At the center of the Senate is an arcane procedural move called the “motion to proceed.”
This innocuously named and seemingly benign item of Senate activity is the pivot point around which the floor of the Senate often and most critically functions.
The essence of a vote on the motion to proceed is that it affects who controls the Senate. Which bills come to the floor and how they are set up for amendment is in large part determined by the lead up to, and vote on, the motion to proceed.
It is the point at which the majority and the minority truly test their strength. It is the time when the jousting is joined, seriously.
If the majority leader is able to get past the motion to proceed and actually bring to the floor a bill of his choosing — without giving up anything to the minority — then he is in total control.
He can at that point “fill the tree.” This means no amendments will be allowed of which the majority leader does not approve. The practical effect is that the Senate suddenly becomes the House.
The minority, which by tradition in the Senate has the right to offer such amendments as it deems appropriate, is cut out of the legislative process. It can only offer amendments that do not offend the majority and are countenanced by the majority leader.
Relatedly, members of the majority are relieved of having to make difficult votes on controversial issues. These are usually votes that their side will ultimately win — they are the majority, after all — but they are still politically painful. And who wants to make a painful vote? It is much easier to let the majority leader get past the motion to proceed, then “fill the tree” and avoid all those minority amendments that may make the Senate actually look like a deliberative body.
Last week, when 19 Republican senators voted with the majority leader to pass the motion to proceed, it therefore left the rest of the minority and especially the minority leader in what amounted to an unarmed position.
The minority lost the leverage to insist that the majority give the minority the deference of offering amendments, unfiltered by the need of the majority leader to protect his members from difficult issues.
The irony is that this activity occurred on an appropriations bill that was spending more than the budget caps of 2011 allowed. It is difficult to imagine an issue that goes more to the heart of what Republicans are supposed to be for in Washington than stopping or at least amending a bill that spends more than what people agreed we could spend as a government.
This bill, which provides funding for transportation projects, is always a popular one. But that fact makes it even more important that Republicans should set an example of being willing to stay within budget limits that were previously agreed to in order to begin to get our fiscal house in order. They did not do so; they voted to proceed to the bill.
This action was a kind of political equivalent of the minority playing Russian roulette with all the chambers filled.
When a minority of the minority does this — votes for the motion to proceed and turns absolute control of the Senate floor over to the majority — it creates a large problem for itself.
The minority has gratuitously given up one of its most important tools in the management and functioning of the Senate. It puts itself on the track to being irrelevant.
And being irrelevant is no fun. Just ask the House Democrats.
Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. He is the CEO of SIFMA, a financial industry lobbying group.