Editorial: Ugly Senate

New Reform Wave Rising to Combat Obstructionism

Posted May 11, 2010 at 6:18pm

In his characteristically blunt retirement announcement last week, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey declared that he was “bone tired” after 42 years in Congress.

“All I do know,” added the Wisconsin Democrat, “is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability-destroying rules of the Senate to confused, angry and frustrated constituents.”

As all of us who work on Capitol Hill know — but most citizens only dimly understand — 60 votes are required for any but the most trivial legislation to even be considered on the Senate floor, and a single Senator can block a bill or nomination by placing a hold on it, openly or anonymously.

Both parties, when they’ve been in the minority, have used threats of filibusters and holds to obstruct the flow of legislation and nominations, and both parties, when in the majority, have denounced the “obstructionism” of the minority.

You’d think, as a result, that there would be a bipartisan consensus to change things — because, of course, this year’s majority could be next year’s minority.

But that would ignore both the short-term thinking and savage partisanship that dominate politics in this city. So, each party — right now, it’s the Republicans — works to perfect obstructionism with new uses of the procedural tricks they’ve seen the other employ.

We’re pleased that a new reform spirit is taking hold in the Senate, with Democratic freshman and sophomore Members announcing plans to push for rules changes at the outset of the next Congress, and with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) taking a new shot at “secret holds.”

The junior Democrats are proposing to try in January to amend Senate rules by majority vote instead of the two-thirds called for in the rules themselves. This tactic worked successfully in 1975 to lower the threshold for breaking a filibuster from 67 to 60 votes.

Of course, the Senate was designed by the nation’s framers to slow down legislation that might speed with undue haste through the House. We wouldn’t expect the Senate to turn itself into a strict, majority-rules chamber.

But instead of having significant legislation subject to two filibusters — one on a motion to proceed, another to get to a vote — the rules could call for one, prior to final passage, and could shorten the period of debate on cloture motions from the present 30 hours.

Rules need to be changed so that executive branch nominees are guaranteed an up-or-down vote. Judicial nominations — since they are for life — might still be subject to filibuster, but they, too, ought not be “held” by a single Senator.

Senate leaders should end the practice of “secret holds” forthwith — since they are only possible because leaders enable privately delivered threats to deny unanimous consent to proceed on a bill or nomination.

The latest Grassley-Wyden proposal would require that holds be imposed in writing to leaders and published after two days.

Because partisan polarization is as endemic as it is, we have no illusions that rules changes will end the problem of Senate gridlock. Loosening it some would help.