motions to proceed to bills for the purposes of securing an agreement to be allowed amendments on a bill. It is one tool for Members to make sure they are allowed to fully participate in the debate and amendment process.
The Udall rules change would also allow only three amendments to be offered by the majority leader and minority leader that are germane to the underlying bill at the end of the process. Most likely, this would set in stone the idea that the majority leader would block out all amendments to bills as a routine procedural process and allow the minority party only three germane amendments to bills.
The Senate has had a long tradition of allowing all amendments—relevant and non-relevant, germane and non-germane—to bills. The technical definition of “non-germane amendment” according to the official Senate website, is “an amendment that would add new and different subject matter to, or may be irrelevant to, the bill or other measure it seeks to amend. Senate rules permit nongermane amendments in all but a few specific circumstances.”
On July 18, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY) made the important point that “the core problem here is that my good friend the majority leader as a practical matter is running the whole Senate because everything is centralized in his office, which diminishes the opportunity for Senators of both parties to represent their constituents. Look, we all were sent here by different Americans who expected us to have a voice, to have an opportunity to effect legislation. I would say to my good friend the majority leader, we don’t have a rules problem, we have an attitude problem.”
McConnell went as far as to say on Sean Hannity’s radio show this week that Reid has “already kind of turned the Senate majority leader’s office into an office for a dictator.” McConnell is correct to point out that the minority party has been cut out of the legislative process in a manner that is offensive to the traditions and history of the Senate.
According to the Senate’s official history, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw the federal representatives of the states in the Senate as the great anchor of the government. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the Framers had created the Senate to “cool” House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea, according to the Senate historian.
The leadership in the Senate may want to cool it on so-called “filibuster reform” and work toward comity and a more collegial atmosphere. Rules changes will not fix the Senate; only Senators working together can fix the Senate.