Senate Rules Reform Back in News -- For Good Reason

This week, the topic of Senate rules reform has re-emerged in a major way. Prompted by the recent filibusters of the DISCLOSE Act and the Bring Jobs Home Act and elevated by the comments and commitments of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) about the need for reform, the renewed focus on Senate obstruction and potential reforms is timely and important. Among the key developments:

  • Senate Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell Squabble over Senate Rules : On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had a vocal and public disagreement over rules reform while on the Senate floor, helping to escalate the stakes and draw wide attention to the topic. AsHuffington Post’s Jen Bendery noted, Senator Reid said the biggest problem facing the Senate is that “we can't get legislation on the floor…We've tried very hard all different ways to move legislation in this body but for the first time in the history of the country, the number one issue in the Senate of the United States has been a procedural thing, how do we get on a bill, a motion to proceed to something. That has taken over the Senate and it needs to go away. We shouldn't have to do that anymore."
  • Senate Majority Leader Reid Makes Commitment to Rules Reform: On the Ed Schultz radio show last Friday July 13th, Reid noted, “We could have done it in the last Congress. But I got on the Senate floor and said that I made a mistake and I should have helped with that. It can be done if Obama is re-elected, and I can still do it if I have a majority, we can do it with a simple majority at the beginning of the next Congress.”
  • Media Voices Grasp Implications & Need for Reform: Referring to Senator Reid’s past comments supporting renewed Senate rules reform, Suzy Khimm of the Washington Post noted , “Reid has now gone a step farther: the Senate Majority Leader is now openly promising to pass filibuster reform in the beginning of the next Congress if Democrats manage to hold onto a simple majority in the Senate and if Obama is reelected.” In anticipation of potential progressive reluctance to change the rules in case Republicans take over the Senate, Ed Kilgore, a blogger at Washington Monthly, stated , “We’ll likely never have progressive governance in this country if every step is dependent on 60 votes in a Senate inherently controlled by small, and likely Red, States. If Republicans win the Trifecta in November, they will ruthlessly exploit existing rules to get their agenda enacted, and the theoretically awesome power of the Liberal Filibuster won’t matter. In the long run, breaking the power of the filibuster is unquestionably a progressive priority. And it will never, ever happen if it’s always a long-term proposition depending on short-term partisan advantages. Reid is right to finally break the mold and pledge to support it no matter what.” As Steve Benen of MaddowBlog noted, “the more leading officials realize the Senate wasn't designed to work this way, it didn't used to work this way, and it can't work this way, the better.”
  • Why Reform is Back in the News – DISCLOSE Act, Bring Jobs Home Act, and Beyond: This past Monday, 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. On Thursday, Senate Republicans blocked the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would have encouraged insourcing by providing tax incentives to companies that bring jobs back to the United States from overseas . Despite support from 56 Senators, including 4 Republican votes, the measure could not achieve the necessary 60 votes to achieve cloture and advance the bill. Unfortunately, the obstruction that blocks popular and broadly supported legislation like DISCLOSE and Bring Jobs Home is all too typical in the current U.S. Senate.
  • The Failure of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement”: At the beginning of the 112thCongress, U.S. Reid and McConnell announced a “ gentlemen’s agreement” to break the procedural gridlock that kept the Senate tied in knots through most of 2010. A package of meaningful 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, the modest steps away from obstruction outlined in the “gentleman’s agreement” have not cut down on GOP obstruction. According to research by David Waldman of Congress Matters and Daily Kos, this current 112th Congress already has witnessed the third highest total of cloture motions ever filed in the Senate. The only two sessions to see greater levels of obstruction were the immediately preceding 110th and 111th sessions ( see this chart ).
  • Renewed Energy for Campaign to Support Senate Rules Reforms : At the start of this 112th Congress, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Common Cause and the Sierra Club led a broad coalition of progressive organizations, dubbed Fix the Senate Now, to support the rules reform effort championed by Senators Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, and Tom Harkin. CWA is now leading renewed conversations about a new external coalition to back substantial reforms and will be convening strategy discussions and meetings in the coming weeks on the topic. 
  • What Reformers Are Really Seeking : Despite the fear-mongering one hears about the goals of Senate rules reform, CWA and other backers of reform are simply seeking a range of common-sense changes that add needed accountability and transparency to the legislative process. As congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann suggested recently , “Restoring the filibuster to its traditional role of allowing an intense minority to temporarily hold up action on issues of great national import — and away from its new use as a regular weapon for obstruction — should be a top priority. Senate rules should allow only one filibuster on any bill (now there can be two or more). Currently, the burden is on the majority to provide the 60 votes to break a filibuster; instead, the minority party should have to take the floor and hold it via debate, and provide the 41 votes needed to maintain the filibuster.”