Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Senate rules reform votes

Posted on January 27, 2011

Mr. ALEXANDER. Madam President, I wish to thank the Senator from New York, the Senators from New Mexico and Oregon, and Senator Harkin of Iowa for their efforts -- some over many years -- to achieve two goals: to help make the Senate a place that is better able to deal with the serious business that comes before us, and second, to preserve the Senate as a unique forum -- unique in the world, really -- as a legislative body that protects minority rights.

This is an important step forward -- the reform of the Senate -- but the reform the Senate needs is a change in behavior, not in its rules. These rules move us in the right direction, but the behavior that the Senator from New York spoke about and that the majority leader and the minority leader spoke about is what, in the end, will make the most difference.

I have talked with many Senators on both sides of the aisle. We have done a lot of talking both on the floor here and off the floor about where the Senate is today, and a great many of us feel the Senate is a shadow of its former self in terms of its ability to function as a truly deliberative body.

It is hard to see how the majority can complain after a legislative session where they passed health care legislation, financial reform legislation, and other legislation that may have even resulted in the diminishing of their numbers. They had a productive session, from their point of view. But the truth is, on both sides of the aisle -- on both sides of the aisle -- we wish to see the Senate function in a different way.

The majority leader and the Republican leader have put out in a colloquy what that way is, and that will govern what we do. But basically, I believe it is this: We want the same thing -- a Senate where most bills are considered by committee, where most bills come to the floor as a result of bipartisan cooperation, where most bills are then debated and amended and then voted upon.

To someone who may have just tuned into the Senate, they may say: Well, that is a very simple solution. I thought that is what the Senate was supposed to be. It is what the Senate is supposed to be. It wasn't so long ago that it was the standard operating procedure. Senator McConnell said it was just a few years ago. He and Senator Reid have both been here a number of years.

I remember watching the Senate -- and I have mentioned this before in this debate -- between 1977 and 1985, when Howard Baker of Tennessee and Robert Byrd of West Virginia were the Republican and Democratic leaders. I had worked for Senator Baker before that as a legislative assistant. I knew Senator Byrd. Here is what went on then, and here is what could go on today: Most pieces of legislation that came to the floor started in committee. That gave us a chance to see what they did and to improve them and to hear from voices from all over the country. That legislation then came to the floor.

During Senator Baker's day, when he was the majority leader, he would rarely bring a bill to the floor unless both the Republican chairman and the Democratic ranking member supported it because he didn't want to waste the Senate's time. He knew that the Senate’s 60-vote requirement forces consensus.

People talk about the filibuster. But what we have is a requirement that most important bills get 60 votes. If you are sitting with 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans, you don't have to have an advanced degree in mathematics to figure out if you don't have some Democrats and some Republicans, you don't get to 60.
So Senator Baker was saying back in the 1980s, bring the bill to the floor if it has the Republican chairman and the Democratic ranking member's support. Then the call would go out for amendments, and sometimes there would be 300 amendments filed.


The Senator from North Carolina or Tennessee might file 40. And no one said: Whoa, stop. You cannot do that. Instead, they said: Bring them on in. Sometimes there would be 300 amendments. Then Senator Baker or Senator Byrd would ask for unanimous consent to close off amendments. Well, I guess because the Senators by that time were exhausted from writing amendments, they all agreed to it, and then they started voting.

Now, it got to be Wednesday or Thursday, and the party secretaries would go to the Senators and they would say: I notice you still have 30 amendments waiting. Maybe you would only like to offer 15. Might get to Friday, and they would say: I notice you have five left. Maybe you would only like to have one. But if they had one they wanted to get, they almost always got the amendment. That is what the real importance of this agreement is today.

The difference of opinion we have had that has caused us to degenerate, in some cases, to a body that has not functioned as well as it should has been because on that side of the aisle -- the majority -- people did not want to vote. It is like joining the Grand Ole Opry and saying: I do not want to sing. Some Republican Senator might offer an amendment that side does not want to vote on, and they say, well, we do not want to vote, or they say, well, we do not want to work on Friday. So they go home. And they put pressure on the majority leader to use a procedure called filling the tree which cuts off votes and the right to amend. The majority leader used that power to cut off all amendments and debate 44 times. That’s more than the last 6 majority leaders combined. Then what happens over here? Well, then Republican Senators, now in the minority, say: Well, we are not going to get amendments; we are going to start objecting. So we have what is called a lot of filibusters. We say: You are counting filibusters when you cut off our right to offer amendments. They say: You guys over there are keeping us from doing our business. On both sides, there is some truth to what has been said.

So I think most Senators are happy with this result. I think they will be. I hope it works. I mean, the idea would be that the leaders will do their best to see that most bills go to committee, come to the floor, and that when they do, if the Senator from North Carolina has an amendment the Senator from Tennessee would rather not vote on, she offers it anyway if she wants to, or if I have one she would rather not vote on, I may offer it anyway because it is important to the people of my State, even though we might be in a political minority at the moment. I believe that in most cases, if most Senators in the minority have that opportunity, that will help us get back to the kind of Senate we want to see.

I wish to compliment Senator Udall, Senator Merkley, and Senator Harkin. I learned a long time ago in life that if you start out in one direction, you do not always get exactly where you want to go, but you do not get anywhere if you do not start out. I think what they have done with their intelligence and diligence and persistence in this has created a period of time here where the Senate is taking some steps today that will help the people of this country know that serious issues -- and we have plenty of them -- the debt, for example, where 42 cents out of every dollar we spend is borrowed; jobs, for example, and in my State we have had 24 months of 9-percent unemployment or higher -- these changes will help us deal better with those issues. I will have more opportunity to talk about those after lunch later this afternoon. I want my friends on the other side to have a chance to make their points before we adjourn or take a recess for an hour.

Fundamentally, the steps we are taking make a difference. The one I am especially glad to see is the effort to make it easier for a President -- any President -- to staff his or her government. One of the problems -- and Senator Reid talked about it -- is we confirm too many people. It is not necessary for us to confirm the PR officer for a minor department. There is no need for that. The Secretary needs to go ahead and be able to appoint that person. We need to be able to work on more important issues.

Secondly, we have created a phenomenon in this town that I refer to as "innocent until nominated." We have created a situation where any citizen who is invited by the President to serve in his government has to run such a gauntlet that it is almost impossible to get to the end of the gauntlet without being branded as a criminal. The reason is, we have a maze of conflicting forms in the executive branch, plus an IRS audit, and a maze of conflicting forms in the Senate. It not only delays, but it traps people and it tricks people into filling out one definition of "income" here and another one there. We all know this is true. We all know it needs to be fixed.

We have tried to fix it before -- not just some of us; the majority leader and the Republican leader tried to fix it, and they didn't get it done. Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins tried to fix it, and they could not get it done. And 2 years ago, at a bipartisan breakfast which Senator Lieberman and I hosted, we had a whole group of us who said: Let's try to get this done. We talked to President Obama's administration about it. They said: Sure, go ahead. We would like to see that happen, either for us or for the next President. But we could not get it done because of resistance in this body to giving up any sort of power.

Right now, we have a unique confluence of support for the idea of making it easier for any President to staff his or her government. The majority leader and the Republican leader are solidly behind the effort. Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins are solidly behind the effort. Senator Schumer and I are working on a bill to do that, and we hope we can succeed. This opportunity, this window would not have happened if it had not been for the work of the Senators who have been arguing for reforms.

The other step we are likely to take is abolishing the secret hold. I think that is a good idea. I speak from experience. When I was nominated by the first President Bush to be Education Secretary, a Senator put a hold on my name, and it took 3 months to get it off. I finally found out who it was. I never knew exactly why he did it or why he took it off, but it might have helped if I had known it a little earlier. So I think it is a good idea. The majority leader put a hold on one of my TVA nominees, but he did it publicly. So I put a hold on one of his nominees, and I did it publicly. And we worked it out. So there is nothing wrong with asserting our rights, but we might as well do it in public. I congratulate the Senators for making that effort. Senator Wyden and Senator Grassley have been working for more than a decade on that, as well as other Senators.

The step that says that if an amendment has been filed and on the Internet for 72 hours, we cannot require the clerks to read it all night long -- that is a very commonsense proposal. I know it will be greatly appreciated by the employees of the Senate who have the job of reading the amendment. If they had a chance to vote, this would probably be the resolution on which they would like to have a chance to vote yes.

So these are important steps in the right direction which we will have a chance to talk about more today as the debate goes on. But I would like to end where I began. What we need most in the Senate is a change in behavior in addition to this change in rules. We need to preserve the Senate as a forum for minority rights. We need to preserve the 60-vote requirement for major votes. That will force consensus. That will cause us to work together. That will build support out in the country for the result of what we do because they can see that both Republicans and Democrats think, for example, that the way we have gone about trying to make Social Security solvent is a good way, rather than one side or the other just jamming through their partisan way.

There is a reason it is a good idea for this not to be a body that operates by a simply majority as the House does. I mean, the House can repeal the health care bill overnight. Bring it over to the Senate, and that side says: Let's stop and think about it. The House, if it is Democratic, can repeal the secret ballot in union elections overnight, and it did with its vote in the last Congress. But when it came over here, the Republican side said: Let's stop and think about it. The American people are better served by having these two different kinds of bodies, and the Senate and the American people will be better served both by the rules changes we are likely to adopt this afternoon and especially by the agreement by the majority leader and the Republican leader, which I feel confident has the backing of almost all of us, that we would like to work in a Senate where most bills are considered by committee, where most bills come to the floor, and where Senators, most of the time, have an opportunity to offer their amendments and debate. To be sure, there will be times when, if it is repeal of health care, that side does everything it can to exercise its rights to stop it, or if it is repeal of the secret ballot in union elections, this side will do everything we can to exercise our rights to stop it. But that will not be the ordinary course of events if this works the way we hope it does.

So I hope my friends on the other side feel good about what they have done. They have not achieved everything they sought to achieve, but we rarely ever do, particularly in a body of 100 that operates by consent of 100. What they have done, I believe, in addition to the rules changes we are likely to adopt, is create a window in which we have had a good, open discussion about the kind of place we want to work, the kind of Senate we hope would serve the American people the best, and we have come to a consensus about a change in behavior, which I believe in the end will be more important than the change in the rules.