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Bring Accountability Back to the Senate

July 28, 2010
  • In the fourth of a series of hearings in the Senate Rules Committee, today we heard from my colleagues, Senators Lautenberg and Bennet about proposals for fixing Senate rules. Their proposals included a lot of good ideas that I believe would go a long way to making the Senate work for the American people again.

    A trend you see in these proposals is that they're not limited to just reforming the filibuster. The filibuster is a symptom of a larger issue. And that issue is a system of rules in a Senate where dysfunction reigns and accountability suffers.

    I believe the Constitution provides a solution to this problem. Many of my colleagues, as well as constitutional scholars, agree with me that a simple majority of the Senate can adopt or amend its rules at the beginning of a new Congress. We can do this because it is a basic constitutional principle that a Senate is not bound by the rules of past Congresses.

    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.

    You can see a great overview of the history of the Constitutional Option in a recent post by the Washington Post's Ezra Klein.

    Today, I asked Barbara Sinclair, Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics Emerita at the University of California about the constitutional option and here's what she had to say:

    I think that is by far the most likely way of being able to change the rules without doing serious damage to the institution. To essentially reverse the precedent (of the Senate) as a continuing body would certainly provide an amount of flexibility. One of the real problems is that with supermajorities required for just about everything, it makes it hard for the public to hold anybody accountable for what does or doesn't get done.

    If the Senate adopts its rules at the beginning of each Congress by a simple majority, as provided by the Constitution, we can have an institution where each and every senator is held accountable.

    It's simple. We adopt the rules, we play by the rules and if you abuse the rules, we can fix the rules. 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 accountable to the American people.


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