What Real Senate Reform Looks Like

Washington, DC – As the move to reform Senate rules gains momentum, some observers are calling for the Senate to reach a bi-partisan agreement focused on changing the behavior of individual Members, rather than changing the chamber’s rules. The Fix the Senate Coalition has an answer for that: Been there. Done that. Didn’t work.

It was called the “gentlemen’s agreement,” reached in January 2011, and it failed. Neither side made good on its promises. To truly change behavior we need actual rules reform in the upper chamber, not non-binding agreements that tinker at the margins.  

The Fix the Senate Now coalition agrees the likely package of sensible Senate reforms deserve bi-partisan support. However, Senators should not allow informal accords to derail support for the rules changes that are necessary to reform the Senate.  Nor should those negotiations and the related focus on how to achieve reforms overwhelm the critical focus on the substance of the proposed reform package.  

•    Focus on the Institution, Not the Individual: Some observers have called for a focus on changing individual Senators’ behavior instead of changing the Senate’s rules. But without rules change first, old behaviors will continue. The Senate and the country cannot afford another non-binding “gentlemen’s agreement,” such as the handshake deal reached two years ago between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

The Brennan Center for Justice found in its recent report on Senate filibuster abuse that the “gentlemen’s agreement” at the start of this 112th Congress has worked for neither the Democratic majority nor the Republican minority. As the Brennan Center notes, “Pledges of comity alone cannot rein in procedural abuse.”

•    The Country Deserves a Discussion on the Urgency of Reform & Substance of Proposed Reforms: The focus on the “constitutional option” and the question of “how you change the rules” should not distract us from the fundamental, larger issue: that the Senate’s rules need changing in the first place. Unprecedented obstruction in the Senate has prevented deliberation, decreased compromise, and created a crisis in our judiciary as critical vacancies remain unfilled.  

On a similar point, POLITICO reports that a group of Senators of both parties are working together to try and reach an accord on Senate rules changes in a bi-partisan fashion. While the goal of bi-partisanship is important, the likely reforms – preserving the minority’s voice, but featuring such sensible measures as streamlining the nominations process, requiring a talking filibuster, and providing only one chance to filibuster a bill – are sensible and deserve this form of bi-partisan support. As a result, Senators intent on working in a bi-partisan fashion should recognize the sensible nature of this package and get on board. Bi-partisanship must advance, not derail, Senate rules reform.  

Contact: Michael Earls at 202-261-2388


The Fix the Senate Now coalition includes the Alliance for Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Sierra Club, and the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW).