April 22, 2010

Udall Argues for Constitutional Option During Senate Hearing on Filibuster Reform

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Tom Udall, D-NM, today participated in the first in a series of Senate hearings on reforming the filibuster, arguing that his proposed Constitutional Option would alleviate partisan deadlock by allowing the chamber to vote on its rules of procedure at the beginning of each Congress.

Udall, a member of the Senate Rules Committee, requested hearings on the Senate rules after introducing his Constitutional Option proposal earlier this year. In his proposal, Udall argues that the current practice of robbing the Senate of its Constitutional right to adopt its rules of procedure by a simple majority at the beginning of each Congress has made effective legislating nearly impossible.

"It is time again for reform," Udall said during the hearing. "There are many great traditions in this body that should be kept and respected, but stubbornly clinging to ineffective and unproductive procedures should not be one of them. We should not limit our reform efforts to the filibuster, but look at all of the rules."

Since 1959, the Senate rules have included language mandating that they continue from one Congress to the next, unless modified by the body. However, Senate Rule XXII, known as the filibuster rule, requires the approval of "two-thirds of the senators present and voting" in order to limit debate on a change to the rules. This provision, which effectively prevents the Senate from ever amending its rules, directly conflicts with the Constitution and the common law principle upheld by the Supreme Court that one legislature cannot bind its successors.

During the hearing, Udall offered historical perspective to show that reform of the Senate rules - in particular, the filibuster rule - is not unprecedented. In fact, it has occurred regularly throughout the life of the Senate.

"Critics of reforming the filibuster argue that it will destroy the uniqueness of the Senate. They say it will turn the Senate into the House of Representatives," Udall said. "But today we will hear that the filibuster rule has been amended over the years - and this body not only survived the reforms, but was better for them."

Udall also questioned witness Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress and elective politics and a political science professor at George Washington University, regarding whether the Constitution gives each new Senate the right to determine its own rules by a simple majority.

"It's clearly technically feasible, and politically feasible," Binder said. "But the question is whether the Senate is willing to take that vote."

Udall responded, "What you're saying is that it is a Constitutional issue?"

Binder replied, "Yes. Because the Constitution says the House and Senate should adopt its own rules..."

Today's hearing, titled "Examining the Filibuster: History of the Filibuster 1789-2008," was the first in a series of hearings to be held by the Senate Rules Committee in coming months, according to committee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-NY. Future hearings are expected to focus on abuse of the filibuster, proposals to reform the filibuster, and other topics.

In addition to Binder, hearing witnesses included Gregory J. Wawro, political science professor at Columbia University; Robert B. Dove, parliamentarian emeritus for the U.S. Senate, and Stanley L. Bach, retired senior specialist in the legislative process for the Congressional Research Service.