December 09, 2014

Udall, Merkley Urge McConnell to Continue Rules Reform to Fix Broken Senate

WASHINGTON - In a letter delivered today to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced that they will continue their effort to reform the Senate rules on the first day of the next legislative session, and they urged McConnell to allow debate and support efforts to restore a healthy legislative process.

Since joining the Senate in 2009, Udall and Merkley have led the effort to increase transparency, restore accountability and foster debate in an institution where obstruction and dysfunction have pushed aside progress for the American people.

"It is our hope that you will allow the Senate to debate these rules changes, as well as any others offered by our colleagues, and that each can receive an up or down vote," Udall and Merkley wrote to McConnell. "Many members on both sides recognize the recent dysfunction in the Senate and we believe that a full and open rules debate at the start of the new Congress is a necessary step towards restoring a healthy legislative process."

In 2011 and 2013, Udall, Merkley, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a comprehensive package of rules reforms to address the systematic abuse of the filibuster and other procedural tactics that prevent the Senate from doing its work. Republicans objected to the proposed reforms, but the growing support for the effort led to a "gentlemen's agreement" in January 2013 between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to enact more moderate reforms. That agreement quickly broke down as Republicans continued to regularly filibuster nominees. In November 2013, Reid decided to use the so-called "nuclear option" -- with the support of Udall and Merkley - forcing a Senate vote to change the rules and end filibusters on presidential executive and judicial nominations, except to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ending filibusters on many nominations has relieved the backlog of executive and judicial nominations. But significant reform is still needed, such as a "talking filibuster, which would require senators to voice their opposition to legislation in person on the Senate floor.

In their letter, Udall and Merkley encouraged McConnell to use the "Constitutional Option" -- a procedural mechanism that allows a simple majority to end debate on rules changes at the beginning of a new Congress - "to allow substantive debate on potential rules reforms, followed by majority votes on each proposal" when Congress returns in January. The Constitutional Option has been used numerous times since the cloture provision was adopted in 1917; the last being in 1975 when it was the catalyst for amending the filibuster rule to its current form.

"We are greatly encouraged by reports that the next majority is leaning towards retaining the most recent change lowering the cloture threshold for most nominees," the senators wrote. "This change has allowed critical executive and judicial vacancies to be filled in a more timely fashion in line with long standing Senate traditions, as well as restored the constitutional majority standard for advice and consent."

"The unprecedented use of the filibuster, filling the amendment tree, and other procedural tactics, by both parties, has prevented the Senate from getting its work done," Udall and Merkley concluded. "The Senate needs to return to its historical practice of operating as a deliberative yet majoritarian body, when filibusters were rare and bipartisanship was the norm. We believe the proposed rules changes in our resolution provide common sense reforms that will restore the best traditions of the Senate and allow it to conduct the business that the American people expect."

The full text of the letter is available below and HERE:


The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Minority Leader
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Leader McConnell:

As you know, we introduced resolutions on the first days of the 112th and 113th Congresses to reform the Senate rules and allow the body to function as our founders intended. At the time, many Republicans derided these efforts as a "power grab" by members of the majority party.

We write today to notify you that we will introduce the reform proposals again at the beginning of the 114th Congress, when we are in the minority. It is our hope that you will allow the Senate to debate these rules changes, as well as any others offered by our colleagues, and that each can receive an up or down vote. Many members on both sides recognize the recent dysfunction in the Senate and we believe that a full and open rules debate at the start of the new Congress is a necessary step towards restoring a healthy legislative process.

We are greatly encouraged by reports that the next majority is leaning towards retaining the most recent change lowering the cloture threshold for most nominees. This change has allowed critical executive and judicial vacancies to be filled in a more timely fashion in line with long standing Senate traditions, as well as restored the constitutional majority standard for advice and consent.

While there has been much discussion of how the new majority will approach the question of changes to Senate procedures, one of the most critical changes you could make would be to establish a standard process for considering any proposals to amend the Senate's rules at the beginning of each Congress. Over the years, Senators of both parties have stated that Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution gives the Senate the right to adopt and amend its rules at the beginning of a new Congress by a simple majority vote - what has become known as the Constitutional Option. It has been used numerous times since the cloture provision was adopted in 1917, and has led to significant reforms such as the amending the filibuster rule to the three-fifths threshold in 1975.

We encourage you to use the Constitutional Option at the beginning of the 114th Congress to allow substantive debate on potential rules reforms, followed by majority votes on each proposal. We believe this will lead to the adoption of sensible changes to the rules that have a lasting impact on the body. For example, Senate rules could be improved to restore a healthier and more open floor amendment process, which you have made many recent public commitments to provide, and to institute a "talking filibuster" that encourages that the filibuster return to being a tool that is used sparingly. We believe rules reform is a preferable option over "gentlemen's agreements" by leadership or bipartisan coalitions of members, such as the "Gang of 14" in the 109th Congress. While these arrangements may have short-term benefits, they often deteriorate and lead to greater mistrust and dysfunction, as we've seen in this Congress.

The unprecedented use of the filibuster, filling the amendment tree, and other procedural tactics, by both parties, has prevented the Senate from getting its work done. The Senate needs to return to its historical practice of operating as a deliberative yet majoritarian body, when filibusters were rare and bipartisanship was the norm. We believe the proposed rules changes in our resolution provide common sense reforms that will restore the best traditions of the Senate and allow it to conduct the business that the American people expect.

We look forward to working with you on further Senate rules reforms in the 114th Congress.

Sincerely,


Tom Udall
United States Senator

Jeff Merkley
United States Senator