Much has been written about Senate Republicans’ seeming effort to grind the gears of the Senate to a halt through the use of the filibuster. But few have seemed to ask why? The media, either because they are partisan or because the issue is so arcane, has shied away from a deeper dig into one of the primary reasons of the Senate’s dysfunction – Harry Reid’s near-tyrannical rule.
First, it is helpful to remember that the Framers’ intent was for the Senate to be a slow, deliberative body that would moderate legislation through debate. James Madison wrote that the Senate should be the great “anchor” of government that would act as a “necessary fence” against the “fickleness and passion” of the House of Representatives. George Washington said the Senate’s purpose was to “cool” House legislation just as a saucer cools hot tea.
Set against the Framers’ backdrop of free debate and an open amendment process, Harry Reid’s actions become problematic. His chief tactic is known as “filling the tree,” which allows him to shut down the ability of the minority to amend legislation, i.e. one of the chief ways to have their viewpoints heard and debated.
Reid can accomplish this because Senate rules limit the number of amendments that individual legislators can offer. Since the majority leader—Reid—is always the first to be recognized in debate, he can immediately propose the maximum number of non-substantive amendments allowed, thus preventing Republicans from offering any of their own.
After Reid fills the tree he often then files a “cloture motion,” which allows the majority to end shut down debate. Traditionally this tactic has been reserved to maintain some modicum of momentum after an issue has been thoroughly debated, but Reid, more than any other majority leader in history, has moved to shut down debate on the very first day measures are considered on the floor.
Reid’s ironfisted control has come to the fore in the debate over the bill to continue the extra weeks of unemployment benefits.
“Why can’t we debate in this body in a meaningful way . . . because we are restricted in this Senate on what we can actually vote on,” Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb) said on the Senate floor. “It’s a radical form of control and I’m tired of it.”
Fischer’s anger was directed at Reid’s choice to once again fill the tree so as to prevent Republican amendments to offset some of the cost of extending unemployment benefits with targeted spending cuts. The New York Times reports:
With his strong-armed change to the filibuster rule and an iron-fisted control of the Senate floor, Senator Harry Reid has engaged in the greatest consolidation of congressional power since Newt Gingrich ruled the House, unleashing a bitterness that may derail efforts to extend unemployment insurance.
Mr. Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, on Thursday dismissed all proposed Republican amendments to the unemployment extension, even those drafted by Republicans who had handed Democrats a victory on Tuesday by voting to take up the bill.
“We get nowhere with dueling amendments,” Mr. Reid declared.
A Republican effort to try to reopen the amendment process failed on a party-line vote, 42 to 54, setting up a showdown next week that is likely to end in the bill’s demise, Democrats conceded.
To Democrats, it was a typical Reid show of force in the face of unfair Republican amendments. To Republicans, it was only the latest — and one of the boldest — slaps in the face.
“I’m just kind of fed up,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate Republican who has increasingly become a key vote for Democratic legislation. “He’s a leader. Why is he not leading this Senate? Why is he choosing to ignore the fact that he has a minority party that he needs to work with, that actually has some decent ideas? Why is he bringing down the institution of the Senate?”
A working Senate with free and public debate is a crucial piece of a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, such notions get in the way of Reid’s attempt at legislative tyranny. And we are all the worse off for it.
Photo Credit: Center for American Progress Action Fund. See more of their photos HERE.