A plan to change the Senate's rules and make the Senate work again
We have heard about obstruction in Congress, how the Senate is broken, and the desperate need of reform.
I want to let you know that you are not alone. These frustrations are shared both inside and outside of the Senate.
And you can trust hearing it from me. I used to be a member of the House of Representatives, and no one gets more fed up with abuse of Senate rules than members of the House.
In the current Congress, the House has passed about 350 bills that the Senate has neglected to consider. Many of them passed the House overwhelmingly. This demonstrates perfectly the old House adage, “The Republicans are the opposition, but the Senate is the enemy.”
It’s no wonder that when Representative David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee — a man I greatly admire — announced his retirement this year, he did so saying, “all I know is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability-destroying rules of the United States Senate to confused and angry and frustrated constituents.”
It’s clear that concern for the dysfunction of this body runs far and wide. And the obstruction we have seen over the past few years is on a scale like nothing before
But the greatest frustration always seems to be that fixing the rules is impossible — that overcoming the rules is insurmountable.
The Senate rules call for two-thirds of senators, or 67 votes, to end a filibuster of any change to the rules. It takes little math to realize that reform through this route is all but impossible. It’s also not what the founders intended.
Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution states that “each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” There is no mandate that it be done by a two-thirds vote, as the founders clearly required for major initiatives such as amending the Constitution or adopting a treaty.
The constitution plainly gives us an answer to overcoming obstruction. So first thing, at the beginning of the next Congress, I will move for the Senate to adopt its rules by a simple majority. This is the Constitutional Option.
It’s what the House does, it’s what nearly every legislature in the world does, and it’s what the U.S. Senate should do to make sure we’re not being “bound by the dead hand of the past,” as the late steward of the Senate’s rules, Sen. Robert Byrd, once said.
It’s our chance to fix rules that are being abused, like the filibuster and secret holds.
Even without major changes to the rules, just adopting the rules at the beginning of each session of Congress will make a difference.
One reason the rules are abused right now is because they’re untouchable. If my colleagues know that we can change the rules, there’s an incentive to play by the rules. It’s like children: if they abuse a privilege then sometimes it has to be taken away. Maybe then we wouldn’t see the kind of obstruction we have over the past few years.
But the rules are broken and we should change them. The filibuster has made the Senate into a supermajoritarian institution; secret holds leave our government’s agencies without leadership and our courts without judges; and the power yielded by single senators has expanded the influence of special interests.
The Constitutional Option is a chance to revitalize the Senate. But I can’t do it alone.
So I offer my Challenge for Rules Change. I challenge my fellow senators to join me and fix the rules on the first day of Congress. I challenge Senate candidates to pledge to join me and fix the rules on the first day. And I challenge all of you.
Senate rules are integral to every political issue that’s important to the grassroots, from climate change and campaign finance reform to equal rights and income inequality.
So to writers and advocates for these crucial issues that the Senate needs to address, I challenge you to also ask my colleagues in the Senate, “will you fix the rules on the first day of Congress? Will you vote to end the obstruction, to end the dysfunction, and get back to the business of the American people?”
I offer my Challenge for Rules Change because the Senate’s inability to act on the many issues before us is unacceptable and unsustainable.
After years of unprecedented obstruction, the Senate must vote to adopt its rules on the first day of the 112th Congress and revive a Senate that has become a graveyard for good ideas.
Editor’s note: Here’s another blog post Sen. Udall recently wrote on this subject. Below is video of him at a meeting of the U.S. Senate Rules Committee on the filibuster, in a Q&A with panelists:
More stories in this series:
Over the weekend, the PBS show Need to Know ran a fantastic piece on Senate dysfunction, focused in particular on filibuster abuse. It features Sen. Tom Udall, a big supporter of Senate rules reform, and George Packer, who wrote a …
The Senate’s not working because it doesn’t take any work to stop it from working — and that’s what the Republicans are interested in doing. Current rules make stopping the Senate from doing its work the easiest thing in the …
The filibuster stands today as the single most important impediment to the significant reforms needed in America’s climate/energy policies, its immigration policies, its labor law policies, and its need for a functioning judiciary. But beyond that, the filibuster has become …
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