OP-ED: Bring Back Real Debate in Senate

Americans differ deeply on many of today’s great questions, but they unite in their frustration with the inability of Congress and the president to address our nation’s challenges. The Senate Democrats’ majority leader, Harry Reid, is advancing the argument that we could fix the Senate if only we would reduce protections for the minority by limiting the filibuster.

But protecting minority rights — not just party rights, but individual rights — is one of the constitutional purposes of the Senate. Individual senators often have compelling reasons to differ with the majority of other members, even when their party holds the gavel.

At the orientation for new senators in 1996, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) told them:

“The Senate was intended to be a forum for open and free debate and for the protection of political minorities. I have led the majority and I have led the minority, and I can tell you that there is nothing that makes one fully appreciate the Senate’s special role as the protector of minority interests like being in the minority. … The Framers recognized that a minority can be right and that a majority can be wrong. … It is the one place in the whole government where the minority is guaranteed a public airing of its views.”

In the 113th Congress, a majority of the Democratic Caucus will never have known life in the minority. Perhaps if they had, the debate over the future of the filibuster might be proceeding differently. I agree the Senate is broken. My idea for fixing it, however, is that instead of changing the rules, we should try following them. Instead of seeking new ways to stifle debate, we should encourage it.

The 112th Congress has been the least productive in the modern era, passing just 262 bills, with a large percentage of those doing things like naming post offices. Past Senates, even with similar party splits, have been far more productive. The Senate of the 99th Congress (1985-86) had a similar party division but approved 572 bills. At the height of the Iraq War, amid acrimonious hearings and bitter allegations, the senators of the 109th Congress still managed to pass 664 bills. Why can’t today’s Senate do as well?

The real root of the Senate’s problem is that regular order has been all but abandoned. Under regular order, the committee process allows senators to hear from constituents and witnesses, propose amendments and resolve differences. Under regular order, bills that advance to the floor are debated, and amendments are voted up or down. Regular order led to the Senate being known as “the greatest deliberative body in the world,” but it is used so seldom these days that when it happens on significant issues, such as the recent Defense Authorization bill, it makes headline news.

Over the past six years, the majority leader has used his power to block Republican legislation from even reaching the floor and advanced his chosen issues without committee consideration. On the floor, he then uses a process called “filling the tree,” which prevents senators from offering amendments.

The committee process has been bypassed and amendments blocked on significant legislation 69 times over the past six years. He has done this more than all of his predecessors combined.

Once the committee process has been bypassed and amendments blocked, the next step in attempting to ram through legislation is to invoke cloture, shutting off all debate including filibuster. Some 107 separate times, the majority leader has moved to cut off debate on the same day a bill was brought to the floor.

So, yes, filibusters, as a last resort, have proliferated in recent years. So have cloture votes to end them. Both could largely be avoided. The public is crying out for us to work together in a bipartisan manner, and that’s exactly what regular order promotes. Republicans would feel less compelled to resort to filibusters if “the world’s greatest deliberative body” lived up to its name — and engaged in actual debate over amendments. Regular order would promote a return to the days when members actually did the work necessary to win support for their legislation.

The rule of law protects everyone. Yet the same individuals who once fiercely guarded their own minority rights now declare Republican “obstruction” has left them no choice but to “reform” the way the chamber works. Worse still, their plan is to break the long-standing rules of the Senate — and push through malignant changes with just 51 votes, not the customary 67.

In the play, “A Man for All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More is told he should “cut a road through the law to get after the Devil.” He replies, “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you — where would you hide …? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast … and if you cut them down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

When Majority Leader Reid was in the minority, he was less eloquent but no less accurate when he described the idea of limiting the filibuster as a “partisan political grab” that would “change the Senate forever.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the senior senator from Alaska and the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


Source: By Lisa Murkowski