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Reid’s Half-Solution to the Problem of Massive Senate Obstructionism

Harry Reid’s op-ed giving the inside story about the non-nuclear option he accomplished last week is good for the way it shows how Senate Republicans have worked to decay the functioning of the chamber.

On Thursday morning, we seemed to be on the brink of passing a bill to curb unfair currency manipulation by the Chinese government, a practice that has cost millions of American manufacturing jobs over the past two decades. The bill — which is supported by business and labor interests — had garnered a bipartisan supermajority not just once but twice. With passage virtually assured, the minority reached for the only tool left to try and derail the bill, confronting us with a potentially unlimited number of votes on completely unrelated amendments. Voting on these amendments would require suspending the Senate’s rules — an obscure procedure that hadn’t been used frequently until this Congress and hasn’t been used successfully since 1941.

None of the amendments Republicans demanded were about policy. Each was an attempt to score political points or provide fodder for campaign ads. None was related to the legislation on the floor, which would support 1.6 million American jobs. None would put a single American back to work. Yet still we tried to reach a compromise with our Republican colleagues.

We offered votes on four amendments, and they wanted five. We offered five votes, and they wanted six. Finally, we offered votes on seven amendments, including a vote on an outdated version of President Obama’s American Jobs Act, with which Republicans were seeking to score political points. Still, Republicans refused. They came back with a demand for nine votes that required suspending the Senate’s rules. The same logic that allows for nine unstoppable motions to suspend the rules could lead to consideration of 99 such motions.

That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. Republicans found a new way to delay legislation even after it passed two cloture votes. They claim to want to work on legislation and that they’re being prevented from calling up amendments. Yet the amendments they call up are nothing more than bumper stickers, because they have no interest in legislating. They aren’t germane and are merely designed for 30-second TV ads. Even when Senate Democrats are endlessly accommodating, the Republicans seek more and more delay.

This is abuse. But it’s almost more abusive to respond to this with narrow blockages like making non-germane post-cloture amendments dilatory. The answer is to end this phony process of super-majorities and unanimous consent and painless filibusters that has slowed the Senate to molasses. Some would say this is a wrong time to fix that, when neither party can get its agenda across anyway and when Republicans have a good chance to take control of the Senate. But party should not be the reason that actual governing goes by the boards.

A party that wins an election should have the right to have its agenda adopted. If voters don’t like it, that’s what elections are for. The gridlock that follows a clear mandate from the public weakens institutions and delays accountability. If Harry Reid is sincere about the abuse being done to the Senate, he should use the same procedures he used last week to abolish the super-majority Senate once and for all.

But he’s more interested in pointing the finger at Republicans for failing to abide by an agreement not to obstruct legislation, as if a scorpion can change its nature. It’s great that “60 votes to end debate will mean debate actually ends, as the rules of the Senate intended,” as Reid says. But it’s not something to settle for.

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David Dayen

David Dayen