It is time to save the U.S. Senate from itself.
We have become increasingly paralyzed by our own rules and traditions. We scaled new peaks of frustration and embarrassment during last December's lame-duck session. So far, only our credibility as politicians has suffered. But if we fail to change the way we do business in the next few months, something far more important will suffer: the credibility of the institution itself.
In recent years, I have used a variety of rules to defeat or block consideration of a number of bills. In the lame-duck session, I helped prevent passage of 26 separate measures. But that does not mean I approve the procedures that allowed me to succeed in these efforts. In fact, I think they are seriously flawed.
In the wake of the December debacle, the Senate leadership named an ad-hoc task force to examine proposals to modify Senate rules. Many members have already called on the task force to amend the filibuster rules. We should do so. But that alone won't solve our troubles. I hope we seize this opportunity to look beyond that convenient scapegoat. There are at least three areas we should examine:
First, of course, is the filibuster. We must devise a way to preserve the right of extended debate while simultaneously protecting the right of the majority ultimately to prevail. We now have a procedure to cut off debate, known as cloture. Realistically speaking, cloture doesn't really end discussion at all, but allows it to continue for days or even weeks.
Optimally, we could change the rules to make it possible for 51 senators to pass a bill and eliminate the filibuster as a device to kill legislation. But that may not be possible, or perhaps wise. At a minimum, though, we should drastically limit the right of senators to engage in endless post- cloture filibusters. Otherwise, the cloture rule will remain an empty shell.
Second, the practice of adding non-germane amendments, such as bans on busing and abortion, to unrelated appropriation bills must stop. In fact, the rules actually prohibit substantive legislative amendments from being attached to appropriations measures. But that rule is observed more in the breach than in the observance. The presiding officer routinely rules amendments out of order when they are challenged from the floor, only to find his ruling appealed and then overturned by a majority of the full Senate. This has made a mockery out of our supposed reverence for parliamentary procedure. We should make the rulings of the chair in such matters non-appealable or else require a two-thirds or three-quarters vote to overrule them. And the leadership should make it a rule of thumb to support the chair's ruling, regardless of the substantive issue involved.
Third, we must do something about scheduling. In the last days of the regular session and throughout the lame-duck session, repeated efforts were made to pass wide-ranging special interest bills, including measures to shorten the capital gains tax holding period, to bail out large timber companies from $2 billion in federal contract obligations, to make it easier for creditors to bleed those who have gone bankrupt through no fault of their own and to dole out sweeping antitrust exemptions to ocean shippers, the beer wholesalers and doctors.
Each bill, we were told, was of desperate importance. Yet virtually every one of them had emerged from committees months earlier and been withheld from the calendar. Had the bills been brought to the floor in a timely manner, filibusters--and the threat of filibusters--probably would have been far less effective. Let's stop playing games with the schedule and establish procedures to bring bills to the floor promptly and provide ample time for their consideration.
We also have a tradition under which senators can place "holds" on individual bills, effectively preventing their consideration. I have used this tactic frequently, and have seen others use it against my bills as well. I believe a "hold" should automatically expire in perhaps two or three weeks unless special circumstances exist. This change, coupled with a speedy scheduling procedure, would go a long way toward restoring order to our business.
Something must be done. So far, I hope, the damage has been limited to ourselves. But if we damage the credibility of the Senate, that damage may take decades to heal, and future generations will pay for our errors and our obstinence.