Our View: Senate leaders go weak on reform

January 26, 2013 

There was a glimmer of hope that the United States Senate would end its run of filibusters, secret holds and gridlock. There was a chance that what's been called the greatest deliberative body on Earth would break the spell of dysfunction that has hobbled it for more than six years.

Didn't happen.

Senate leaders Harry Reid, of the Democratic majority, and Mitch McConnell, of the Republican minority, agreed on a few mild reforms that might -- might -- speed judicial nominations, cut debate that serves only to delay, and guarantee the minority's right to offer amendments.

But major reforms, led by Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of Utah and backed by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, failed:

• No eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed (getting a bill to the floor for debate and vote).

• No end to a secret hold ploy that allows senators to anonymously stop a bill in its tracks.

• No requirement for those who would filibuster to walk their talk, or rather talk their walk, by actually filibustering on the Senate floor, the way it used to be. That alone would discourage those who love to play only when there's no price to pay.

In other words, there's no real change and that makes no sense. While it's the Republicans who have been abusing Senate rules to impose gridlock, it's the Democratic leadership that refused to use the power it has to change those rules.

It's one thing, and for the most part a good thing, for the Senate to be different from the House. Its traditions and elaborate courtesies can be good for the republic in that senators can slow things down, take time to think and consider all the consequences of legislation.

But when those traditions and courtesies mask abuse and create paralysis, it's time to clean house. Senate leadership -- and specifically Harry Reid -- settled for light dusting.

Here's an example of how bad it gets. The Senate has passed rules to stop secret holds. That's the procedure by which a single senator can object to a bill going forward, effectively keeping it from a floor vote. That's enormous power but there was a good reason for it in the civics book sense. The idea was to let a senator hold a bill that would have an impact on his or her state or in which the senator had a strong interest but hadn't had time to review.

Abuse put civics in the shade. Senators soon used the power to either kill bills or nominations they didn't like or as bargaining chips.

What's more, senators simply ignored their own rules and Senate leaders refused to enforce them. So much for accountability.

A 2011 resolution that passed 92-4 aimed to force senators to put their names publicly on holds within two days of their taking effect. Senators got around that with "tag-team" holds: One senator would put in an anonymous hold, then withdraw it before the two-day limit. No need to 'fess up. His co-conspirator would then put his hold in and do the same dance. What you have, in effect, is a secret filibuster.

And some lawmakers wonder why Congress has an approval rating just north of the flu.

In a commentary for Politico earlier this month, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski argued against the Democrats' bid to change the filibuster rules when Reid was still talking like he meant to make the change. She argued that minority rights must be protected, that the Senate had a long tradition of respect for the minority party and that Reid was a fierce protector of such rights when he was minority leader. Fine. The minority should always have a fair shot at debate and offering amendments.

But Murkowski then invoked Sir Thomas More from Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons," wherein More argues for the primacy of the rule of law. She said the Senate fails to follow its own rules. True, but what she failed to note was that senators do even worse when they twist the letter of the law in contempt for the spirit of the law, when they cynically hijack the Senate's traditions to pursue partisanship to the point of absurdity. And what's most important is that they then fail to do the job the American people elected them to do.

Merkley, Udall and company tried to fix a Senate that does not work. Their rules would work in the Democrats' favor now, in the Republicans' favor when they were in the majority. That's not a radical power grab. It's American. It's a pity Sen. Reid didn't play it that way.

BOTTOM LINE: Senate refuses to fix a Senate that doesn't work.

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