Proposed partisan rules change an ‘affront to the American people’
I’d like to turn to another issue that doesn’t grab as many headlines as these others we’re all focused on these days, but which is critically important, since it relates to a mortal threat that’s been quietly gathering against one of the most cherished safeguards of our government.
I’m referring to the latest effort by some on the other side, most of whom have never served a day in the minority, to force a change in the Senate rules at the beginning of the New Year that would fundamentally change the character of the Senate. This is no exaggeration.
What these Democrats have in mind is a fundamental change to the way the Senate operates for the purpose of consolidating their own power and further marginalizing the minority voices that the Senate was built to protect.
In the name of “efficiency,” their plan is to use a heavy-handed tactic that would poison party relations even more.
In the name of “efficiency,” they would prevent the very possibility of compromise, and threaten to make the disputes of the past few years look like pillow fights.
To understand why, let me explain in a little more detail what’s being proposed.
What this small group of primarily Senate sophomores is now proposing, is that when the Senate gavels in at the beginning of the new Congress a bare majority of senators can disregard the rule that says changes to the Senate rules can only be approved on the same broad bipartisan basis we reserve for approving treaties and overriding presidential vetoes: a supermajority plus.
Lyndon Johnson once said of this 67-vote threshold for changes to the rules that it “preserves, indisputably, the character of the Senate as the one continuing body in our policy-making process.” And Sen. Reid himself once described changing Senate procedure by Majority fiat as, “breaking the rules to change the rules.”
What’s being proposed now would undermine the very purpose of the Senate as the one place in our system where minority views and opinions have always been respected and heard, and, in most cases, incorporated into law.
Until now, you could say that minority rights have always been the defining characteristic of the Senate. That’s why members of both parties have always defended it–whether they were in the majority or the minority–because they knew the Senate was the last legislative check against the kind of raw exercise of power majority parties have always been tempted to wield.
The Congressional Record contains mountains of reverential statements by Republicans and Democrats extolling the near-sacred character of the Senate as the one legislative body on earth that protects minority views from majority rule, and that requires supermajorities for anything significant to become law.
So that majorities can’t simply roll over those who disagree with them. And, just as importantly, so majority parties are forced to resolve the great issues of the moment in the middle, ensuring their stability and permanence. It’s this mechanism that has so frustrated majority parties over the years, but which has ensured–at least most of the time–that our laws are stable and not subject to change every time the parties change power. This is what makes the Senate different. This is what makes this body great. And, up until recently, many of those who now want to change these rules agreed.
“Just a few years ago, as I’ve already indicated, the Majority Leader was one of the staunchest defenders of the Senate’s protection of minority rights for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. Yet now that he finds himself frustrated with those rules he once championed, he’s prepared to recklessly throw those rules away, and his own solemn pledges to defend them.
On Dec. 8, 2006, the Majority Leader made a public pledge to fight all efforts to change rules protecting the minority once he became Majority Leader. It’s a pledge he repeated during another proposed rules change two years ago.
I want to quote in full what the Majority Leader said that day, because in light of his words then it’s hard to believe what he’s doing now.
Heres what he said:
“As Majority Leader, I intend to run the Senate with respect for the rules and for the minority rights the rules protect. The Senate was not established to be efficient. Sometimes the rules get in the way of efficiency. The Senate was established to make sure that minorities are protected. Majorities can always protect themselves, but minorities cannot. That is what the Senate is all about. For more than 200 years the rules of the Senate have protected the American people, and rightfully so. The need to muster 60 votes in order to terminate Senate debate naturally frustrates the majority and oftentimes the minority. I am sure it will frustrate me when I assume the office of majority leader in a few weeks, but I recognize this requirement is a tool that serves the long-term interest of the Senate and the American people and our country. It is often said that the laws are ‘the system of wise restraints that set men free.’ The same might be said of the Senate rules. I will do my part as majority leader to foster respect for the rules and traditions of our great institution. I say on this floor that I love so much that I believe in the Golden Rule. I am going to treat my Republican colleagues the way that I expect to be treated. There is no ‘I’ve got you,’ no get even. I am going to do everything I can to preserve the traditions and rules of this institution that I love.”
The words of our friend, the Majority Leader, bear repeating.
He acknowledged “the Senate was not established to be efficient,” but rather “to make sure that minorities are protected.”
And with this fundamental purpose of the Senate in mind, he pledged he would “do everything [he could] to preserve the traditions and rules of this institution that [he loves].”
It’s hard to imagine a clearer pledge than that, Mr. President.
And I’m afraid that going back on it now would have such a corrosive effect on comity that it would threaten our ability to ever get anything accomplished around here.
Let’s be clear: the rules change that’s being proposed is not an affront to me or to the Republican Party. It’s an affront to the American people. It’s an affront to the people who sent me and the other 46 Republicans here to represent them in the Senate, but whose voices would be shut out if the Majority Leader and this cohort of shortsighted senate sophomores have their way and permanently change this body. At the moment, Republicans represent the voters of 31 states, representing a total population of more than 180 million Americans. Shutting off our right to express the views of our constituents, as is being proposed, would effectively shut these people out of the process.
What the Majority Leader and this cohort of senators who don’t seem to understand what the Senate was intended for are proposing would guarantee that the one sure means our constituents now have of being heard in Washington is gone.
If a bare majority can now proceed to any bill it chooses, and once on that bill, the Majority Leader, all by himself, can shut out all amendments that aren’t to his liking, then those who elected us to advocate for their views will have lost their voice in the legislative process. This is something the Majority Leader used to understand. He used to understand that protecting the rights of the minority party meant protecting the right of the people who sent us here to be heard in Washington. He understood the importance of defending the minority view when he was in the minority. But now that he’s been in the majority, he seems to have conveniently forgotten all this.
The people of Kentucky elected two Republican senators to the Senate. Does the Majority Leader think the views of the people of Kentucky shouldn’t be heard? Does he think the Nevadans who sent Senator Heller to the Senate shouldn’t be heard?
Does he believe that on the day he finds himself in the minority once again that he should no longer be heard? Or does he think that Democrats will remain in the Majority from now until the end of time?
For the past several years, many of us on the Republican side have raised loud objection to the diminished rights of the minority to participate in the legislative process around here.
Democrat leaders have tried in more ways than one to silence those they disagree with. They’ve blocked members–including their own committee chairmen–from expressing themselves in committee through unprecedented use of Senate Rule 14, which allows them to bypass committees altogether; and they’ve blocked members from expressing themselves on the floor through an unprecedented use of filling the amendment tree; which prevents the Senate from considering amendments the Majority doesn’t like.
No amendments in committee. No amendments on the floor.
The Majority Leader made this clear to Senator McCain, in a remarkable moment of candor, when he bragged that “[the] amendment days are over.” He’s preferred to write legislation in the confines of his conference room, rather than in the public eye, as he did most famously with the drafting of Obamacare.
And I say to everyone: if you want more legislation around here crafted the way that bill was crafted, you’ll support what the Majority Leader is proposing now. Because that’s where this is headed: more authoritarianism, more secrecy, and even less input from rank and file members on both sides of the aisle.
As I say, we’ve protested all of this, and spoken out loudly against these abuses of the Senate. But now the Majority Leader wants to go even farther. He doesn’t propose to simply abuse the rules. He wants to break the rules and his own very public pledge to defend those rules at all costs.
Make no mistake: what the Majority Leader is proposing is a Senate where the only rule is his whim, where the rest of us are bystanders, including the members of his own party.
Do Democrats really want to go down this road?
We’ve got members here from both parties who used to serve in the House of Representatives–Democrats and Republicans–who say to me they thought the Senate was different. I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat: you came to the Senate because you knew that here you could make a difference for your constituents.
Here, you’d be heard. Here you could offer amendments.
Here, the minority was protected. Here, the Majority Leader had to work with the other side.
What even Senate Democrats have discovered over the past few years is a very different place, a place where committees no longer matter, where members of both parties are shut out of debate, and where bills are drafted behind closed doors. Where politicians trade favors in secret instead of exchanging ideas in public, just to get legislation across the finish line.
You know, when I come to the Senate every day I know I work in a body of people who have very different views than I do about the role of government and the best solutions to the problems we face. But I know that the price of belonging to this place is having to hear them out and vote on their ideas, and that the price of their belonging here is they have to do the same.
The American people need to know what’s going on here. And that’s why I hope that Republicans, and hopefully many Democrats who care more about this institution than some temporary exercise of raw partisan political power, will come forward over the next few weeks and speak out against this naked power grab. And when they do, I hope they’ll be guided by the words of another former Democratic senator, who said the following about the Senate and its uniqueness:
The American people sent us here to be their voice. They understand that those voices can at times become loud and argumentative, but they also hope we can disagree without being disagreeable. At the end of the day, they expect both parties to work together to get the people’s business done. What they do not expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet. The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse.
I don’t often agree with President Obama on matters of policy, and the issue he was referring to here was different than this one. But the principle he expressed in defending his position then is one that I believe in wholeheartedly.
For the sake of this institution and the future of the country, I implore members on both sides to oppose this naked power grab strenuously and loudly.
It may be the most important thing you ever do. Because the debates of the moment are passing. But the Senate must endure. And nothing less is at stake.