Many psychoanalyses of the United States Senate will be published in the coming months. All of them will conclude that the Senate is broken. They will offer new rules and schemes for controlling individual senators’ rights. They will be wrong. Any prescription asking for more controls on the right to offer amendments and debate hasn’t looked carefully enough at the Senate and its record of successfully handling the most difficult problems throughout the history of our republic.
Let’s examine the modern record. One of the great triumphs of the Senate was the passage of the Civil Rights Act with strong bipartisan support. There is no issue that has brought the country more pain and division than the fight for civil rights. Recent scholarship has pointed out that despite years of effort to pass the civil rights law; the plan laid out by Majority Leader Mike Mansfield did not limit debate and amendments. It instead opened open up the process so that opponents and proponents had the right to offer amendments and get full debate and resolution of their differences by open discourse. There were 117 amendments after cloture that were considered on the bill. All parties agreed that they had gotten a fair opportunity to plead their case. While race issues persist, this law has been accepted throughout the country.
It is hard to recall how intensely the parties were divided over the Panama Canal Treaty. It was a definitional issue in American politics for several years in the late ’70s. There were actually two treaties debated: the Neutrality Treaty and the Panama Canal Treaty. On the Neutrality Treaty, 32 votes were taken before the ratification vote. On the Panama Canal Treaty itself, 43 amendments received votes in the Senate before the final vote to ratify the treaty. No one tried to limit the rights of senators to offer amendments or debate these two treaties. As a result the disagreements over the treaty are barely remembered as a significant issue. Once again, debate and votes softened the divisions.
President Ronald Reagan moved aggressively in the opening days of his first term to pass across-the-board tax cuts. His own vice president called them “voodoo economics.” Democrats in the House and Senate were even stronger in their opposition to Reagan’s central economic policy proposal. Consideration of the bill in the Senate took two weeks with 141 amendments being offered. Final passage resulted in a bipartisan vote of 89–11.
During Reagan’s second term, the Senate passed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 after spending almost three weeks on the floor. During consideration of the bill, the Senate took 24 recorded votes and disposed of 109 amendments. The final passage was 97–3.
The moral seems pretty clear. The rules and procedures of the Senate which allow for open amendment and extended debate yield positive legislative outcomes and help build broad public support on divisive issues. We don’t need a new set of rules for the Senate. The rules and procedures followed by the Senate for decades serve the country very well when senators are allowed to offer amendments, debate and vote on issues.