Alexander: “Tennesseans Didn’t Send Me to Washington to Rubber-Stamp the Majority Leader’s Ideas”

Posted on January 14, 2014

Says senators should “have a say on behalf of the people who elected us,” but Senate Democratic Leader Reid is cutting off committee work, debate, amendments and votes


“The Senate has become a Tuesday through Thursday club, run by one senator and orchestrated by the White House.” – Lamar Alexander 

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called on Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to stop preventing the Senate from addressing major issues facing the country, such as high unemployment, saying senators “would like to have a say on behalf of the people who elected us.” (Click here to see video of Alexander’s speech.)

“How do we help unemployed Americans go to work?” Alexander said in a speech Monday. “I can’t think of an issue more important to our country. All of us have ideas about how to do this, but [Reid] brought up his idea. It hasn’t been considered by committee. When he put it on the floor, he cut off amendments, he cut off debate and he cut off votes. … Tennesseans didn’t send me to Washington to rubber-stamp the majority leader’s ideas – not this majority leader, not any majority leader. Tennesseans sent me here to represent them and to advocate their point of view and to give them a say on Obamacare, on balancing the budget, on fixing the deficit, on helping unemployed Americans find jobs, on dealing with wages, on raising family incomes.”

Alexander continued, “All we’re saying is we would like to have a say, on behalf of the people who elected us, on the great issues facing our country.”

In addition to unemployment insurance, which Reid has pushed without allowing Republican amendments for job training and other measures, Alexander noted that debates over the minimum wage and other issues are at risk of being cut off. Alexander said, “The Senate has become a Tuesday through Thursday club, run by one senator and orchestrated by the White House.”

Alexander’s remarks follow a decision by Democrats in the Senate majority to invoke the so-called nuclear option, getting rid of the filibuster for presidential nominations so it only requires 51 votes – instead of 60 – to end debate on nominees, except in the case of the U.S. Supreme Court. Reid has followed this move – which he once wrote would be “the end of the Senate” – by moving legislation to the Senate floor without committee consideration and cutting off debate, amendments and votes.

Alexander said that in their book “The American Senate: An Insider’s History,” Neil MacNeil and Richard A. Baker, the former historian of the Senate, cited the Senate as “one touch of authentic genius in the American political system” because of the role of extended debate in building consensus and guarding against excesses by the majority party or the president.

Alexander said the Senate is “losing its capacity to do the things it was created to do” by:

  1. Providing less advice and consent. The Senate’s rule change late last year getting rid of the filibuster on most presidential nominees means Reid doesn’t need to build consensus with the minority party to gain confirmation. “So try asking a nominee: ‘Will the National Security Agency stop monitoring the Pope?’ ” Alexander said.
  2. Operating without rules. When Senate Democrats changed the rules, they did so with a simple majority vote, the so-called “nuclear option.” Alexander noted that Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., quoted his predecessor the late Senator Arthur Vandenberg, R-Mich., who said “A Senate in which a majority can change the rules at any time is a Senate without rules.”
  3. Ignoring executive orders. The Senate, Alexander said, “meekly watches” as the Obama administration changes Obamacare.
  4. Tolerating more czars. “President Obama has appointed more czars than the Romanovs did,” Alexander said.
  5. Failing to pass appropriations legislation. Alexander noted that in recent years the Senate has ceded control over spending to the administration, though he said “hopefully, that is going to change” with upcoming consideration of appropriations legislation.
  6. Allowing unconstitutional recess appointments. Alexander noted that Senate Democrats did not object when President Obama made so-called “recess appointments” to the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was not in recess, but rather in session. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of those appointments Monday.

Below is the full text of Alexander’s speech:

Last week I said on the Senate floor that serving in the Senate is becoming like being asked to join the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.  Here is what I meant by that.  Take last week, the Democratic majority leader from Nevada brought up unemployment compensation. 

How do we help unemployed Americans go to work?  I can't think of an issue more important to our country. 

All of us have ideas about how to do this, but he brought up his idea.  It hasn't been considered by a committee.  When he put it on the floor, he cut off amendments, he cut off debate, and he cut off votes.      

Soon we will be discussing minimum wage.  How to increase family incomes in America is the foremost issue facing our country.  We all have ideas about that.

We were elected to deal with it.  We have been in a long period of unemployment.  We believe the economy is bad for a variety of reasons.  We -- on this side -- believe a big, wet blanket of rules and regulations have been increased by the Obama administration.

We want to debate that.  We want to talk about it.  We don't believe the old idea of a minimum wage is the solution.  We are for maximum new jobs and maximum job training and learning opportunities so people can get those jobs.  We want the economy to grow.  We should be debating that.  That is why we are here.  But the senator from Iowa, my good friend and the distinguished chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said, No, we won't hear this in committee.  There might be embarrassing amendments.  So, unfortunately, insofar as the way the Senate functions, this year is beginning just as last year ended, and Republicans objected to this. 

 Some of the news outlets wrote down -- I read some of the stories this morning -- and they said, after a while, the Senate will begin to debate internal procedure and process. 

Sometimes process is important.  We have something called the U.S. Constitution.  It is kind of old fashioned.  It has a lot of process in it.  In fact, it has a checks-and-balances system in it that is envied by the world.  There are citizens all over the world who would like to have a government that functions in the way ours has for over two centuries.  Process can be very important.  In this case, as the Republican leader often says, process and procedure are substance, because when we are not able to talk about unemployment compensation, when we are not able to offer our ideas about how to help unemployed Americans go back to work, that is substance.

That is a central issue facing our country.  We think we have better ideas than the idea the majority leader put on the floor and we would like to present those ideas on behalf of the people who elected us. We are not the important ones.  We are all political accidents here -- all 100 of us.  We all know that. We worked pretty hard to get here and we had some luck to go along with it.  What does that give us?  Not just a chance to have our say, but to have a say on behalf of the people of Tennessee, in my case. They want me to weigh in on the big issues before our country. 

Obamacare is one of the reasons so many people are unemployed.  I am sure the other side doesn't want to talk about that.  I wouldn't if I voted for it.  But I was in a room with the chief executive officer of a major restaurant company who told me that because of the new costs of Obamacare on his large company, they were going to start running their restaurants with 75 employees instead of 90 employees.  That doesn't sound like more jobs to me; that doesn't sound like help for unemployed Americans.

This is the forum in which we debate these issues.  So I suppose it might be embarrassing for our friends on the other side to debate these issues, but it shouldn't be.  If they believe in them, they should want to stand up and defend the issues, just as strongly as we want to say our point of view.  I suspect there are a good number of my Democratic friends who have amendments they would like to offer on putting unemployed Americans to work.  They might wonder, how did I ever get to a U.S. Senate where I can't do that, just as someone might wonder in Nashville, why did I join the Grand Ole Opry if they won't let me sing? 

The majority leader's actions go to the very heart of our government.  It is not about internal procedure, it is not about process.  It is about the major issues facing our country.

Tennesseans didn't send me to Washington to rubber-stamp the majority leader's ideas -- not this majority leader or any majority leader.  Tennesseans sent me here to represent them and to advocate their point of view and to give them a say on Obamacare, on balancing the budget, on fixing the deficit, on helping unemployed Americans find jobs, on dealing with wages, on raising family incomes.  That is why I am here.  That is my job.  And they expect me to have a chance to have not my say but their say on the issues that face the American people.  By his actions, the majority leader is destroying the Senate, which was once described as "the one touch of authentic genius in the American political system."

There is a new book out which I mentioned on the floor the other day.  My guess is it will become the leading history of this body.  It is written by the former Senate historian, Richard Baker, and the late Neil MacNeil, who wrote what many consider to be the best history of the House of Representatives.  They say in the book that the genius I just talked about -- "the authentic touch of genius that is the Senate" -- the major reason for that is the opportunity for extended debate.

They point out, as I think any of us would, that there have been abuses with the filibuster, more delays than are necessary; that the Senate doesn't work as well as it should not just over the last few years but over a long period of time.  But the fact is, in this body, which is virtually unique in the world in requiring that 60 of 100 Members must agree before we cut off debate, that helps forge consensus. That helps forge consensus, as we did on the student loan agreement earlier this year.  There is a good example of a good debate, of different opinions on both sides of the aisle, of Democrats and Republicans working together.  When we finally got to 60 or 65, we got a result with the Republican House of Representatives and the Democratic president going along with us, and it was a victory for the students of this country.  We cut in half the interest rates they pay and took the whole argument away from being a political football.

The Senate was created for three reasons.  The first is to encourage and forge consensus.  We govern a complex society with consensus, not with ramroding partisan ideas through one body or the other.  We have a body for that; it is called the House of Representatives.  Win it by one vote -- the Rules Committee has two times as many members of the majority as the minority, and the majority can pass anything they want to pass.  Send it over here, and the tradition has been to slow it down and cool it off.  We take a second look. 

The passions of the democracy -- what de Tocqueville called in his trip across America in the early 1800s -- the great danger he saw to our country was the “tyranny of the majority.”  He saw that as one of the two great dangers to the American democracy.  And the Senate has been, through all that period of time, the guardian -- the guardian of minority rights, the guardian against the excesses of the executive, which in our country is the president.  The Founders didn't want a king, so they set up this elaborate system of checks and balances, and the Senate is the key to that. 

What is different about the Senate is the opportunity for extended debate.  But, the majority leader now brings up a bill -- one senator's idea -- cuts off debate, cuts off amendments, cuts off votes, that is it.  That is not the way to govern our country, particularly on an issue of how do we put unemployed Americans back to work.

The Senate is losing its capacity to do the things it was created to do in the following ways:  No. 1, less advice and consent.  On November 21, the Democratic majority decided 60 votes are no longer needed to cut off debate on most Presidential nominees.  So try asking a nominee:  Will the National Security Agency stop monitoring the Pope?  Now there will be no response, because the majority can ram through nominees. 

The senator from Nevada, the distinguished majority leader, said in 2006 -- I heard him and he put it in his book -- that cutting off -- allowing the majority to cut off debate would be the end of the Senate.  The end of the Senate.  Apparently, he changed his mind.

Operating without rules.  The distinguished senator from Michigan, Senator Levin, said on November 21:  "A Senate in which a majority can change the rules at any time is a Senate without 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 not so important what the rule is, but that there be a rule.

Ignoring executive orders.  While it ignores its own rules, the Senate meekly watches as the Obama administration changes the health care law, suspends immigration laws, and rewrites labor laws.

Tolerating more czars.  President Obama has appointed more czars than the Romanovs did.  In both Russia and the United States, czars don't report to elected representatives.

Not passing appropriations bills.  Hopefully, that is going to change.  But the Senate's repeated failure to pass appropriations bills canceled the Senate's check on the Executive's power to spend.         

Illegal recess appointments.  That is being debated today in the Supreme Court.  The majority acquiesced when President Obama used his recess appointment to appoint members to the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was not in recess. Fortunately, three appellate courts disagreed with the president and the Supreme Court will decide.  Hopefully, the Supreme Court agrees with the appellate courts.  Otherwise, the Senate might go out for lunch and return and find that we have a new Supreme Court justice. 

There is blame to go around, and I am sure any of my friends on the other side who are listening would be quick to point that out.  Baker and MacNeil pointed that out in their book.  There have been abuses of the filibuster.  It is true that some Republicans have unduly delayed nominations and unduly delayed legislation.  And that is not new.  I have seen it in other years.  I have pointed out on this floor how Senator Allen from Alabama, in the 1970s and 1980s, would tie the Senate into knots with his knowledge of the rules.  Senator Metzenbaum from Ohio would sit right down there on the front row and if a senator wanted to pass a bill, that senator had to go see him, and if the senator didn't amend his bill to do what Senator Metzenbaum wanted done, he would use Senate rules to block it.

So this has never been an easy place to get something done, but it wasn't ever supposed to be.  It was supposed to be a place where every single senator is an equal, where every senator's voice is not his or her voice but the voice of people that senator represents.  It is supposed to be a place of extended debate where almost any amendment can be discussed for almost any length of time, and usually the clock is all that would cut the debate off.  But there has been a procedure by which a consensus can cut it off, and when we reach that consensus, we usually reach a result that can even pass unanimously after it has been massaged and changed and worked through and considered. 

I think of the legislation we just passed on compounding pharmacies and making drugs more safely; making drugs more safe, 4 billion prescriptions a year.  It went through the committee process, through both Houses, and eventually passed unanimously because we reached a consensus.

The delays that have occurred on nominations because, so-called, of the changes in rules on November 21 are hardly a crisis.  Nonjudicial presidential nominees have almost never been denied their seats by a filibuster.  Before the November rules change, there were two for President Obama, three for President Bush, two for President Clinton, and none before that, in history.  That is seven. Only seven nonjudicial presidential nominees, in the history of the Senate, had ever been denied their seats by a filibuster.  Maybe it takes a while, but that is so we can ask questions.

The day before the rules were changed, I looked at the Executive Calendar -- this calendar we have on our desks.  It includes every single nomination that can be brought to the floor.  If I have my numbers about right, there were not many people on the calendar.  Half of them have been held up by the senator from South Carolina who is trying to get some answers on Benghazi.  That has happened many times in this body.  If senators want an answer, they do that to make the executive tell them what is going on. There were only eight nominees, I believe, who had been on the calendar for more than nine weeks and only 16 others who have been on for more than 3 weeks.

So there were not very many people on the Executive Calendar, and we had changed the rules to make it easier to confirm them, anyway.  There were 13 district judges, so the majority leader could bring them up on Thursday -- Friday is the intervening day -- and Monday there could be two hours of debate on each judge, and we could confirm four or five by doing it over the weekend in that way.  But, no, we had to change the rules in the way that it was done. 

The Senate does not need a change of rules; it needs a change in behavior.  The current majority leader, I would respectfully suggest, could start by following the example of Majority Leaders Robert Byrd, a Democrat, and Howard Baker, a Republican, during the 1970s and 1980s.  Here is how they would do things, and this is the way the Senate ran until five or six years ago.  Baker and Byrd would bring legislation to the floor.  Usually they would go to a committee and say to a chairman:  We will put it on the floor if you and your ranking member of the other party agree.  So you would have two members -- a chairman and a Republican ranking member; not the leaders -- standing up there at the two desks.  They would put the bill on the floor that already had gotten a consensus in the committee.  Then, the majority leader would ask for amendments to the bill, and sometimes he would get 300 -- 300.  Then, he would ask consent to cut off the offering of amendments and to consider voting on them in an orderly way, all of which was written out in the unanimous consent agreement.  Of course, he would get the unanimous consent to do that because everybody who wanted to offer an amendment could.

Then they would go to work.  They would start on Mondays, and they would work into Monday night and on Tuesday and on Wednesday.  They would table many of the amendments.  That does not take long: 10 minutes of debate and table it with 51 votes. 

Senator Byrd said in his book that when the Panama Canal Treaty came up at a time when he was the majority leader and Baker was the Republican leader, they had 192 amendments and reservations -- many of them killer amendments -- but he allowed every one of them, and he defeated every killer amendment.  But he said:  If we had not allowed them, we never would have gotten the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty.  The senators had their say on the Panama Canal Treaty. 

So after a while, those 300 amendments that might have been offered on Monday are whittled away.  Some are accepted, some are dropped, some are voted on, some are tabled, and by about Thursday -- the majority leader has said at the beginning of the week:  We are going to finish the bill this week -- people are ready to go home.  Then they begin to think more carefully about whether their amendment is really that important.  So they vote Thursday night, and they maybe vote Friday, and if they have to, they vote Saturday.  But most of the time they finish their work on Friday.

They were not afraid, those majority leaders, to allow amendments.  They were not afraid to defeat amendments.  I believe if the majority leader would allow the Senate to work in this way, he would not have any problem on this side of the aisle with efforts to keep bills from coming to the floor.  Almost all of the effort to keep bills from coming to the floor has to do with minority members not being allowed to have the say of the people who elected them to serve. 

Instead, the majority leader has set records for bringing legislation to the floor without committee approval, cutting off amendments, and records for cutting off debate.  So there are no votes on reforming military sexual assaults, completing Yucca Mountain, sanctioning Iran, and other vital concerns, no votes on unemployment compensation or how to put unemployed America to work. 

The Senate has become a Tuesday through Thursday club run by one senator and orchestrated by the White House.  One reason this is tolerated is that 43 senators are in their first term -- 43 senators are in their first term -- most of them in the majority.  They have never served in the minority.  They have never seen the Senate function properly, the way it functioned for most of its 200-plus year history.

Most importantly, those senators in their first term may not have heard Senator Byrd's final address when, among other things, he said that any majority leader could run the Senate under the then-existing rules.  I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the record, following my remarks, an article from the Wall Street Journal from last Friday on this subject. 

In an important address last week, Mr. McConnell, the senator from Kentucky, the Republican leader, described three ways to restore the Senate: full committee consideration of bills; bills thoroughly debated, with robust amendments on the floor; and a decent week's work.  We might work Monday through Friday instead of Tuesday through Thursday. 

The Senate could change overnight.  It does not need a change of rules.  The senator from Kentucky did not say that it has always been easy to navigate the Senate.  The ideal regular order never has and never will be without exceptions.  But what we call the regular order has become the exception rather than the rule. 

I would hope we do not wait until November or the next year to restore the Senate to its proper place as the authentic piece of genius in the American government -- the unique body, the unique senate in the world because of the opportunity for extended debate.  It could change overnight by considering bills most of the time that went through committee, most of the time having a robust amendment process and debate on those bills, and vote on them.  If it took Monday through Friday to get that work done, then we should do it.  Otherwise, the great issues facing our country -- what kind of health care system do we have?  How do we help unemployed Americans go to work?  How do we improve learning opportunities in this new America, where so much is decentralized and so much is on social media? 

These are very exciting times.  Daniel Boorstin, the former historian of the United States and Librarian of Congress, in his wonderful books on America, used to talk about verges, that when America was at a verge -- and we have been there many times in our history -- that we were more open to innovation, that we were more self-aware of where we were, that we tended to rely on each other, and that we changed our country for the better. 

That is where we are today.  We want better learning opportunities, better job training, better health care.  Washington is in the way of much of that, and we need to debate how to change that. 

So I would hope my friend, the distinguished majority leader, will listen to what the Republican leader had to say and reflect on the many years he has served here and realize all we are saying is we would like to have a say on behalf of the people who elected us on the great issues facing our country.  Bring a bill through committee, bring it to the floor, let us have debate -- defeat our amendments; you should be able to with a tabling motion -- and then let's come to a result. 

I think the American people would gain much more confidence in the Senate because it would deserve more confidence if it conducted issues in that way.  But this diminishing of the Senate is tragic for a country with large problems to solve and whose system of checks and balances has been envied around the world.


# # #