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Tom Udall on Fixing the Senate: “We’ve Gotten Ourselves Into A Box”

While Barack Obama called for bipartisan solutions to the country’s nagging problems, and discussed the growing lack of faith in public institutions, a simple read between the lines shows that he was really focusing his attention on one institution – the United States Senate. He made many references to items of his agenda passed by the House but not be the Senate, and he returned on more than one occasion to the paralyzing force of Republican obstructionism in the upper chamber. “If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well,” he said.

One Senator is trying to change that insistence, and put the focus back on governing rather than the crippling rules which have led, in a pretty direct way, to American decline. Tom Udall is a freshman Senator from New Mexico who served a decade in the House before that. Like 97 96 of his Senate colleagues, he has never had an opportunity to vote on any aspect of the chamber’s rules, which have instead carried over from one Congress to the next (fun fact, the only 3 current members to vote on Senate rules, in 1975, are Robert Byrd, Daniel Inouye and Patrick Leahy). His plan is to give the full Senate a vote on its own rules at the beginning of the next Congress, in January of 2011. This “Constitutional option,” as Udall calls it, is the beginning of a year-long effort to focus on the rules process, and the Senator looked back to history to design the strategy.

“The best advice my father gave me before entering the Senate was to re-read the biography of Clinton Anderson, my predecessor in this seat,” Udall said in a phone interview with FDL News (his father, Stewart Udall, was an Arizona House member and the former Interior Secretary under President Carter Kennedy and Johnson). “Anderson always thought the Senate could do a better job if we had the rules to do the job. He worked in the 1950s to change the Senate rules, and I’m picking up the baton from him.”

Udall described the maddening situation that the Senate finds themselves in – beholden to outdated and often paralyzing rules, but unable to change them readily. “Over the years, we’ve gotten ourselves into a box,” he said. “We have a provision that the rules of the Senate carry over from one Congress to the next. And if you want to change the rules, you need 67 votes. That’s a practical impossibility.”

To overcome this, Udall plans to make a motion for the Senate to adopt new rules for the 112th Congress at the beginning of 2011. How would such a process work? Udall says he needs to only bring up the motion and hold 51 votes to move to the next step of adopting those new rules. The Constitution does not refer to a super-majority vote to change Senate rules, Udall emphasized. And the premise that one legislature cannot bind the actions of a future legislature, affirmed in Supreme Court decisions, suggests that the Senate ought to be given a vote.

The new rules would be determined with a process going through the Senate Rules Committee, on which Udall sits. The committee is chaired by Chuck Schumer, and while Udall hasn’t spoken specifically with Schumer since he released his plan, he said that in the past, he has signaled an interest in working on rules this year. “I can say that there is a concern in the Senate about the rules,” Udall said. With a year to deliberate over new rules, the committee could be ready with a new proposal for adoption at the beginning of the next Congress. In the meantime, while the Senate waits to adopt new rules, general Parliamentary procedure would take precedence, Udall said.

While Udall didn’t want to “presume to say what the rules will be,” it’s pretty clear from his presentation that he is taking aim at the filibuster. Here’s what he writes about the filibuster in the Constitutional option plan on his website:

Specifically, under the “filibuster rule” (Rule XXII), it is not possible to limit debate, or end a filibuster, without three-fifths, or 60, of all Senators voting to do so. In the past several years, the use — and abuse — of filibusters by both parties to obstruct the Senate from functioning has become the norm. But it hasn’t always been this way. Such cloture votes used to occur perhaps seven or eight times during a congressional session, but last Congress there were 112 — most occasioned simply by the threat of a filibuster. The use of the filibuster today dominates the Senate’s business at an irresponsible level, threatening our ability to operate.

Ezra Klein, Ben Frumin and Jason Reif, and a host of other liberal commentators have noted this trend toward rising cloture votes. As Udall said to me, after having observed the Senate for 10 years while in the House and in his first year in the upper chamber, it has “become more dysfunctional than deliberative.” Udall said that “I’ve heard Senators say, ‘These rules are crazy,’ and then they say you have to find 67 votes to change them or we’re stuck. So that’s the box we’re in.” His goal is to design rules that produce legislation “that’s better for the American people.”

Udall hopes to get this done at the beginning of the next Congress, citing the Constitutional need for the Senate to vote on its own rules from Article I, Section 5. He’s amassed several quotes, including from two former Vice Presidents (Richard Nixon was one of them) stating that the Senate cannot be bound by the work of a former Congress. As for needing President Obama’s rhetorical support to really push for rules changes, Udall said, “I’m going to focus on the Senate.”

CommunityThe Bullpen

Tom Udall On Fixing The Senate: “We’ve Gotten Ourselves Into A Box”

While Barack Obama called for bipartisan solutions to the country’s nagging problems, and discussed the growing lack of faith in public institutions, a simple read between the lines shows that he was really focusing his attention on one institution – the United States Senate. He made many references to items of his agenda passed by the House but not be the Senate, and he returned on more than one occasion to the paralyzing force of Republican obstructionism in the upper chamber. “If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well,” he said.

One Senator is trying to change that insistence, and put the focus back on governing rather than the crippling rules which have led, in a pretty direct way, to American decline. Tom Udall is a freshman Senator from New Mexico who served a decade in the House before that. Like 97 of his Senate colleagues, he has never had an opportunity to vote on any aspect of the chamber’s rules, which have instead carried over from one Congress to the next (fun fact, the only 3 current members to vote on Senate rules, in 1975, are Robert Byrd, Daniel Inouye and Patrick Leahy). His plan is to give the full Senate a vote on its own rules at the beginning of the next Congress, in January of 2011. This “Constitutional option,” as Udall calls it, is the beginning of a year-long effort to focus on the rules process, and the Senator looked back to history to design the strategy.

“The best advice my father gave me before entering the Senate was to re-read the biography of Clinton Anderson, my predecessor in this seat,” Udall said in a phone interview with FDL News (his father, Stewart Udall, was an Arizona House member and the former Interior Secretary under President Carter Kennedy and Johnson). “Anderson always thought the Senate could do a better job if we had the rules to do the job. He worked in the 1950s to change the Senate rules, and I’m picking up the baton from him.”

Udall described the maddening situation that the Senate finds themselves in – beholden to outdated and often paralyzing rules, but unable to change them readily. “Over the years, we’ve gotten ourselves into a box,” he said. “We have a provision that the rules of the Senate carry over from one Congress to the next. And if you want to change the rules, you need 67 votes. That’s a practical impossibility.”

To overcome this, Udall plans to make a motion for the Senate to adopt new rules for the 112th Congress at the beginning of 2011. How would such a process work? Udall says he needs to only bring up the motion and hold 51 votes to move to the next step of adopting those new rules. The Constitution does not refer to a super-majority vote to change Senate rules, Udall emphasized. And the premise that one legislature cannot bind the actions of a future legislature, affirmed in Supreme Court decisions, suggests that the Senate ought to be given a vote.

The new rules would be determined with a process going through the Senate Rules Committee, on which Udall sits. The committee is chaired by Chuck Schumer, and while Udall hasn’t spoken specifically with Schumer since he released his plan, he said that in the past, he has signaled an interest in working on rules this year. “I can say that there is a concern in the Senate about the rules,” Udall said. With a year to deliberate over new rules, the committee could be ready with a new proposal for adoption at the beginning of the next Congress. In the meantime, while the Senate waits to adopt new rules, general Parliamentary procedure would take precedence, Udall said.

While Udall didn’t want to “presume to say what the rules will be,” it’s pretty clear from his presentation that he is taking aim at the filibuster. Here’s what he writes about the filibuster in the Constitutional option plan on his website:

Specifically, under the “filibuster rule” (Rule XXII), it is not possible to limit debate, or end a filibuster, without three-fifths, or 60, of all Senators voting to do so. In the past several years, the use — and abuse — of filibusters by both parties to obstruct the Senate from functioning has become the norm. But it hasn’t always been this way. Such cloture votes used to occur perhaps seven or eight times during a congressional session, but last Congress there were 112 — most occasioned simply by the threat of a filibuster. The use of the filibuster today dominates the Senate’s business at an irresponsible level, threatening our ability to operate.

Ezra Klein, Ben Frumin and Jason Reif, and a host of other liberal commentators have noted this trend toward rising cloture votes. As Udall said to me, after having observed the Senate for 10 years while in the House and in his first year in the upper chamber, it has “become more dysfunctional than deliberative.” Udall said that “I’ve heard Senators say, ‘These rules are crazy,’ and then they say you have to find 67 votes to change them or we’re stuck. So that’s the box we’re in.” His goal is to design rules that produce legislation “that’s better for the American people.”

Udall hopes to get this done at the beginning of the next Congress, citing the Constitutional need for the Senate to vote on its own rules from Article I, Section 5. He’s amassed several quotes, including from two former Vice Presidents (Richard Nixon was one of them) stating that the Senate cannot be bound by the work of a former Congress. As for needing President Obama’s rhetorical support to really push for rules changes, Udall said, “I’m going to focus on the Senate.”

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David Dayen

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