There is a dire need to confront the declining confidence in the Senate as an institution by considering changes that would allow us to recognize and respond to the most pressing issues of the day.
It has always been difficult to pass measures with a unified sense of direction. To some extent, that is to be expected, since each senator is responsible for legislating on behalf of his or her constituents, and we get the great- est amount of interaction from doing so. The combined impact of these interests has consistently produced healthy results.
In recent years, however, the system appears more stagnant and less responsive, even to the point of coming to an actual halt for extended periods of time. We annually experience a tremendous flurry of activity and energy. Yet, the Senate constantly appears to be treading water.
This is at least partially attributable to the procedures governing our operation. It is not just a matter of getting senators to focus on key issues. It is a question of whether the present procedures of the Senate allow us to carry out our intended function.
The Founding Fathers specifically designed an upper house to serve as a great deliberative body--a national forum giving careful consideration to all sides of important issues. A single senator was assured the opportunity to have his views expressed and to guarantee healthy debate on an issue.
Yet, this right has been exploited to disrupt the legislative process, to the point where "filibuster" today is a dirty word.
Rules designed to guarantee the deliberative role have been distorted and twisted, putting serious strains on floor procedures.
I clearly support the concepts of thorough debate and protection of minority rights, and believe they must be preserved. They underlie our unique role as a governing body. Yet the rules designed for this purpose have been abused far too often.
The problem is not one of quantity. The passage of more legislation would do nothing to establish a more responsive Senate. It is a question of quality.
It seems that we are operating under a system that encourages last-minute legislating more and more. The increasing use of continuing resolutions and the frustrations of last year's lame-duck session are indicative. Some are already predicting a repeat performance this year.
Many have suggested that there are only two types of legislation that can now be dealt with effectively: the largely ceremonial or symbolic resolutions, and the highly frustrating, last-minute legislation that is absolutely necessary.
The needed protection of minority rights and all other rights designed to ensure healthy debate takes on new meaning when urgent legislation is pending. They are transformed into weapons for meaningless delay, frustrating the will of the majority. As a result, legislation is not only rushed; it is also watered down to appease small minorities.
With the strong, emerging pattern of last-minute legislation, how can the current operations ever produce quality measures?
Improvements are sorely needed in cloture procedures, which are used after the Senate votes to restrict the right of unlimited debate. At present, a standard limitation of 100 hours is set, with each senator assured the right to speak. However, the attachment of various amendments can drag this process out much further, which frankly often results in a "post-cloture filibuster." We need to legislate an agreement whereby senators who wish to shorten this process further can yield back their time.
Minor scheduling reforms are also needed. It would be most beneficial if the joint leadership were required to commit to a legislative agenda that gave greater advance notice of issues to come. This simple step, in addition to providing the flexibility to allow urgent legislation to be included on short notice, would also release many of the knots that currently keep us tied down.
Rule changes can also modify another source of delay: the reconsideration of the same issue over and over during the same session of Congress. So often we see near identical amendments offered at every available opportunity. In some cases these are dilatory amendments. Other times they are non-germane, but almost always they are sources of de- lay. We must tighten the procedures in these areas with reforms, such as requiring more than a simple majority to declare a questionable amendment germane.
There is a difficulty in undertaking any reforms in such a tender area. We must never sacrifice the deliberative role and the protection of minority rights that have always been intended for the Senate. However, there is a strong need to produce responsive legislation.