There hasn’t been much of anything that the two major political Party’s in this country could agree on over the last couple of years. What legislation that did make it past both Houses was the result of a strong Democrat majority in the House and a few reluctant moderate Republican alliances in the Senate.
Otherwise there were obstacles of every “legal” nature that were used by the GOP in their efforts to defeat needed reform legislation with our financial and health services institutions along with efforts to keep needed benefits coming to America’s large numbers of unemployed workers hit by the devastating recession. Two of the most effective tools the GOP used in their obstructionist efforts were the filibuster and the “secret hold”
Both practices are accepted parliamentary procedure set in the Senate Rules. The establishment of setting Senate and House rules is authorized by Article I, section 5 of the U.S. Constitution that states “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.” But these rules are not etched in stone and there is a move afoot to make some needed changes.
The filibuster, rarely used for over 150 years became more common place in the mid and late 20th century by minority members who allowed their personal feelings on some issues to over ride what most people would accept as a progression of social values. The biggest historical examples were the efforts of Southern Democratic Senators, who became known as Dixiecrats, that blocked most civil rights legislation in post WWII life that sought to establish equal rights for blacks. The most common perception of the filibuster is when one or more Senators request extended debate on a bill with the intent to delay or entirely prevent a vote on it.
On the “secret hold”, Sections 2 and 3 of Senate rules state that “no motion to proceed to the consideration of any bill…shall be entertained…unless by unanimous consent”. It was originally intended to prevent a motion on legislation to come to the floor until all senators could study it thoroughly, especially those who felt their state would be impacted greatly by such legislation. But since 1970 it has become a tool of the minority to block not only legislation but Executive nominations to administrative positions and judgeships that some would feel held views anathema to their own.
When the Republicans lost the Senate and the White House to the Democrats in 2008, after losing the House in 2006, the use of filibusters and secret holds by the minority GOP exploded. Having lost control of political power they had scratched and clawed for since the 1950‘s, the GOP in the 111th Congress turned to archaic senate rules to hog tie the new Democratic leadership. They broke all filibuster records with over a 100 causing Senator Al Franken to characterize most filibusters by Republicans as a “perversion” of its intent.
The rancor that occurred between Republican and Democrats over health care reform left the Senate so divided that several Democrats were convinced that advancing any defining issues like climate change legislation “would have to rely strictly on their own caucus.” (Senate Debate on Health Care Exacerbates Partisanship, by Carl Hulse and David M. Herszenhorn, NY Times, 12/20/09)
Democrats in the Senate, aware that their majority would be trimmed following the 2010 elections signed a petition requesting Majority Leader Reid to address filibuster reform in the new 112th Congress, including abolishing secret holds and reducing the amount of time given to post-cloture debate. From this effort has risen Tom Udall’s (D-New Mexico) Senate Resolution 10. In this resolution Udall and others propose that Senate rules be changed to:
- Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed
- Eliminates Secret Holds
- Guarantee Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority
- Ensure Real Debate (not merely a dismissive gesture to oppose a motion or bill)
- Expedite Nominations by reducing Post-Cloture Time to two hours
For a more detailed breakdown on these items visit David Walden’s piece on the Daily Kos here.
This is one piece of business that appears to not only produce greater transparency within the structures of representative government but could also represent an opportunity to chip away at the irksome gridlock within the nation’s Capital, if not the entire system of government.
Granted, this would only be an incremental achievement if it passes but its lasting impact would insure that no longer could disgruntled politicians who find themselves on the losing end of an election use their “club rules” to pervert the reasonable implementation of majority views and fair execution of Constitutional expectations.