When does a day last three weeks? When Senate Democrats want to rewrite the rules of the Senate to make it easier for the Majority Leader to end debate and block the amendment process.
This Wednesday, the United States Senate is set to meet for its first “legislative day” of the new Congress, and a group of progressive Senators are expected to introduce changes to the Senate rules designed to limit the use of the filibuster. But the left has not settled on a single rule change plan. To buy time to get his troops in line, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV), rather than simply adjourning until January 24, is expected to recess the chamber, meaning the Senate will technically still be in the same “legislative day” when they reconvene on January 24. Maybe if Reid spent less time manipulating the rules to his narrow partisan advantage, the minority would not need to resort to the filibuster in the first place.
The filibuster is unquestionably constitutional. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution states clearly: “Each house may determine the rule of its proceedings.” And from the founding of the country, the Senate was designed to be a more deliberative body. In his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, James Madison wrote: “In order to judge the form to be given [the Senate], it will be proper to take a view of the ends to be served by it. These were first to protect the people against their rulers: secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” This is why all 435 Members of the House—but only one-third of the Senate—face election every two years.
Contrary to what the Progressives believe, the slow progress of legislation through the Senate is a feature, not a bug, of the Framers’ design. In his 1833 treatise on the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story explained that “a good law had better occasionally fail, rather than bad laws be multiplied with a heedless and mischievous frequency. Even reforms, to be safe, must in general, be slow.” The first effort to speed legislation through the Senate came, of course, from Progressive President Woodrow Wilson, who pressed Senate Democrats to create Rule 22, which allowed the Senate to end debate on a measure if two-thirds of the body agreed. That number has since been lowered to today’s 60-vote threshold.
The left and their media allies love to bemoan the fact that the minority in the 111th Congress set a record for filibustering legislation. Left unreported by the media is that Reid manipulated the rules of the Senate to shatter a little record of his own. A tactic commonly referred to as “filling the amendment tree” allows a Majority Leader to offer up a series of non-substantive amendments that take up all the time allotted for debate. This prevents the minority from offering any amendments to a bill. Reid justified this tactic to The Huffington Post in July: “This isn’t a new method that I dreamed up. Anytime there is an election there is not a leader who is dumb enough to put a bill on the floor that is subject to amendments.”
So how many times has Reid used this “filling the tree” tactic that is specifically designed to shut out substantive amendments from the minority? According to the Congressional Research Service, Reid employed the procedure a record 44 times, more than the past six Majority Leaders combined. Senator Olympia Snowe (R–ME) took to the floor to protest its use during debate on a defense authorization bill:
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.
If the Senate narrows or eliminates the filibuster, Reid will have even less incentive to allow debate and amendments. The Senate will cease to be a deliberative body, and the majority party will have unfettered power to pass legislation and confirm nominees with little or no debate. This is not what the Founders intended.
The fight over the Senate filibuster is one of limited government versus big government. If you believe that ideas should be debated openly and transparently, and meet the test of intellectual opposition before they are voted into law and affect our lives, then you want the filibuster to stay. If you prefer an unchecked activist government that can more easily legislate bad ideas into law through a more rushed process, then you may be open to the left’s latest gambit.
Today, at 2 PM, Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) will speak at The Heritage Foundation in defense of the filibuster. In his planned remarks, which you can watch live later today here, Alexander says: “Voters who turned out in November are going to be pretty disappointed when they learn the first thing Democrats want to do is cut off the right of the people they elected to make their voices heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.”