February 03, 2011

Steps Toward a Better Senate

When my predecessor, Clinton Anderson of New Mexico served in the U.S. Senate, it was at a time of great national challenges. As the civil rights movement began to take shape, obstruction in the Senate repeatedly stood in the way of progress. Anti-lynching bills were filibustered in 1922 and '35 and '38, and anti-race discrimination bills were blocked almost a dozen times starting in 1946. Anderson recognized the problem early in his Senate career, and understood that the Constitution provided a means to counter that obstruction.

Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution gives the House and the Senate the authority to determine its rules by a simple majority. Anderson gathered a bipartisan group of reform-minded senators and pushed this Constitutional Option. He attempted the Constitutional Option at the beginning of the Congress in 1953 and 1957, but it failed because he did not have the support of a majority. But eventually momentum grew to the point where the Senate finally did accept reforms in 1959.

When the people of New Mexico chose me to serve as their senator, I picked up Senator Anderson's mantle to pursue reform of this institution. A year ago, I stood on the floor of the Senate and called on my colleagues to once again reflect on what this institution has become and how it could be better. My call for reform came amid a new era of unprecedented obstruction, and we saw a momentum build for change that Anderson could have only dreamed about.

This was an important fight to have. It was about bringing greater transparency to the Senate and fixing rules that lead to backroom deals, secret holds and the obstruction that causes so much gridlock. It was about making the Senate more accountable to meeting the needs of the American people and preventing the routine abuse of the rules for partisan gain.

It was about restoring the Senate as an institution where we can debate and address the challenges we face as a nation, in contrast to the empty chamber of today where good ideas go to die.

Because of the momentum we built over the course of the last year, we were able to force a debate over Senate rules reform, the likes of which hadn't been seen for more than 35 years. And while I'm disappointed that ultimately this body lacked the necessary will to enact truly substantive reforms, we did achieve meaningful steps in the right direction:

  • Senators can no longer use a "secret hold" to anonymously block legislation or nominees.
  • The Senate will take steps to ease the logjam of Executive nominee confirmations so that Presidents can put more of their teams in place when elected.
  • Senators can no longer obstruct votes by forcing the reading of amendments that have been made public online with plenty of notice.
  • Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle have agreed to measures intended to reduce obstruction and pursue a more open debate.

However, there is far more work to be done because real reform is never a short-term project.

But we should take a moment to reflect on how far this movement has come in a year. A few reform-minded senators, a handful of organizations promoting open government and an engaged citizenry, connected and informed using new media, effectively pushed a conversation over arcane parliamentary procedure to the forefront.

It was the pursuit of the Constitutional Option that drove this push for reform, and I'm sure it will again. It's that push that lead to a broader understanding of how the Senate operates - by those inside and outside of its walls - and ultimately, to the reforms that were achieved.

One day, I believe this moment will be seen as the start of a push for larger, more lasting changes. Anderson's push for the Constitutional Option took several Congresses to achieve reform, and similarly our current fight is far from over.

Down the line, as we continue a conversation on how the Senate should work, we should start by reviewing this round of reforms. Here's what I've been seeing about the reforms and how the Constitutional Option was the catalyst:

Los Angeles Times:

"In the end, the yearlong effort led by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to alter the Senate procedures came to a close in the time-honored way so many decisions are made in the chamber -- through a consensus deal negotiated by the leaders."

Greg Sargent, Washington Post:

"But on the Senate floor today, Tom Udall offered a very strong counter-argument, suggesting that this agreement nixes the possibility of any meaningful reforms in the future... Udall's argument: If Democrats hadn't threatened to pass filibuster reforms via a simple majority, the issue would have been a non-starter from the very beginning."

Talking Points Memo:

"But when support for that option diminished, and opposition intensified, the reformers gave way to their leaders. Though it's unlikely that any rules changes would have occurred without Udall's efforts, any changes to the rules will be invoked through the standard process."

Huffington Post:

"In the end, the question was how Democrats could maximize their leverage. Republicans understood that the more far-reaching package of changes stood no chance of passage, but the mere specter of exercising the constitutional option was something GOP leadership wanted to avoid. So when the final arrangement was announced, alongside the incremental rules changes was a pledge to spurn its use for the time being."

Ezra Klein, Washington Post:

"Historically, major filibuster reforms have been a multi-Congress effort, and we may look back in a few years and recognize this as the beginning of one."

Common Cause:

"Three bright spots in this debate have been Sens. Tom Harkin, Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall, who've made a sustained, energetic effort to get the Senate to do the work Americans elected it to do."

Chris Bowers, Daily Kos:

"...Once there was consensus within the Democratic caucus on what reforms were needed, then worries about using the Constitutional Option to enshrine those reforms in Senate rules would fall into place. Or, at the very least, that consensus on needed reforms, combined with a good bluff on the Constitutional Option plus strong grassroots pressure and positive media coverage, would make Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans come to the table and support significant reform."

David Waldman, Congress Matters:

"Senate rules reform fights have never been won right out of the gate. The successful reforms of the past have all required several attempts, spread out in two-year intervals, sometimes stretching out over decades. In "blogging years," that's an eternity. In the United States Senate, where many members serve for 30 years or more, that can be the blink of an eye."