Legislative Gridlock and the Movement for Reform

Posted on April 21, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

No list of the Senate’s many arcane traditions is complete, these days, without the inclusion of legislative gridlock as a hallmark of the upper chamber’s process.

Along with the use of an ivory gavel and courtly rhetoric, gridlock has emerged as a symbol of 21st Century Senate procedure. Just look at the shenanigans that kept President Obama’s health care package ensnarled for months. Popular judicial nominations are routinely held up over parochial issues by senators more concerned about home-state projects than a qualified federal bench. And the seniority system, as ingrained as any Capitol Hill tradition, keeps new blood from influencing the process.

Clearly, it is time for reform. The country needs a modern, more nimble legislature. The Senate, in particular, needs a facelift so it can escape its well-earned reputation as the place good ideas go to die.

Now, a group of young lawmakers have launched an unlikely battle against tradition, challenging long-standing rules in an effort to make the process more efficient. In their sights: such time-honored traditions as the filibuster, the legislative hold, and the seniority system for selecting committee chairs.

“The more the American people understand the system’s broken, the more the people are going to support rules reform,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told the Washington Post recently. Joining Udall as leaders of this latest young turk movement are Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.).

And while there have been periodic calls for reform from Senate newcomers, the Democratic leadership is taking this latest movement seriously. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.); Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.); and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Democrats’ No. 3 leader; have all promised to at least consider changes.

The related traditions of the hold and the filibuster have been the bane of thin majorities for decades. Holds allow any senator to block action on any item at any time, anonymously, and filibusters allow them to prevent legislation from coming to a vote unless 60 of the Senate’s 100 members demand action. The filibuster came back into play recently when the Democrats lost their bullet-proof 60-member majority with the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

The young turks favor eliminating holds altogether and maintaining the filibuster, but forcing a return to the days when filibustering senators were forced to remain on the floor ala Jimmy Steward in “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”
Former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has a unique perspective on the topic as one of the so-called gang of 14, a bipartisan group of Senators who came together to preserve the filibuster back in 2005. Chafee still favors keeping the filibuster, but limiting its abuse.

Back then, the Republican majority considered using the so-called “nuclear option” to prevent the Democratic minority from holding up George W. Bush’s judicial nomination. Under the nuclear option, the majority would challenge the legitimacy of the filibuster. If the Senate president accepts the challenge, it can be put to a vote which would require a simple majority. The problem is, a nuclear vote would ban filibusters indefinitely.

That would be tough medicine, but even the threat of such a drastic step could go a long way toward convincing entrenched leaders that reform is worthy of early consideration.

“In resorting to the filibuster with unheard-of frequency, Republicans seem to be gambling that Democrats don’t have the nerve to play Republican-style hardball and won’t seriously threaten to take the filibuster away from them,” Chafee wrote in a recent op-ed.

“Let’s see if Majority Leader Harry Reid schedules a vote on the nuclear option…That could be just the nudge that Republicans and Democrats need,” Chafee wrote.

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