Udall and Merkley launch campaign to save rule-bound Senate

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 11:32 PM

Remember "The Committee to Save the World"? That was Time's memorable sobriquet for Larry Summers, Bob Rubin and Alan Greenspan, who, in 1999, had been fighting to dodge, contain or end a series of financial crises across the globe that were threatening the American economy.

The next decade wasn't as kind to the committee's reputation - or to the economy. The worst threats, we now realize, had been here at home, and policymakers hadn't done nearly enough about them. Median wages were stagnant even as the incomes of the rich rocketed upward. A giant credit bubble fueled a giant housing bubble, which in turn fueled a giant buildup of risk at the center of the American financial system. The economic collapse revealed a dysfunctional political system incapable of mounting a sustained policy response to joblessness and weak demand.

And we're not done: Debt, health-care costs, an underperforming education system, a warming planet and crumbling infrastructure all threaten our long-term prospects. The good news is that all of these problems can be solved. The question is whether our political system is capable of doing so.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) gave an interview to Politico in which he sounded more like a Bond villain than a legislator. "There's much for them to be angst-ridden about," McConnell said of the Democrats. "If they think it's bad now, wait till next year." Politico noted that he said all this "with a chuckle," and for good reason: McConnell will return in January with 47 Republicans, making it even easier for him to grind the Senate to a halt.

We saw what that might look like this week when Senate Republicans effectively filibustered the federal government's 2011 budget. To avoid a government shutdown on the eve of the new year, the Democrats hastily passed a "continuing resolution," one that just extends the 2010 budget. That means it doesn't include the changes needed to implement the financial regulation bill, the health-care bill or any other accomplishment of the past year. It's no way to run a government.

Enter Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Both were elected in 2008, which meant both entered the modern Senate without having spent years slowly getting used to its absurdities and dysfunction. And both have made the unusual decision to do something about it. Together, they are the Committee to Save the Senate.

Their partnership is a tag-team effort. Udall is first in the ring. His argument is simple: The Senate must be able to decide, and continually revise, its rule book. It has the power to do this: On the first day of a new session of Congress - which for the 112th Congress will fall on Jan. 5 - a simple majority can vote in whatever rules it chooses. Udall wants to see that power exerted.

Rules that are never changed are abused, he argues. That's why we've had more filibusters in the last session of Congress than in the 1950s and '60s combined. That's why Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) felt comfortable putting a hold on all nominations simultaneously because he was upset over some pork that Alabama wasn't getting. Udall wants that to end. "If you look at rules every two years," he says, "you bring accountability to the process."

Merkley, who worked on the Hill in the 1970s and '80s, sees the filibuster as the most pressing problem facing the Senate. "The social contract is broken," he says, "the contract that said, 'I understand that only under the most pressing, important circumstances will I utilize my privilege to delay the Senate and demand a supermajority vote.' If that social contract is gone, then we need to adjust the rules."

When Merkley says "adjust," he means it. He doesn't want to get rid of the filibuster. He just wants to bring it closer in line with what Americans believe the filibuster is there to do: protect minority viewpoints and encourage debate.

Under Merkley's proposal, you could no longer filibuster the "motion to proceed to debate," as that means you're filibustering the debate itself. Similarly, amendments would be protected. You could only begin filibustering when a bill was complete and the Senate was considering a final vote on it.

In that case, the filibuster would have to be what most Americans think the filibuster is: an ongoing debate. Currently, filibusters are usually private communications between the leadership offices of the two parties. Under Merkley's bill, a sustained filibuster would need 20 filibustering members on the floor at all times and continued discussion. If the numbers fell or the talking stopped, the filibuster would end.

Would this fix the Senate? Not necessarily. Although Merkley's proposal would be an improvement, it wouldn't reverse the Senate's transformation into a supermajoritarian body in which the minority has both the procedural power and the electoral incentives to make the majority fail. More promising is Udall's proposal, which would institute a process for making future changes and might make the minority a little more cautious about a relentless campaign of obstruction.

So maybe Udall and Merkley are merely the Committee to Start Saving the Senate. The real question - the one that will matter Jan. 5 - is how many of their colleagues are ready to join them. And we may already know the answer. This week, every returning Senate Democrat signed a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) calling for filibuster reform.

The Committee to Start Saving the Senate, it seems, is now in session.


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