It’s not surprising to hear the current United States Senate described as “dysfunctional,” even “constipated.” It is surprising to hear it described that way by a current United States senator. “When I first arrived here,” says New Mexico freshman Senator Tom Udall, “the younger senators…were saying, Why do we do it this way? This is driving us crazy. This place is completely constipated! What’s going on here?”
Because the filibuster has foiled so much good progressive legislation over the past two years, the sixty-vote supermajority requirement it imposes has attracted the most attention. But the filibuster is just one face of the cube of dysfunction that is the Senate. Almost as much of a problem are the procedural mechanisms that allow the minority, and in some cases a lone senator, to stall or block legislation that the overwhelming majority of senators would support if only it could come to a vote.
In a recent conference call with reporters, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley pointed out that the noncontroversial food safety bill, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support, required three separate cloture motions, delaying its passage by a number of weeks and taking up precious floor time. Earlier this year at a briefing with members of the progressive media, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow said that if Harry Reid filed cloture petitions on all outstanding nominees, the time that would require would eat up every remaining second of the 111th Congress. No financial reform, no unemployment extensions. Nothing.
A few weeks ago I met Udall in his office to discuss his plan to rectify the situation, and I was struck by how much his frustrations with the Senate sounded like those I’ve been hearing ever since I moved to Washington. “What is going on here?” is the question that Senate observers (myself included) find themselves asking time and again. More than anything, the sheer opaqueness of Senate procedures is dangerous to democracy. When legislators can sponsor a bill and brag to constituents about their support for it, then filibuster the motion to proceed on that same bill or require a number of minority amendments they know will spell the bill’s demise, they are running an insidious hustle on voters. And they are attenuating the basic democratic bond of accountability between people and their elected representatives.
You can never quite tell who stands where in the Senate because so much of the advocacy and opposition are done in the poorly lit antechambers of procedure rather than on the floor. “The basic idea of the Senate always was that if you wanted to speak out you could,” Udall recently told reporters during a conference call. “Now it has been turned on its head. Now opposition is lodged, and you don’t know who opposed it. We want to bring these people out of the shadows.”
It’s taken a while for reporters, activists and members of Congress themselves to notice that the straitjacket of Senate procedure has been so tightened it threatens to suffocate the body. But an unprecedented alignment of experts, activists and senators has, for the first time in decades, put the issue of rules reform on the table. And they’re proposing a simple, straightforward way to get it done.
On the first day of the new session the Senate convenes to pass its rules. For decades this has been a pro forma vote, with each new Senate adopting the rules of the last one. Udall’s plan is to find fifty-one senators to vote no on adopting the previous set of rules, thereby opening a debate over a new rules package that would address the reformers’ concerns and garner fifty-one votes to pass.