Time is right for real rules reform in U.S. Senate

Led by reform-minded Senators such as Jeff Merkley (D-Ore), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Senate explored rules reform at the start of this 112th Congress. The Communications Workers of America (CWA), Common Cause and the Sierra Club led a broad coalition, of progressive organizations, dubbed Fix the Senate Now, to support the rules reform effort. Broad support for change took the form of more than 40,000 calls to Senate offices, more than 100,000 petitions signed and delivered, and dozens of supportive editorials from national and state outlets.
 

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The entire package of meaningful reforms backed by the coalition failed to achieve a majority, with one falling just two votes short of passage. However, we hoped that the modest steps away from obstruction outlined in the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” would be honored. Unfortunately, the Senate quickly defaulted to its recent obstructionist tendencies.
 
In a March 2011 letter, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and eight other Senators promised to use the filibuster and other obstructionist tools to block Senate debate on any bill that failed to meet their extreme criteria. And the wider Republican caucus has fallen in line and followed through on these threats. According to research by David Waldman of Congress Matters and Daily Kos, this current 112th Congress already has witnessed the third highest total of cloture motions ever filed, and it’s only May. The only two sessions to see greater levels of obstruction were the immediately preceding 110th and 111th sessions.
 
Thankfully, Senate rules reform is now back on the table and in the news. This month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) spoke out in favor of U.S. Senate rules reform, saying, “If there were ever a time when Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley were prophetic, it’s tonight. These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t. They were right. The rest of us were wrong — or most of us, anyway. What a shame...If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rules, because it’s been abused, abused, abused.”
 
Last week, flanked by several Members of Congress and DREAM Act-eligible youth, Common Cause filed a lawsuit asserting the unconstitutional nature of the Senate filibuster. Separate from the judicial future of the lawsuit, the development reminds us of how much the current level of Republican obstruction deviates from historical norms.
 
Despite the fear-mongering one hears about the goals of Senate rules reform, we are simply seeking a range of common-sense changes that add needed accountability and transparency to the legislative process. Reform elements such as a Mr. Smith style “talking filibuster,” stopping delay tactics on judicial and presidential nominations, and eliminating the filibuster in the motion to proceed are not radical notions. Instead, they represent achievable steps that we can take to move the Senate towards functionality and progress.
 
Our nation faces enormous difficulties that our political system seems incapable of addressing. Senate rules reform is an essential step to ensure that we have the means, in addition to the will, to live up to the challenges of our time.
 
Cohen is the president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA)