The Tennessean: Op-ed by Sen. Alexander: U.S. Senate dissolving into one-man show

Posted on January 15, 2014

Serving in the U.S. Senate has become like joining the “Grand Ole Opry” and not being allowed to sing.

Take last week. The Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid, brought up unemployment compensation legislation that hadn’t been considered by committee. Then he cut off amendments, debate and votes.

Tennesseans didn’t send me to Washington to rubber-stamp Harry Reid’s ideas or those of any other Senate leader. They expect me to have a say for them on “Obamacare,” fixing the debt, Iran and other vital issues.

Sen. Reid is destroying the Senate, once described as “the one touch of authentic genius in the American political system.”

In their 2013 book, “The American Senate: An Insider’s History,” former Senate historian Richard A. Baker and Neil MacNeil say the principal source of this “genius” has been the opportunity for extended debate. If 60 of 100 senators must agree to end debate, usually this encourages consensus on crucial issues.

The Senate’s capacity to forge consensus, protect minority views and counter presidential excesses is being lost by:

Less advice and consent: On Nov. 21, Democrats decided a simple majority can cut off debate on most presidential nominations. In 2006, Sen. Reid said doing this would be the “end of the Senate.” Apparently, he changed his mind.

Operating without rules: Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said on Nov. 21, “A Senate in which a majority can change the rules at any time is a Senate with no rules.” It is as if the Red Sox, finding themselves behind in the ninth inning in the World Series, added a couple of innings to make sure they won.

Ignoring executive orders: Today’s Senate watches meekly as the Obama administration changes the health care law, suspends immigration laws and rewrites labor laws.

Tolerating more czars: President Obama has had more czars than the Romanovs. Czars don’t report to elected representatives.

Not passing appropriations bills: The Senate’s repeated failure to pass appropriations bills eliminates a check on executive spending.

Illegal recess appointments: The majority acquiesced when, in January 2012, President Obama used his recess appointment power to put members on the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was not actually in recess. Fortunately, three federal appeals courts disagreed. Now the Supreme Court will decide whether the Senate might return from lunch to find the country has a new Supreme Court justice.

There is blame to go around. Some Republicans unduly delay nominations, but this is hardly a crisis. Only seven nonjudicial presidential nominees have ever been denied their seats by filibuster.

The Senate does not need a change of rules; it needs a change of behavior. Sen. Reid could follow the example of Majority Leaders Robert Byrd and Howard Baker during the 1970s and ’80s. They would bring bipartisan legislation to the floor, receive 300 amendments, ask consent to cease the offering of amendments and then begin voting. They operated the Senate on Monday through Friday and through the weekend if necessary.

Sen. Reid, on the other hand, has set records for bringing legislation to the floor without committee approval, cutting off amendments and cutting off debate.

The Senate has become a Tuesday-to-Thursday club, a one-man show, orchestrated by the White House. One reason this is tolerated is that 43 senators are in their first term, most of them Democrats. They have never served in the minority or seen the Senate function properly.

This diminishing of the Senate is tragic for a country with large problems to solve and whose system of checks and balances and self-government is the envy of the world.

Republican Lamar Alexander is Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator.