THE PROMISE AND REALITY OF SENATE RULES REFORM THIS CONGRESS
The U.S. Senate limped through the 112th Congress, thanks to a “gentlemen’s agreement” between U.S. Senate Majority Leader Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Still, America witnessed the third highest total of cloture motions ever filed. The only two sessions to see greater levels of obstruction were the immediately preceding 110th and 111th sessions.
A package of meaningful Senate reforms backed by reform-minded Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Tom Harkin (D-IA) and supported by the Fix the Senate Now coalition failed to achieve a majority, with one falling just two votes short of passage. However, we hoped that the modest steps away from obstruction outlined in the “gentleman’s agreement” would be honored. Unfortunately, the Senate quickly defaulted to its obstructionist tendencies.
At the start of this 113th Congress, the Senate debated filibuster and rules reform. Reforms backed by the Fix the Senate Now coalition, and similar to those proposed in the 112th session, sought to protect the rights and voices of the minority party in the Senate, while curbing the massive obstruction that has brought so much legislative business to a halt. While the ultimate compromise agreement between
Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell stopped short of the meaningful changes we sought, the Fix the Senate Now coalition hoped we would see at least incremental improvements in the functioning of the Senate.
Unfortunately, the work of the Senate was held hostage by extremists, even when addressing advancing popular legislation, to such an extent that the nation we brought to the brink of filibuster Armageddon. The 11th hour agreement that was finally reached did advance key executive branch nominees for an up-or-down vote and ultimate confirmation as an example of how the Senate should basically function.
However, let there be no mistake that the Senate still has work to do to fully earn back the trust of the American people and to live up to its best traditions. Until 60 votes is no longer the default threshold for every order of Senate business; until the plague of federal judicial vacancies is resolved; and until the Senate raises the costs of obstruction to make gridlock for gridlock’s sake a less viable strategy, we will continue to work to fix the broken Senate.
CONSEQUENCES OF OBSTRUCTION
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) infamously declared that his “single most important” goal was to make President Obama a “one-term president.” His playbook from the start of the Obama Administration was simple – to convince his caucus to obstruct anything and everything. As a result, to an extent unprecedented in American history, 60 votes became the needed threshold for nearly every order of Senate business.
Republicans derailed energy and climate legislation and blocked any debate on the Employee Free Choice Act, which passed the House with an overwhelming majority and garnered 59 supporters in the Senate. Also, the DISCLOSE Act – which would have increased transparency over independent groups’ campaign spending – failed to overcome a Republican filibuster and died, despite receiving support from 51 Senators and past support from many current Republican opponents. Because of the threat of a filibuster, the U.S. Senate failed to pass the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks for certain types of gun sales, blocking the amendment by a 54-46 margin in mid-April. Although the amendment received a majority of the Senate’s support, it was subject to the same 60-vote threshold ordinarily reserved for ending filibusters. Finally, Senate Republicans blocked the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would have encouraged in-sourcing by providing tax incentives to companies that bring jobs back to the United States from overseas.
Separately from blocking substantive legislation, Republicans have used Senate rules to gum up even the most basic levers of governance. As Gregory Kroger, a University of Miami political scientist and filibuster expert, said, “The Senate has ceased to be a functioning organization.”