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How Congress’s top referees would fix Washington

at 03:02 PM ET, 05/01/2012

For 35 years, Alan Frumin did everything he could to avoid talking to the press.


The statue of George Washington is silhouetted against the U.S. Capitol dome. (Manuel Balce Ceneta - Associated Press)
As Senate parliamentarian, Frumin was responsible for keeping the rules in an institution that’s grown increasingly dysfunctional over time. But now that he’s retired as the Senate’s top referee, Frumin has finally begun to open up — and after three decades keeping the rules in the Senate, he has a few ideas on how to break the logjam on Capitol Hill.

Frumin, a soft-spoken, mustachioed man in glasses, suggests two changes to the Senate rules — ones that might seem arcane and technical to an outside audience, but could help make Congress work again. The first, he says, would be to eliminate the Senate’s ability to filibuster the very decision to debate a piece of legislation — that is, Congress’s ability to stop a bill through what’s known in Senate-speak as “the motion to proceed” that results in a so-called cloture vote. “I was never convinced in 35 years of working in the Senate that there was a need for a filibuster on the motion to proceed,” which pre-emptively shuts off any debate on the floor before a vote is even held.

Frumin cautions that he’s not proposing to eliminate the filibuster entirely, which he “defended for 35 years and which I continue to defend” to protect the rights of the minority in the Senate. But he believes that the change would allow the Senate to “end up with more substantive debate than you have now.” Most importantly, he says, it would free up time for actual policymaking and debate. “There’s just a limited amount of time, and each filibuster uses it up,” he says. “That first cloture vote is not worth the time that it costs.”

Frumin’s second suggestion would be to speed up the Senate confirmation process by expediting certain nominees. There would be different classes of nominations, depending on the length of the appointment and other factors, Frumin suggests. Those like federal judges who serve for life “should be subject to unlimited debate, as well as the filibuster.” But other political appointees — including “those essential to the staffing of the president’s administration”— would have more limited debate that couldn’t go on for an “unreasonable” length of time. As a result, political gridlock wouldn’t hold up the queue as frequently.

Frumin isn’t staying completely silent about his ideas: He penciled the suggestions down on a note card that he passed onto the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Woodrow Wilson Center, which had invited Frumin to participate in a Monday roundtable on fixing the “culture of Congress.” Frumin didn’t speak publicly during the roundtable — a big confab of former members of Congress, political scientists, and no shortage of moderates-in-exile. But he listened intently as other participants lamented the decline of the institution and hashed out potential solutions, taking scrupulous notes.

Frumin’s former counterpart in the House, Charles Johnson, was a bit more outspoken when it came to the way that Congressional leaders have abused the rules to serve partisanship, rather than policy-making. The former House Parliamentarian criticized the increasing practice of the House leadership to run roughshod over committee leadership, subjecting legislation to purely partisan concerns and choking off debate.

“Issues don’t come to a vote unless they’re screened by the Rules committee. But a lot of that screening is done by the Speaker and majority leader’s whip staff, who may not know the issue, but say to themselves, if we can’t win this, if it’s going to embarrass our member, we’re not going to allow it to come to a vote,” Johnson tells me after the event.

Leadership had occasionally hijacked the committees in the 1980s, but Johnson — the House’s referee from 1993 to 2004 — believes central control tightened up “particularly with Pelosi and certainly with Gingrich.” As a result, the legislation that comes to the floor reflects the consensus of the leadership — and far more easily gets wedged into the bigger political battles. “It goes to the win at all costs attitude,” he says, striking a resigned note. By sticking by the rules, rather than abusing them, “it would encourage so much collegiality among members — at least the ability to think they had a stake in it.”

 
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