Politico Magazine: Op-ed by Sen. Lamar Alexander: This Is the End of the Senate. It’s Harry Reid’s Fault.
Posted on January 8, 2014
The United States Senate is starting the New Year the same way it ended the last one: with the Democratic leader bringing up legislation that hasn’t been considered by committee, then threatening to cut off amendments, cut off debate and cut off votes.
First, it was unemployment insurance. Next, it will be minimum wage. Avoiding committee consideration, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) explains, avoids “embarrassing amendments.”
The Senate, “the one touch of authentic genius in the American political system”—as William S. White described it in Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate—is destroying itself.
In their 2013 book, The American Senate: An Insider’s History, former Senate historian Richard A. Baker and the late 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. “Whatever the unsavory aspects of the word and the tactics,” Baker and MacNeil write, “the filibuster then and later helped shape the Senate into the most powerful legislative body in the world.”
Referring to the filibuster in 2010 during his final address, Byrd warned, “We must never, ever tear down the only wall—the necessary fence—this nation has against the excesses of the executive branch and the resultant haste and tyranny of the majority.”
Yet today’s Senate is destroying its capacity to forge consensus, to protect minority views from popular passions and to counter presidential excesses by:
Less advice and consent: On Nov. 21, the Democratic majority decided 60 votes are no longer needed to cut off debate on most presidential appointees. So try asking a nominee: Will the National Security Agency stop monitoring the German chancellor and the pope? Now, there will be no response, because a majority can ram through any nominee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in 2006 that allowing the majority to cut off debate would be the “end of the Senate.” Apparently he changed his mind.
Operating without rules: Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a dissenter, 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. When he wrote the Senate rules, Thomas Jefferson said: “It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is.”
Ignoring executive orders: While it ignores its own rules, today’s meek Senate watches 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. In both Russia and the United States, czars do not report to elected representatives.
Not passing appropriations bills: The Senate’s repeated failure to pass appropriations bills gives the executive more say in spending. Failure to pass appropriations bills means the government is funded by continuing resolutions, which limit Congress’s ability to change spending priorities because they are simply continuing last year’s spending—not setting meaningful priorities. By default, then, it means the agencies are shifting spending in an ad hoc way and without prior congressional approval or direction.
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 ruled this unconstitutional, leaving it to the Supreme Court to determine 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 and legislation, but this is hardly a crisis. Non-judicial presidential nominees are rarely denied their seats by filibuster (before the November rules change, there were two cases for Barack Obama, three for George W. Bush, two for Bill Clinton and none before that). According to the Congressional Research Service, President Obama’s second-term cabinet nominees have been confirmed as speedily as those of Presidents Bush and Clinton.
The Senate does not need a change of rules; it needs a change of behavior. Senator Reid could start by following the example of Majority Leaders Byrd and Howard Baker, a Republican, during the 1970s and ‘80s. Byrd and Baker would bring bipartisan legislation to the floor, sometimes receive 300 amendments, ask consent to cease the offering of amendments and then begin voting. To complete their work, they operated the Senate Monday through Friday and through the weekend if necessary. They were not afraid to allow or to defeat amendments. If Reid allowed amendments in this way, Republicans then would have no reason to keep bills from coming to the floor.
Instead, Reid has set records for bringing legislation to the floor without committee approval, cutting off amendments and cutting off debate. So there are no votes on reforming military sexual assaults, completing the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, sanctioning Iran or other vital concerns.
The Senate has become 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. Most did not hear Senator Byrd’s final address, in which he said that any leader could run the Senate under then-existing rules.
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 are the envy of the world.
Lamar Alexander represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.
Click HERE to read the op-ed as it appeared in Politico Magazine.