Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: The end of the Senate?

January 8, 2014 - January 8, 2014

         I congratulate the Republican leader for his remarks.  Without being presumptuous, I think I could express the hope that all of us feel that he will help us restore the Senate to the role the American people need it to play in this country. 

            There is a new history of the Senate, "The American Senate," written by Neil MacNeil, the late Neil MacNeil, who wrote the best book about the House of Representatives, and the former historian of the Senate.  I suspect this book is likely to become the best chronicle of this body.  It speaks of the Senate as "the one touch of authentic genius in the American political system."  It needs to be restored to that position.

            The Republican leader is absolutely right.  This does not require a change of rules.  This requires a change of behavior -- some behavior on our part on this side of the aisle, but a great deal of behavior on the part of whoever the majority leader of the Senate is, because that is the person who sets the agenda.

            The debate for this year really is: Will this year be the end of the Senate -- which is what the distinguished majority leader said it would be if we ever changed the rules in a way that allowed the majority to cut off debate -- or will it be the year in which the Senate is restored, restored to that role of authentic genius in the American system?  I hope it would be that way.  I hope it starts tomorrow because it could be started as quickly as tomorrow because it requires no change of rules, only a change in behavior, and that could happen as soon as tomorrow.  But we know it can happen after November if we have six more Republican senators on this side.

            We have heard your commitment on the floor today about how the committees can operate, about how amendments should operate.  We have heard that before in our own meetings, in private lunches, and I am glad you took the occasion in this eloquent way to say to the American people and all of us what we expect out of service in the Senate.

            I had the privilege, as the Senator from Kentucky did, of seeing Senator Mansfield as the leader of this body.  I have not served in the Senate as long as others who were here, but I came here -- it seems hard to believe -- 47 years ago as a young aide to a senator who eventually became the majority leader of the Senate, Howard Baker.  Those were the days of Mansfield and Dirksen.  Those were the days when Barry Goldwater and John Tower and Hubert Humphrey would engage in hours of debates here and hug each other at the end of their discussion.  Those were the days when the Democratic majority leader would offer an amendment of a Republican senator whose amendment had been denied unfairly, he thought.  Those were the days of committees that did their work and Republicans and Democrats who came to the floor and together offered bills.

            I saw the Senate in the 1970s when I came back and Senator Baker was the Republican leader and I saw it in the 1980s and the 1990s.  I saw what the Republican leader said -- let's take the Panama Canal debate.  Senator Baker and Senator Byrd would run the Senate in the way the Republican leader suggested, in the way most majority leaders have suggested.  They would come to the floor and they would put a bill on the floor that a Republican and a Democratic senator agreed on -- let's say it is Senator McCain and Senator Levin, Senator Inhofe and Senator Levin.  They would ask for amendments.  They might get 300 amendments.  They would then ask for unanimous consent to cut off all the amendments and of course they would get it because everyone had a chance to have his or her amendment.

            Then within that unanimous consent agreement would be a procedure for how to vote on them, and they would say:  We are here on Monday and we are going to finish this week, just as the Republican leader had said.

            It does not work perfectly.  There was a senator from Alabama, and then there was a senator from Ohio, and they did all they could to put glue in the works.  But the majority leader had all the tools he needed to run the Senate in that way.  Everybody got a say.  Senator Byrd, in his last remarks before the Rules Committee, and I was there to hear it, said we should never tear down this necessary fence.  He meant the filibuster that protects us from an excess of the executive and runaway popular factions.  But he said one other thing.  Senator Byrd said in 2010 that any majority leader had the tools he needed already in the rules to operate this Senate in the way it should be run.  So we need a change in behavior, not a change of the rules.

            One more example that goes to the point the Senator from Kentucky made.  How important is it to be able to offer an amendment?  Serving in the Senate today is like being invited to join the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.  The people of Tennessee expect me to have an opinion on their behalf about Obamacare, about Iran, about all of the issues -- how do we help unemployed Americans get a job, about the minimum wage or the lack of it.  They expect me to have a say about that, not because they want to hear me but because I am their voice.

            Senator Byrd wrote eloquently about that in his book.  He talked about the Panama Canal debate.  There was a tough debate.  They didn't just bring the Panama Canal treaty here and plop it on the floor and say we are going to vote on it next Monday.  Do you think it would have gotten 67 votes?  No, it would not have gotten 67 votes.  How did it get 67 votes?  The Democratic leader, Senator Byrd, and the Republican leader, Senator Baker, read David McCullough's book and changed their minds and they both supported the treaty.  Then they allowed every single amendment and reservation that anybody wanted to offer. 

            Senator Byrd wrote that many of those were killer amendments.  In other words, they were designed to kill the treaty.  But, he said, we allowed every one of them – 192 of them.  Nothing passed that was not acceptable to the joint leadership. He said we beat everything else.  We tabled them or defeated them.  But if we had not allowed that to happen and the senators had not had a chance to have their say, we would have never ratified the treaty.

            I know there may be others who want to speak.  But we have gone down a trail in the last several years -- just a few years -- that I never thought imaginable.  We have 43 new members of the Senate, 43 members of the Senate who are in their first term, plus one, the senator from Indiana, who is in his first term but served before so he has a broader view of this.  Those senators have never seen this body operate properly.  Most of them are on the other side.  So it is not necessarily their fault that this is happening, but this is not the way the Senate earned the reputation as the unique deliberative body in the world.  No one would recognize it as that today.  No one would recognize it as the authentic touch of creative genius in the American system of government.

            My hope would be that the Democratic leader would recognize this and have a change of behavior tomorrow, or maybe later this afternoon.  But if he does not, I hope the American people take this seriously and take it into account when they cast their votes in November and put six more Republicans on this side of the aisle so a Republican leader can restore this body to the luster it deserves, and the American people deserve, as the authentic touch of genius in the American political system. 


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