Senate rules reform redux

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Less than a year after Senate leaders made a  “Gentlemen’s Agreement” to reduce gridlock by easing up on use of the filibuster that for years has blocked important business, tweets of “tyranny” and howls of “nuclear option” ripped through the halls of Congress because of the way Majority Leader Harry Reid closed one avenue of obstruction.  Here’s what happened: A majority of Senators ruled that the institution should refrain from wasting time on irrelevant amendments after a supermajority votes to end debate.  

The reformed rule, which the Senate adopted with a simple majority vote, is straightforward: No more vote-a-ramas on amendments that have nothing to do with the underlying legislation.  This seems like common sense.   If friends go out to dinner and spend an hour debating what appetizer to share with the table, one person can’t block the waiter from taking the order by demanding a debate over who should win the World Series.   Sure, baseball is important and as American as apple pie –but the debate was about what’s for dinner, not homerun records.  If a Senator wants to introduce an amendment after a supermajority agrees to end debate, surely that amendment should have something to do with the underlying legislation if it’s important enough to consider after the vast majority decided it’s time to vote.

Others disagree with how the precedent was set:  A majority of Senators overruling the chair to decide what is and is not obstructionist.  But overruling the chair has been done before.  That’s not new.  What is new are repeated demands for 60 vote supermajorities to pass uncontroversial, bipartisan legislation.   In 1975, overruling the chair played a major part in how the Senate reduced the cloture supermajority from 67 votes to 60.  And if history is any guide, it’s the most effective way to cut through the massive knot that the minority has tied up to maximize obstruction. 

We commend the Senate for taking a step in the right direction.  There’s now just one less tool in an obstructer’s toolbox.  When the Senate returns, we hope they will stand by their new precedent and focus on putting Americans back to work.

Edgar is the president and CEO of Common Cause and a former member of Congress, and Kohl is Senior Director at the Communications Workers of America.