Something has gone terribly wrong when the American people have a less favorable impression of Congress than Brussels sprouts, root canals, and used car salesmen. Most people today believe the Senate in particular has become completely dysfunctional. And in many ways it has. I’ve served in the Senate for nearly 38 years, and I have never seen it this bad.
We must be careful, though, in diagnosing the Senate’s true ills. Many have highlighted Washington gridlock that seems to flow from an inceasingly sharp partisan divide. President Barack Obama and his congressional allies often complain about political paralysis and the Senate’s inefficiency.
But the Constitution did not create the Senate to be efficient. Quite the opposite. As the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat and the longest serving senator in U.S. history, observed: “[The Senate’s] purpose was and is to examine, consider, protect, and to be a totally independent source of wisdom and judgment on the actions of the lower house and on the executive.”
This purpose of careful deliberation and “sober second thought” is the basis of the Senate’s institutional structure and has shaped its longstanding traditions. Thoughtful discussion, watchful scrutiny, and robust concern for the sovereign states and individual liberties are meant to drive the Senate’s work.
Unlike the House of Representatives, where a bare majority can rule, the Senate generally operates on the principle of unanimous consent: not just the agreement of a majority or even a supermajority, but rather the agreement of all senators. To live up to its reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body, each member must have a voice.
But under Majority Leader Harry Reid’s heavy hand, the twin pillars of the Senate’s careful deliberation — unlimited debate and an open amendment process — have been almost entirely curtailed. Reid routinely moves to end debate as soon as a bill is taken up on the Senate floor. He has acted to block consideration of amendments on 87 separate occasions — more than twice as many times as the previous six majority leaders combined. Reid’s efforts to assert unilateral control have been so extreme that the Senate recently went for nearly a year with votes on only 11 Republican amendments. During the same period, Republican leaders in the House — where minority rights are not guaranteed — allowed 176 votes on Democrat amendments.
Reid regularly calls votes on bills that have not gone through the regular committee process, eliminating the Senate’s primary opportunity for meaningful deliberation, effective scrutiny, and constructive compromise. His actions have demonstrated an unmistakable drive to use Senate control as a political weapon rather than in a serious effort to address the pressing issues facing our country.
The Senate hasn’t always been such a sham. Until very recently, its open and deliberative process produced some of the greatest legislative achievements of the past few decades — from the critical economic reforms of the 1980s and 90s, to landmark social legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
None of these major accomplishments came easily. Success was only possible because members respected the Senate’s central purposes and longstanding traditions — especially the opportunity for meaningful debate and diverse amendments to enable constructive collaboration.