By Tom Udall
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; A13
Many of us have made new year's resolutions, thinking back on the year that has recently ended and pledging to strive for progress and self-improvement to overcome our shortcomings.
Unfortunately, this sort of self-reflection is not a tradition familiar to the U.S. Senate. It is a tradition, however, that I and several of my Senate colleagues hope to institute on Wednesday, when the 112th Congress convenes.
On that day, my colleagues and I will introduce common-sense proposals to fix the source of our dysfunction - our broken Senate rules. Reform will make the Senate a better legislative body by instituting the transparency and accountability the American people deserve.
Over the past few years, open and honest debate has been replaced too often with secret backroom deals and partisan gridlock. Up-or-down votes on important issues have been unreasonably delayed or blocked entirely at the whim of a single senator. In the past two years alone, more than 400 House-passed bills went unnoticed by the Senate. Stalled judicial and executive nominations left more key government posts vacant longer than during any other period in our country's history. We couldn't even properly fund the government.
We need to bring the workings of the Senate out of the shadows and restore accountability within the chamber.
Under the Constitution, the Senate and the House each "may determine the rules of its proceedings." On the first day of the new session, the rules can be changed under a simple, rather than two-thirds, majority. It is past time for senators to reflect on our rules, how they incentivize obstructionism; how they inhibit, rather than promote, debate; and how they prevent bipartisan cooperation. We then have an obligation to the American people to implement logical reforms to confront these challenges - reforms along the lines many of my colleagues have submitted over the past year.
Ultimately, such changes will not reward one political party over another. Instead, reform will pull back the curtain on those who obstruct the Senate's business for no reason other than to score political points. Rules reform is about restoring good-faith legislating for the betterment of the country. We need to take the backroom deals out of the legislative process and rein in rampant obstruction from individuals; this means no more secret holds and endless delays by threat of filibuster.
With reform, we will ensure that all senators have a full and fair opportunity to debate legislation, offer amendments and evaluate nominees. We will respect the Senate's unique history of unfettered debate and ensure that the minority's voice is heard. But we also will prevent the chamber's rules from being manipulated to allow a small minority to silently obstruct the will of the majority.
The last Congress produced amazing achievements of which we can be extremely proud - health-care reform, Wall Street reform and repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" are just a few. But the Senate also failed in many of its key responsibilities, by, for example, not passing a single appropriations bill, keeping critical government posts empty and leaving hundreds of House bills to die. It also failed by too often keeping the debate behind closed doors while the chamber sat empty.
I hope that this is the year we make the Senate accountable to the American people again. It's no wonder constituents are fed up with the way business is done in Washington. The first, fundamental step toward changing that culture lies in exercising our constitutional authority to reexamine the stagnant rules that have allowed dysfunction to thrive. I urge my colleagues to recognize the obstruction that has prevented us from doing our jobs and join me in reforming Senate rules for the good of our country.
The writer, a Democrat from New Mexico, is a member of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.