Monday, October 10, 2011

Senate Rules Blowup: Sign of the Times or Long Overdue?

"Gridlock" has been on a beginning of the school year hiatus for a month, but the squabble over the Senate rules last week has broken this fall blogging-slumber.

To recap, the fireworks occurred after cloture had been invoked on a bill regarding Chinese currency manipulation and it was headed toward passage. Republicans insisted on multiple votes on amendments unrelated to the underlying legislation, which Democrats claimed were designed to score political points. They proposed to use "motions to suspend the rules" to bring these issues to a vote. Senator Reid raised a point of order against this use of post-cloture motions to suspend. The chair ruled against Reid - stating that such motions were in order. Reid then appealed the ruling of the chair. The Democratic majority supported this appeal -- which effectively sets a new precedent and a new rule. Motions to suspend the rules post cloture are now out of order.

The debate is now over whether the Democrats have abused their majority power to re-write the Senate rules to limit the rights of the minority party to raise issues of importance to them, or, whether this ruling was necessary to end Republicans' procedural abuse designed to bring all legislative progress to a halt.

Having served in the Senate, I understand the importance of protecting minority rights. And it is clear that what goes around comes around, so that when Republicans regain the majority, whether in the next Congress or some other time in the future, they will further erode these rights when they are used to block their agenda. Nonetheless, I am sympathetic with the need for reform.

Should we change the rules so the Senate is just a smaller version of the House, where the majority has absolute power? No. But ultimately, our system depends on the ability of majorities to govern effectively. The power to block has overwhelmed to power to get anything done. The rules have been exploited, requiring super-majorities to be assembled on multiple occasions to advance even the most simple of bills or reams of unrelated amendments to be disposed of over and over again. Reform of the Senate rules is long overdue.

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