January 25, 2010

Udall Introduces Constitutional Option to Reform Senate Rules

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Tom Udall, D-NM, today introduced a resolution prompting the Senate to exercise its Constitutional Option to reform the rules governing the chamber at the beginning of each session. To read the full version of Udall's prepared remarks, click here.

Udall argues that the current practice of operating under rules adopted by previous Congresses robs a new Senate of its right to vote on its own rules and makes effective legislating nearly impossible. 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 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 principle that one legislature cannot bind its successors.

"We, as elected representatives, have a duty to our constituents. But partisan rancor and the Senate's own incapacitating rules often prevent us from fulfilling that duty," Udall said in his remarks on the floor of the Senate. "While I am convinced that our inability to function is our own fault, we have the authority within the Constitution to act."

Udall noted that his resolution to exercise the Constitutional Option is based on a similar strategy employed almost six decades ago by his predecessor, Clinton Anderson, who served as senator from New Mexico from 1949-1973. Anderson relied on the Constitutional Option in arguing that each new Congress brings with it a new Senate entitled to consider and adopt its own rules.

"As the junior senator from New Mexico, I have the honor of serving in Senator Clinton Anderson's former seat. And I have the desire to take up his commitment to the Senate and his dedication to the principle that in each new Congress, the Senate should exercise its constitutional power to determine its own rules," Udall said. "Let me be very clear - I am not arguing for or against any specific changes to the rules, but I do think each Senate has the right, according to the Constitution, to determine all of its rules by a simple majority vote."

To illustrate why the rules must be reformed, Udall pointed to the skyrocketing use of the filibuster in recent decades as a tool of the minority party to block votes on legislation, judicial vacancies, and presidential appointees. Since its inception, use of the cloture vote has evolved from a rarity - perhaps seven or eight times during a congressional session - to what is now the standard of business in the Senate. In the 110th Congress (2007-2008), the filibuster was used 112 times.

Udall quoted former Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, one of the Senate's most esteemed members, "To vote without debating is perilous, but to debate and never vote is imbecile." Udall went on to say, "Indeed, as the rules are being used today, a single Senator can hold a bill hostage until his or her demands are met. This is not the spirit of compromise and collegiality our founders envisioned for this body."